Moya Brennan (@Mella Travers)
How It’s New York:  Moya Brennan, lead singer with Clannad, recently performed with Cormac de Barra at New York’s American Irish Historical Society, to support Edel Bhreatnach’s talk about the preservation of ancient Irish books.  The special, Clannad Live at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin airs on New York’s WLIW 21 March 17 at 3 and at 10.
How It’s Irish:  Clannad epitomized a mystic, evocative sound.  Without them leading the way with their close harmonies and ethereal moods, there would be no Celtic Woman (Enya, of course, was sister Eithne first, and in Clannad herself).

You can hear Moya too on the March 16 podcast!

 Gwen talks with Moya Brennan, of Clannad, a group whose sound creates misty watercolors in the mind

Moya Brennan never set out to be a pop star. Yet in the 80s, at the height of Clannad’s fame (she spelled her name Máire Ní Bhraonáin in those days), when she had a duet with Bono, people had pictures of her in their wallets.

On March 17, WLIW premieres her special Clannad Live at Christ Church Cathedral. The show, she said, is meant to show “the beginning of Clannad,” and its journey along the way. The band when it debuted consisted of Moya, brothers Ciarán and Pól, twin uncles Noel Duggan and Pádraig Duggan. The special features all but Enya, and is the first full conert in 20 years to include them all. The broadcast also includes interviews with Moya. Sister Enya (who spelled her name Eithne Ní Bhraonáin) appeared on a few Clannad albums as well.

Clannad is a play on the Irish word for family, and it’s always been a family project. Moya is the the eldest of nine, and comes from a musical family—her mother and father are both musicians, her grandmother played the drums. In the mid-60s, she explains, the show band era was fading and moving into the pubs. So her father opened up a musical pub. “Everybody’s been on that stage, whether it’s Christy Moore, Bono,” she laughs. The place is Leo’s Tavern, near Gweedore in Donegal, if you’re on the road. It was a stage for young Maire, and when she was home on holidays from boarding school, she would get up and play anything from a Joni Mitchell Song to a Gaelic song to a Beatles song. Gaelic is her first language, and when Clannad started out their intention really was to focus on Gaelic.

Clannad Family Photo (@Suzanne Crompton)

At first, she explains, they were a bit shunned upon, because songs were traditionally done unaccompanied. So they went to Germany and France, where people didn’t really care. The glorious album Clannad in Concert (1976) was recorded in Switzerland. “The harmonies were always something we aspired to, because listening to the beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, and my brother Ciarán was listening to jazz,” she says, “we loved the idea of harmonies. We knew that the texture in our voices would harmonize.” Finding a new sound wasn’t their goal.   “We were just loving something we were doing musically. And that gave us the air to breathe what was around us. It had something to do with the environment we grew up in, with the earthiness of Donegal.”Whenever they finished an album—they have 17 by now—when they would be about an hour from home, they’d put it in the cassette player and ask themselves, “is it still from here?” 

The first six albums concists of songs they had collected and arranged. The first song they wrote was for the TV show Harry’s Game. “We didn’t honestly realize we had created a sound until that came about,” she says. “We had to stand back to listen to it.” And now, she says, when people are talking about the Celtic sound, a lot of time, that sound is what they are talking about, with Celtic Woman, or the Titanic. It’s a delicate, misty sound that paints watercolors in the mind. Moya’s voice is breathy but true, and has kept its magic over the years.

She also plays the harp, and has pursued non-Clannad projects as well. Most recently, in 2010, Moya recorded T With the Maggies
with Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Bothy Band’s Tríona Ní Dhomhaill and Skara Brae’s Mairéad Ní Dhomnaill. In 2011, she recorded Voices & Harps
with harper Cormac de Barra. She recently performed with him at the American Irish Historical Society, in a music/spoken word presentation a with historian Edel Bhreatnach, to support the preservation of ancient Irish books. She and Cormac are on the road now, and will play at the National Geographic Theater in D.C. on St. Patrick’s Day.

In her house, she says, they had songs. In her generation, she explains, if you
didn’t have a family member in the house who played, you didn’t learn it all that well. Comhaltas has now established classes everywhere—Moya’s wonderful 2010 PBS special Music of Ireland explores the resurgence of traditional music in Ireland and around the world. In the 1970s, Clannad didn’t play in Ireland, because nobody wanted to hear songs in Gaelic. But they first soared to Top of the Pops with that theme from Harry’s Game, which was all in Gaelic. It was also used in the film Patriot Games, and in Volkswagen ads.

The special was shot in the 11th century Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest in Ireland.

 “We were only supposed to do one show, and had to do three, and those were totally sold out. We were nicely surprised that people remembered us and still wanted to hear us. We started the show with the very first song we ever sang as a five piece band in 1970.”

They also added friends to the concert, including Anúna, Ireland’s National Choir. Anúna enter holding candles, adding to the sense of mystery. “There’s a lot of spirituality in the Irish culture and music, and within the Clannad sound.” Moya does go to church herself. She was brought up with it, and says she lost it on her way. She came back to it because she needed to be grounded.

 “I was this party girl, but there was no peace in my heart. What I’ve found with it is that when I get up in the morning I’m not by myself.”

A new compilation album titled The Essential Clannad is on the way, if you need some catching up. But breaking news is that Clannad are recording a new CD that will be out in the fall, and will be touring with it. It will be the first studio album since 1998, and will have newly composed and newly recorded trad songs. You can already buy tickets for October 7 at the BergenPAC in Englewood, NJ. It will be here before you know it.

In the meantime, set your DVRs, and follow along with Clannad’s journey. 

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.