In 1970, in the remote parish of Gweedore, County Donegal, three siblings and two of their uncles decided to fuse folklore with an intrinsic passion for singing. For Pól, Ciarán and Máire (Moya) Brennan and the Duggan twins, Pádraig (1949-2016) and Noel, there was nothing beyond such simple pleasures. There were no thoughts of making it big (whatever ‘big’ actually meant) or of anything other than the celebration of the wealth of music that enveloped them like a hug and the nature that surrounded them like an invisible cloak. For them, the cultural placebo of television was non-existent (the family didn’t own one), so time was passed with outdoor pursuits such as fishing or clambering over cliffs, and indoor pastimes such as playing the piano and other musical instruments. As if out of nowhere, and just as spontaneously, a bond was forged: the indisputable, beautiful ruggedness of the landscape cleaved to the intangible force of music.
‘Beautiful Donegal,’ says Moya. ‘Where it all began. Donegal has that kind of mystical and ethereal, an earthiness that we allowed into our music. It’s very hard to describe, but if you love what you do and are enthused by things, we were influenced by then everything just arrives. It was so natural, and I think that was the secret of Clannad.’
And it was, of course, yet family — the open secret — was also crucial. Swirling around in the gene pool were blends of musical experience, from being taught the fundamentals of piano by their music teacher mother, Baba, to learning from their father, Leo, a broader repertoire through his time in the Slieve Foy Band. A showband that performed jazz, ceilidh, pop and whatever you’re having yourself in the dancehalls of Ireland as well as in the Irish-colonised sectors of London, Birmingham and Glasgow, Leo’s group would, by osmosis, influence the future members of Clannad in the ways of stage performance.
Music influences, inevitably, seeped in: at the age of thirteen, Ciarán discovered a battered double bass in an outhouse and set about mastering it. Subsequently, Leo — who in parallel with all this taking place, was in the process of buying and developing a pub, Leo’s Tavern, in the nearby village of Meenaleck — bought him a set of drums, and another relative taught him guitar chords. Pól was slowly becoming an accomplished flute and guitar player, while also achieving grades and undertaking voice training in nearby Derry. Moya, too, was undertaking voice training as well as harp lessons. All constituent family members would be furthering their love of harmonies through 1960s’ pop groups such as The Hollies, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, and The Beatles. ‘There was a real focus on substance at an early age,’ recalls Pól, sketching the blueprint of future creativity.
Noel’s mother, meanwhile, advanced an audacious thought: instead of singing English language songs by favoured songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, she suggested, why don’t they start singing in Gaelic? ‘We would avoid augmented, jazzier chords because we wanted it to be more Celtic,’ says Ciarán, who, like Noel, was especially taken by contemporised English folk ballads as delivered by the likes of Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Pentangle. ‘There was a wealth of Gaelic songs that were being lost around our area of Donegal,’ says Ciarán. ‘I thought we could save some of them and play them in the pub. Whether people liked it or not, I was going to give it a go.’
Come 1970, the nascent Clannad just about made the entry deadline for a competition in the annual Letterkenny Folk Festival. Following the shock of winning — the prize of which was to record an album for Phillips Ireland, the Dublin-based division of the UK record label — matters were about to get serious. Sensing they could realise their dream and perform music full-time, they set about recording their self-titled debut. Released in 1973, all of the tracks were traditional, except two: ‘Morning Dew’, a cover version of the song written by Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson, and ‘Liza’, written by Pól and Pádraig (and described by the latter as a pop song influenced by The Beatles and/or The Beach Boys). These tracks were, however, in contrast to the weight of fusionist traditional material, which would constitute the majority of Clannad’s albums up to 1983’s Magical Ring.
And yet despite (or, perhaps, because of) the traditional elements, the group generated something quite unique to the overall sound. Take away their folkloric, traditional background, the remoteness of their homeland, the heritage and history of their native/local music, and you have less than half the story. Put them at the centre of knowledge, intuition, language, landscape, passion, bloodline, and an increasingly ambitious inquisitive approach, and you have the makings of a book.
Collecting old songs was the early key that unlocked innumerable treasures, says Moya. ‘Our first six albums were mainly collecting old songs. We knew a lot ourselves from our grandparents and our mother, but we also used to go to people’s houses with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a half-pack of Guinness! On the tape, you’d hear the grandfather clock ticking in the background. The people would first tell you the story behind the song, then they’d give you the words. The melody would be the last thing they’d give you, but these older people used to say to us “go now and sing it your own way”.’We loved doing that. All our energy was going into arranging these beautiful melodies and beautiful words. It enabled us to create a sound.’
And yet, irony of ironies, because the group sang exclusively in Irish, outside of Leo’s Tavern gigs weren’t exactly forthcoming. This was about to change, and Clannad could not only thank Leo’s Tavern for it, but also two German music promoters who happened to have called in for a drink when Ciarán was sitting by the bar. Before the promoters had departed, Ciarán had signed Clannad to a 20-plus city tour of Germany, in the company of other Irish folk/ballad groups such as The Fureys. If Gweedore was the heart and soul of Clannad, and the region’s tradition was their skeleton, then that first tour of Germany put flesh on the bones. Returning to Ireland, they took a collective decision to give up the day jobs (Moya was teaching music in Donegal; Pól and Pádraig were trainee radiographers) and dive headfirst into being a living, breathing, touring, singing musical unit. The downsides? No one quite knew if it would work in their favour; they were all too aware of operating in a niche area. The upsides? God favours the brave, and they knew their music was unique.
By the time of Clannad’s fifth and sixth albums (respectively, 1982’s Fuaim and 1983’s Magical Ring), their sonic output had become recognised as wholly singular, and they had long consolidated their standing as a Gael force to be reckoned with. With younger sister Eithne, aka Enya, having quickly come and gone as a group member (to subsequently enjoy huge success as a solo performer, of course), Fuaim was the pathway by which Clannad negotiated the excursion from moderate success in Europe to worldwide mainstream appeal. A song on that album , ‘Mhórag ‘S Na Horo Gheallaidh’, brought their music to the attention of the writer and makers of the 1982 television drama mini-series, Harry’s Game. With the subsequent global success of ‘Theme from Harry’s Game’, from this point on Clannad were on a completely different level.
As a testament to their prolificacy and ideas-driven output, more albums followed throughout the ‘80s (eight during this decade) and ‘90s (four). Following a brief hiatus from recording, Clannad continued to perform, collecting gold and platinum discs, Lifetime Achievement Awards and Grammy Awards along the way, all the while ensuring their love of traditional Irish music, Irish language and Celtic history was astutely merged with an exploratory and genre-defying mindset.
Clannad returned to the album format in 2013 with Nádúr (sadly, the last to feature original co-founding member, Pádraig), and have since decided that it’s time to exit stage left with dignity, decorum, and some world-beating tunes. ‘Our music,’ notes Pól, ‘was never pop. There was an aspect to it that was ethereal, looking for a dreaming place.’
The journey, circuitous though it may have been, has been completed. ‘Unknown to ourselves,’ admits Ciarán, ‘we created something that just came very naturally.’ For Moya, the grand finale of a celebratory world tour is a perfect and gentle closing of the door. ‘It’s nice to feel that we are leaving in such a way. We have been really blessed.’
Blessed with music, blessed with landscape, but most of all, blessed with family.
Clann As Dobhar. 1970-2020. It’s a lifetime. In a lifetime.
— Tony Clayton-Lea