Print this Page

World Music Legends

The Chieftains

By Rob Huffman
Published October 9, 2005


Paddy Moloney admits that he’s “busier than ever.” The man moves effortlessly from gigs with the most renowned classical performers to sessions with the latest rock sensations. In between, he manages to scout out a new generation of musical legends, write arrangements for the Chieftains, his band of the past 40-plus years, and even compose symphonic music. Obviously this industrious Irishman has worked his way to the top of the heap, but how did he get there?

Born in the Bonnycarney section of Dublin 60 years ago, Moloney grew up in a musical family whose roots were in rural Country Laois. Spending summers in the country, Moloney fell in love with the homespun music that permeated his grandparents’ household. He taught himself to play the tin whistle and the pipes as a child and continued improving as a musician, getting some formal training from his teachers at the Christian Brothers’ school.

Moloney’s main instrument, the uilleann pipes, is reputed to be devilishly hard to play. A distant cousin of the familiar Scottish bagpipes, the uilleann pipes are actually quite different. For one thing, the player inflates the bag with an underarm bellows rather than blowing into a mouthpiece. Secondly, there are three regulators that can be called into play to add harmonic accompaniment to the melody, rather than just a drone. Lastly, the range of uilleann pipes is greater than that of most other pipes, due to a complicated procedure whereby the piper moves the end of the chanter (melody pipe) on and off a piece of leather strapped around his leg.

“People see me doing all this,” Moloney said, “and they think it’s just excitement on stage that I’m popping it up and down, but it's not so. You’ve got to have it on the knee to be able to jump into the higher octave, to overblow into the second octave. Also, depending on your style, for craning or for doing different effects and getting different sounds of different notes, you might take it up just quickly and put it back again; off the knee, it just jumps up and down. You get variation in tone, and you can slide and bend notes by doing this.”

Complicated as the uilleann pipes are, Moloney was winning contests on them before he was a teenager. Eventually he hooked up with Sean O’Riada, whose chamber-folk ensemble Ceoltóirí Cualann, featuring a number of future Chieftains, went on to achieve national recognition.

Moloney insists, however, that the Chieftains were not a direct offshoot of Ceoltóirí Cualann. “I had quartets and different combinations going in the ’50s long before I met Sean,” he said, “so I brought a lot of that to his group, as well as to the Chieftains. The Chieftains was an opportunity for me to do my thing.” His own thing, it turned out, had a lot to do with instrumentation. “I didn’t fancy having accordions at that time. There were some very vulgar accordion players going around. It used to drive me mad.”

Recommended Recordings


The Best Of The Chieftains (Sony)

The Long Black Veil (RCA)

From The Beginning: The Chieftains 1-4 (Claddagh/Atlantic)