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After 57 remarkable years as the world’s most influential and successful traditional Irish folk band, The Chieftains continue to explore new and unusual passageways for Irish music collaborating with some of modern music’s fastest rising artists, reinterpreting for old and new generations alike, what the music means today while hinting where it might lead tomorrow. Here on Celtic Harp they lead a tribute to the work of Edward Bunting with the Belfast Harp Orchestra.
The Chieftains are a traditional Irish band formed in Dublin in 1963, by Paddy Moloney, Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy. Their sound, which is almost entirely instrumental and largely built around uilleann pipes, has become synonymous with traditional Irish music and they are regarded as having helped popularise Irish music across the world. They have won six Grammys during their career and they were given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2002. Some music experts have credited The Chieftains with bringing traditional Irish music to a worldwide audience, so much so that the Irish government awarded them the honorary title of ‘Ireland’s Musical Ambassadors’ in 1989. The band’s name came from the book Death Of A Chieftain by Irish author John Montague. Assisted early on by Garech Browne, they signed with his company Claddagh Records. They needed financial success abroad, and succeeded in this, as within a few years their third album’s sleeve note section was printed in three languages.
Paddy Moloney came out of Ceoltóirí Chualann, a group of musicians who specialised in instrumentals, and sought to form a new band. They had their first rehearsals at Moloney’s house, with David Fallon and Martin Fay joining the original three. The group remained only semi-professional up until the 1970s and by then had achieved great success in Ireland and the United Kingdom. In 1973, their popularity began to spread to the United States when their previous albums were released there by Island Records. They received further acclaim when they worked on the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, which triggered their transition to the mainstream in the US. The group continued to release successful records throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and their work with Van Morrison in 1988 resulted in the critically acclaimed album Irish Heartbeat. They went on to collaborate with many other well-known musicians and singers; among them Pavarotti, the Rolling Stones, Sinéad O’Connor and Roger Daltrey.
In 2012, they celebrated their 50th anniversary with an ambitious album and tour. The album, Voice Of Ages, was produced by T-Bone Burnett and featured the Chieftains collaborating with many musicians including Bon Iver, Paolo Nutini and The Decemberists. It also included a collaboration with NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman playing the flute aboard the International Space Station as it orbited the earth.
Paddy Moloney is the band’s leader, and composes or arranges most of the band’s music. While the band’s members changed numerous times in the band’s early history, the membership solidified in 1979 when Matt Molloy replaced Michael Tubridy. From then until 2002, members included the current band of Paddy Moloney, Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff and also Seán Keane (fiddle, tin whistle), Martin Fay (fiddle, bones) and Derek Bell (Irish harp, keyboard instruments, oboe). In 2002, Fay retired from active membership. In the same year, Bell died due to complications following a minor operation. Fay died on 14 November 2012. The band continue to play regularly around the world and are one of the headline acts at this years Liverpool Feis alongside such great and diverse acts as Shane MacGowan, Flogging Molly and The Undertones.
The Celtic Harp was released in 1993 and produced by head Chieftain Paddy Maloney. The Celtic Harp is essentially a showcase for the very talented harpist Derek Bell who handled all of the arrangements, as well as contributed harpsichord and tiompan to the proceedings. Fine solos from flute God Matt Malloy (‘Parting of Friends/Kerry Fling’), vocalist Kevin Conneff (‘Green Fields of America’), and pipe player Maloney (‘T’Aimse ‘Im Chodladh’) give the album a definite Chieftain feel, but The Celtic Harp belongs to Bell, who infuses each note with the subtlety and grace of a true master. Five of the tracks on this album were recorded in Frank Zappa’s home studio before he died with Kevin Conneff’s ‘The Green Fields of America’ being a personal favourite of his. Two months later, the album was completed in Windmill Lane Studios with The Belfast Harp Orchestra with whom they had played and recorded a very successful show in London’s Barbican Centre a few months previously. ‘The Celtic Harp’ won a Grammy Award for ‘Best Traditional Folk Album’ in 1994.
Edward Bunting was born in February 1773 at Armagh, the youngest of the three children of a mining engineer at Dungannon colliery in Coalisland. In 1782 he went to live with his organist brother Anthony in Drogheda, continuing his musical education. In 1784 he moved to Belfast as apprentice to William Ware, organist at St Anne’s. There he rapidly demonstrated his musical talent, becoming deputy organist, and, although still a boy, coached many of Ware’s adult pupils.
Bunting lodged for the next thirty-five years in Donegall Street with the McCracken family. In 1792 a festival of the last of the great Irish harpers was held in Belfast in the Assembly Rooms (later Northern Bank), and Bunting was given the task of copying their music which he eventually published in three volumes. In the early years of the nineteenth century Bunting promoted several successful series of concerts in the town. St Anne’s was the only church in Belfast at that time with an organ, but in 1806 a second Presbyterian Church was built (demolished 1964) and, contrary to the usual practice in Presbyterian churches, an organ was installed. Bunting was appointed as the church’s organist. It was here that in 1813 he organised a great music festival at which a large portion of Messiah was performed for the first time in Belfast. In 1819 he married and moved with his wife to Dublin. He was organist at St Stephen’s, and later also a partner in a music warehouse. In 1827 he secured a well-paid position as organist at St George’s.
Although he was an intimate of the major figures in the Society of United Irishmen of the period, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell and Wolff Tone, Bunting avoided political entanglements. Without Bunting’s work our knowledge of tunes and techniques would be immeasurably poorer. Bunting’s own musical abilities were considerable. In 1795, on Wolfe Tone’s last night in Ireland, his rendition of ‘The parting of friends’ reduced Mrs Tone to tears. On 21 December 1843, mounting the stairs at home, he suffered a heart attack and died within an hour. He is buried at Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin.
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THE HARP – NATIONAL EMBLEM OF IRELAND
It is believed the harp was introduced to pre-Christian Europe by the Phoenicians who brought it over from Egypt as one of their international trading goods. The oldest surviving Celtic harps date back to the 15th century but the music of the harp has been an important emblem to Ireland since the 10th century.
In the days of the old chieftains harpists were held in high regard. Stories were often told to the music of the harp and it encompassed the spirit of the country. Harpists used to travel the country of Ireland performing their folk songs and stories for the public.
The most famous of these was the blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan. His compositions are still popular today through the work of groups like The Chieftains and Planxty.
In the 16th century the music of the harp was seen as such a threat that The British Crown attempted to crush the Irish Spirit by ordering all harps to be burnt and all harpists executed. It was almost 200 years before the music of the harp was freely enjoyed in Ireland once again.
In 1792, a festival was set up in an attempt to bring back the almost extinct tradition of the harp. Only 10 harpists attended. A young organist named Edward Bunting was hired to notate the harp music at the festival.
Bunting’s transcripts are the oldest records of traditional Celtic harp music in existence as it was the tradition to hand down the music orally through the generations. Sadly, with the harp being banned for so long, most of the music was lost.
Today the image of the harp as a national symbol of Ireland is almost as well recognised as the shamrock. It appears on the Irish Euro coins and is the logo for Guinness, considered by many to be Ireland’s national drink.
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