The Spirit Of Voice and the music of Clannad’s Moya Brennan

Moya Brennan.

Moya Brennan.

FROM FIRESIDE family music sessions in a little tavern in Gweedore, Co Donegal, in the 1960s and 1970s to major international success with ‘Theme From Harry’s Game’, ‘Robin (The Hooded Man )’ and ‘In A Lifetime’ in the 1980s, Clannad came a long way.

The sound they created has been referred to as ‘Celtic folk’ or ‘New Age’ in recent years but to the Brennan family themselves it has just been their native tongue put to music. Throughout the entire rise of Clannad, lead vocalist/harpist Maire Brennan has been the public face of the band. In recent years she has gone under the name Moya Brennan and forged a successful solo career.

Galway audiences will get to experience her incredible voice when Moya headlines the Spirit Of Voice Festival at Menlo Park Hotel on Friday November 7 at 8pm. Moya will also give a vocal workshop at the Western Hotel, Prospect Hill, on Saturday November 8 at 11am.

The clan and Leo’s Tavern

The Brennan household in Gweedore was always a place where music was played. Moya’s father Leo was a former showband leader and his wife Baba was a music teacher but the performing genes stretched even further back.

“The music went back to my grandmother’s time,” says Moya. “Where she was from in Carlingford was a very musical area. My father played piano and all my aunts and uncles played as well. In the 1960s my father played in a showband and he used to employ local musicians.

“When the dancehalls started to phase out and people traded the mineral bars for the pub he decided to buy a place of his own. He wanted to establish a venue that was really known for music. In 1968 he opened Leo’s Tavern but was apprehensive at first because he never smoked or drank in his life so he was concerned about bringing a young family into the pub situation.

For him it became purely about the music and there came a time when we were all able to play an instrument. We’d be home from boarding school on holidays and he’d get everyone up on stage to play together.”

The Brennan children were often accompanied at the sessions by their uncles Noel and Padraig Duggan and it was from the genesis Clannad was formed. The group took their name from the Irish phrase ‘Clann As Dobhar’ meaning ‘the family from Gweedore’ and in 1970 they entered a local folk festival in nearby Letterkenny and won first prize of a recording contract with Phillips Records.

At the time there was a ballad boom happening in Dublin and folk revivals in Cork and Galway but what Clannad were doing was unique.

“I was one of the only female singers around at the time because this was before Mary Black and Maura O’Connell arrived on the scene,” stresses Moya. “Dolores Keane would have been a big influence but even De Dannan came a little bit after us. We were there sort of before the folk revival of the 1970s and there certainly weren’t many bands around at that time singing entirely in Gaelic.

“We sort of fell in between two stools because Irish speakers were giving us a hard time for singing Gaelic songs with an electric guitar and double bass and then on the other side we were getting a hard time because we were not ballad enough for the ballad boom. So, we just took off to Europe and that’s what kept us going as a band. We didn’t turn professional until 1976 after a big tour in Germany.”

Theme From Harry’s Game and Top of the Pops

Clannad produced five albums through the 1970s and all sold well throughout Europe. In 1981 they were asked to write music for a three-part ITV series called Harry’s Game about ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The series itself when it was broadcast in 1982 was not widely seen but the theme song became a big hit with British and Irish viewers.

“That was our first major breakthrough and the fact that the song was in Irish was so important to us,” says Moya. “We were on tour in Germany when it became a hit and we were getting calls from home saying ‘Everybody’s going mad for this song’. We were told we should cancel some gigs and capitalise on it but we’d never cancelled a gig in our lives.

“Anyway, we decided to fly back home and we were met at the airport by a fleet of limos. I remember we took pictures getting in and out of the cars because up until that point we’d been travelling around in an old Transit van. Going on Top of the Pops was amazing because we arrived at the studio and suddenly we were there among pop stars.

“We were just this young band from Donegal singing in Irish but people were going mad for our sound. We always went with what we felt was right and whether that became a hit or not didn’t really matter.”

Prior to the success of ‘Theme From Harry’s Game’ keyboardist Eithne Brennan left the group to pursue a solo career. Under the management of Nicky and Roma Ryan she was re-branded Enya and has since become a multi-million selling instrumentalist/composer.

A recent feature in the Irish Independent hinted that the split with the family was not entirely amicable. However, Moya maintains that she and her sibling still maintain a close relationship.

“People tend to forget that Enya was only in Clannad for two years,” she says. “We were looking for a keyboard player in the mid 1970s and she was perfect to come in. She joined the group in 1979 and left in ’82, before we had the success with Harry’s Game. She wanted to do her own thing and that’s fine. She’s done amazingly well and we’re really, really proud of her. It’s not a big thing.”

In the 1990s the group lost another member when Paul Brennan (who co-wrote Harry’s Game ) left to pursue his passion as a composer/producer of music for movies.

“His leaving was a big thing because he was with the group for so long,” says Moya. “Ciaran and Paul were the main song writers in Clannad so that meant that the rest of us had to step up and contribute more. I suppose as the lead singer I got a bit lazy but when Paul left it forced me to really explore writing songs.”

Solo success

In the mid 1990s Clannad decided to take some time out from touring commitments and Moya released her debut solo album, Maire in 1992. She enjoyed chart success with dance group Chicane and the single ‘Saltwater’ and also recorded a well-received duet with Shane McGowan.

Her 2000 autobiography The Other Side Of The Rainbow revealed the darker side of life on the road with Clannad and her own battles with alcohol and drug addiction.

“People might have thought ‘Oh there’s Moya from that nice folk band Clannad’ but there was much more to the story than that,” she says. “I used to drink quite a lot and then I went on to smoke hash and all that. In the 1970s it was the done thing and nobody warned you about the dangers of it. When the book came out my daughter read it and I kind of went through a couple of things with her and explained the situation.”

Life is good for Moya these days and she is very much looking forward to coming to Galway.

“I’m taking a simple line-up with me,” she says. “There’ll just be harp, fiddle, keyboard, and percussion. It will open up my voice more. I’m very excited about the gig.”

Tickets available from Menlo Park Hotel on 091 - 761122 or from Zhivago Records. See also www.spiritofvoice.com

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