Aiming for the Moon: Chieftains founder Paddy Moloney always looking for Celtic converts

Naples News

By Elizabeth Kellar

Even after almost 50 years, the Chieftains’ music is still out of this world. Literally.

In December, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman took her place on the space station. Two instruments belonging to members of the acclaimed Irish folk music group went with her — the pennywhistle of Chieftains founder Paddy Moloney and the 100-year-old Irish flute of Chieftains flutist Matt Molloy.

Then, on St. Patrick’s Day, Coleman recorded a video of herself playing them.

Watching that video was incredible enough, says the 73-year-old Moloney, who lives in Naples part time with his wife, Rita. But then, Coleman also called Moloney on his cell phone from the space station to chat more about her performance.

“She was afraid her playing might not be up to scratch,” he says. “And it was lovely.”

It’s an odd kind of full circle for Moloney. He remembers how, in 1969 and at the height of the world’s excitement over lunar exploration, he told a reporter he wanted to be the first musician to play on the moon.

He jokes that he’s still waiting for his invitation, but at the rate he and the Chieftains are going, they may ultimately get there. In the almost five decades since Moloney started the Chieftains, it seems they’ve left no musical ambition unfulfilled.

In all, the Chieftains have earned six Grammy Awards and one Academy Award. They’ve recorded with everyone from Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger to Ziggy Marley and Alison Krauss. They’ve performed at Carnegie Hall and on the Great Wall of China. They played at a concert for Pope John Paul II, and recently wrote a song called “Troublemaker’s Jig” for Nelson Mandela, who is said to love traditional Irish music.

The kudos aren’t limited to the band as a whole, either. Moloney’s accumulated an array of accolades, too, from receiving a Medal of Honor from the National Arts Club to being made an honorary chief of the Choctaw Indians.

He grins and calls it all “a long haul.” But it’s clear he’s having a great time. That includes in Naples, where Moloney has been known to sit in with a local band or two. He and his wife moved here about a decade ago because they have a friend in the area.

Moloney’s musical life started young, when he was growing up in Ireland. Music was part of the family; his uncle was a bagpiper and his grandfather a flutist. Singing, dancing and storytelling were an everyday part of their lives, and when it rained — as it often did in Ireland, Moloney recalls — they would stay inside and do all three.

Especially dance.

“It was so exciting,” says Moloney, who plays the tin whistle and uilleann, or “elbow,” pipes. “Younger people, older people, dust flying everywhere.”

That upbringing made music an ingrained part of who he was, and years later, it helped him to find and refine the sound that eventually became the Chieftains, a sound that featured multiple instruments, styles and musicians.

Now, they are considered the band that brought traditional Irish folk music into the mainstream and helped pave the way for other Irish musical acts, such as Michael Flatley, who, yes, once performed with the Chieftains. The “Riverdance” creator and step dancer started with the group and danced with them for seven years.

It took the Chieftains about 10 years to gather steam professionally, Moloney says, but by 1972, there could be no doubt that they were on their way: That’s the year Paul McCartney called and said he would like to work with them.

Other noted artists followed. Moloney recalls the day Stanley Kubrick called him about doing the score for his 1975 Irish historical drama “Barry Lyndon,” which eventually went on to earn the Chieftains an Oscar. Moloney had no idea who he was speaking with, and told Kubrick he would call him back on Monday morning.

“I hadn’t a clue,” he says.

By the 1990s, Moloney decided he would like to call all the friends he had made and ask them to perform on an album. The result was 1995’s “The Long Black Veil,” which remains one of the Chieftain’s most successful albums, featuring collaborations with numerous musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison and Marianne Faithfull.

Sting performed on it, too. The song, “Mo Ghile Mear,” means “Our Hero” — and Moloney taught Sting how to sing it over the phone phonetically.

Despite having such a long, varied and successful musical career, Moloney says there are still many things he would like to try. Some of them are obvious, even a bit ironic: After all these years, the Chieftains still have never performed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day; they’ll remedy that situation in 2012, Moloney promises.

Then there are projects that seem so right, you can’t help but sigh a little bit. The Chieftains took their name from “Death of a Chieftain,” a poem by Irish poet John Montague. Now, Moloney is working on setting music to Montague reading aloud some of his poetry.

And he’s still looking into ways to bring Irish folk music to other places it hasn’t been yet — moon or elsewhere — and at bringing other types of folk music together with the music the Chieftains have been making since 1962.