Paddy Moloney and the Good Life of Whistle and Pipes

When Paddy Moloney kicked off a Chieftains tune, it brightened the room.

Moloney, whose death at the age of 83 was just announced, spent his life playing traditional Irish music. Over 60-plus years, he spread it around the world, which isn’t a bad gig or a bad accomplishment.

Trying to pin down “Irish music” is as tricky as trying to neatly summarize “American music.” Suffice it to say it goes beyond “Danny Boy” or “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

The Chieftains, with whom Moloney played from their inception in 1962 right up through his death, drew on what’s widely considered traditional Irish music, built around the Uilleann pipes with a mix of the tin whistle, button accordion, bodhran, flute and fiddle.

Exotic as that might combination sound to Americans who think of a band as guitars, drums and a keyboard, the result is a delightfully comfortable blend that quickly becomes exuberant.

Musicians being musicians and critics being critics, there have been arguments over the years whether the Chieftains were truly traditional Irish musicians, because they played with artists from Luciano Pavarotti to Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones. They also committed the sin of becoming commercially quite popular by traditional music standards, and whenever you sell records, someone cries, “Sellout.”

That never bothered Moloney, whose personality was as upbeat and enthusiastic as his music. “The artists we play with come to us because of our music,” he said in an interview. “We’ve never changed.”

The “never changed” part remained true through six decades of inevitable lineup shuffles, during which Moloney held steady as the anchor.

He was an instrumentalist, which he traced back to his mother buying him a treasured tin whistle when he was 6, and the Chieftains were primarily an instrumental band, which may help explain why they regularly joined forces with vocalists.

Their most famous collaboration was with Van Morrison, which produced the acclaimed 1988 album Irish Heartbeat. But they also accompanied Sinead O’Connor, Diana Krall, Emmylou Harris, Earl Scruggs, Sting, Madonna, Marianne Faithfull, Stevie Wonder, Ziggy Marley and dozens of others who clearly thought playing with the Chieftains would be rewarding and fun.

Declared fans who didn’t sing with them included Bob Dylan and Joe Biden. It also included Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who released a statement today saying, “Paddy, with his extraordinary skills as an instrumentalist, was at the forefront of the renaissance of interest in Irish music, bringing a greater appreciation of Irish music and culture internationally.”

“Ethnic music,” shorthand for the distinctive regional music styles found all around the world, is often relegated to a quaint niche by those who didn’t grow up with it. To most Americans, sitar music is what’s played in Indian restaurants.

Irish music, however, is a thread deeply woven into much of America’s own popular music. Country and folk music are the most obvious beneficiaries, but it’s right there in pop and rock ’n’ roll as well, as the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen will attest. The popularity of U2 was not an accident, and while there was always a lively debate about how “authentic” the Clancy Brothers were, listening to their music tends to resolve that discussion in their favor. Making traditional songs accessible to wider audiences is not a crime.

Paddy Moloney, center.

Paddy Moloney was playing the same music in his 80s that he played as a 6-year-old in Donnycarney. It won the Chieftains six Grammy awards and a formal 1989 designation as Irish cultural ambassadors. They scored movies, from Barry Lyndon to Gangs of New York. A pal of Moloney’s, astronaut Cady Coleman, performed flute and tin whistle on the International Space Station for the album The Chieftains in Orbit.

To oversimplify considerably, Paddy Moloney spent his life making good music. Irish, Venezuelan, Cambodian or Ugandan, that’s not a bad epitaph.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”