Paddy Moloney, uilleann piper who for 60 years led the Chieftains, the band that put Irish folk music on the map – obituary

Paddy Moloney playing a tin whistle, June 1973 - Susan Wood/Getty Images
Paddy Moloney playing a tin whistle, June 1973 - Susan Wood/Getty Images

Paddy Moloney, who has died aged 83, was one of Ireland’s musical heroes; he was the founder, uilleann piper and undisputed leader of the Chieftains for five decades, and with a mixture of impish charm, musical virtuosity and smart business acumen he took them all over the world and transformed the horizons of Irish music and culture in the process.

The band won six Grammy awards, played for the Queen and the Pope, were the first group to perform at the Capitol Building in Washington, and collaborated with an astonishing diversity of artists – ranging from country stars and Galician musicians to Mexican artists, Tom Jones, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, James Galway, Van Morrison and Mike Oldfield.

For while Moloney was a brilliant piper and whistle player, he was also a sharp-witted visionary with relentless enthusiasm, an irresistibly engaging personality and a shrewd commercial brain, who cut through conventional cultural and geographical boundaries and effortlessly won converts to his endless flow of ideas. The pop group Wham! were often said to be the first western artists to appear in China, in 1985, but the Chieftains beat them to it by a couple of years in an initiative engineered almost entirely through Moloney’s persuasive personality.

The Chieftains 3, released in 1971
The Chieftains 3, released in 1971

Moloney had long been fascinated by Chinese folklore, but when he first mooted the idea of a Chieftains tour to China, the rest of the band opposed it, not least because there would be no concert fees. Moloney’s dogged persistence paid off, however, and they ended up going for three weeks, playing at the Great Wall, performing with several Chinese orchestras, filming the tour, recording an album and playing tunes with local musicians.

Each night a banquet was laid on in their honour, and their final show in Shanghai was filmed by Chinese television for broadcast to an audience of millions.

The band still lost money on the trip, but the spin-off benefits in terms of profile and publicity was enormous. The tour did wonders for relations between Ireland and China, resulting in the Chieftains being officially appointed “cultural ambassadors” by the Irish government.

Moloney was born on August 1 1938 in the north Dublin suburb of Donnycarney. His father John, a sergeant in the Irish Army, played bagpipes and his mother Catherine sang and played accordion, and Moloney – then known as Pat – grew up surrounded by music, with the family regularly hosting house dances. His first instruments were melodeon and tin whistle, but once he heard Leon Rowsome, a school friend, playing uilleann (elbow) pipes, he was hooked.

His parents saved up to buy him a set of practice pipes for five pounds and he began weekly lessons with Leon’s father, Leo Rowsome, who was widely known as “king of the pipers”.

Once asked how uilleann pipes differed from bagpipes, Moloney replied: “The Irish aren’t silly – they’re designed so you can play with one hand while holding a drink with the other.”

He made his first public appearance in 1947 at an open-air piping demonstration at Phoenix Park, where more than 30 years later he would play in front of more than a million people during the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II.

A prodigious talent with an exceptional determination to master the intricacies of a notoriously difficult and temperamental instrument, Moloney was 11 when he won the under-14s section of a major piping competition in Dublin and went on to become the star pupil at the Dublin College of Music.

Backstage at Glastonbury, June 1983 - David Corio/Redferns
Backstage at Glastonbury, June 1983 - David Corio/Redferns

He was composing his own tunes from the age of 12 and was soon playing in sessions with some of the piping greats, like Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy and Dan Dowd, developing a huge repertoire of traditional tunes. After leaving school he trained as an accountant, but music soon took over and he was recruited by the composer Seán Ó Riada to join his experimental “folk orchestra”, Ceoltóirí Chualann.

The hard-drinking Ó Riada had no head for business, however, and Moloney, who was never short of self-confidence, became the unofficial leader and manager, as well as the star turn, as they went on to provide the music for the film The Playboy of the Western World.

He was already friendly with the Guinness heir and patron of the arts Garech Browne, who formed Claddagh Records to indulge his passion for traditional Irish music and asked Moloney to assemble some musicians to record for the label. Inviting Michael Tubridy (flute), Sean Potts (tin whistle) and Martin Fay (fiddle) to join him, Moloney threw himself into the project, painstakingly working out the arrangements to present Irish traditional music in a new way, adopting the name, the Chieftains, from John Montague’s short story “Death of a Chieftain”.

Launched at a lavish party in Dun Laoghaire in 1963, the resulting album was well received, brought them radio and television exposure and set the course that was to consume Moloney for the rest of his life. The Chieftains went on to make 44 albums, the first 10 self-titled (The Chieftains, The Chieftains 2 and so on), taking Irish music into ever more novel territories, courtesy of a distinctively lush feel offset by Moloney’s meticulous arrangements.

They broke through many barriers and took the music all over the world. The masters of Irish dance Michael Flatley and Jean Butler performed with them regularly prior to their fame in the Riverdance show; they played with symphony orchestras and provided film soundtracks for movies, such as Barry Lyndon, Tristan & Isolde, Treasure Island and The Grey Fox.

Signed to Island Records, they broke through in a big way with American audiences throughout the 1980s, and other musicians jumped at the chance to work with them. One of their most commercial records, The Long Black Veil in 1994, featured the Rolling Stones, Sting, Sinead O’Connor, Mark Knopfler, Tom Jones, Marianne Faithfull and Van Morrison, who also collaborated with them on the hugely successful Irish Heartbeat in 1987.

Paddy Moloney (holding his uilleann pipes) and his wife Rita O'Reilly share a laugh in Co Wicklow, June 1973 - Susan Wood/Getty Images
Paddy Moloney (holding his uilleann pipes) and his wife Rita O'Reilly share a laugh in Co Wicklow, June 1973 - Susan Wood/Getty Images

Small in stature, Moloney fully played up to his jokester pixie image, but was a skilled entrepreneur, too. In the late 1960s he was managing director of Claddagh Records, gaining a reputation as a formidable hustler, and while the Chieftains had different managers running their day-to-day affairs, he was always closely involved.

As the touring pressures increased, the band’s personnel changed; and as their popularity soared they were sometimes dismissed as a “sell-out”; but Moloney dispelled such criticisms by recruiting some of the most respected musicians in their field to take them to the next level, including the great flute player Matt Molloy, the bodhran player and singer Kevin Conneff and the classical harpist Derek Bell.

In 2011 they played for the Queen on her first official visit to Ireland and the following year released their last album, Voice of Ages, with American indie rock musicians such as Bon Iver. They were invited to perform at President Joe Biden’s inauguration but had to decline.

Moloney is survived by his wife Rita, and his children Aonghus, Pádraig and Aedín.

Paddy Moloney, born August 1 1938, died October 11 2021