PADDY MOLONEY is a renowned virtuoso on the Uilleann pipes and various wood-winds. He is also the bandleader of The Chieftains, who are Ireland's most famous traditional music ensemble and ambassadors to the world. We are seated in Tommy Makem's pub in New York on a gray day in February. The night before, The Chieftains had garnered their fifth consecutive Grammy for "Santiago" (1996 - RCA), a delightful and musically sophisticated exploration of the Celtic heritage of Galicia in Spain. He thinks that the Guiness Book Of World records might be interested in the news. He is in an ebullient frame of mind, but the Famine is a subject close to his heart and he is eager to discuss it.
"I'm from Dublin, myself," he begins with the aplomb of a born charmer, "living in County Wicklow near Glendalough, but my parents came from a rural part of the midlands. At one time, they did have good farming land, but they ended up on the top of the mountain, as that's where they were put. My grandfather became very ill at the age of 40 from trying to till barren mountain land and make a little farm out of it, which he did. They had a simple country cottage and that's where I spent the happiest days of my life. You went there during the summer holidays. We slept in settle beds, wooden beds near the fire. I often had the story being told to me about the "bad times", as they called it. Not an awful lot, they didn't ponder on it. There was a sort of shame; there was a whole complex about it. It's only coming out now, really."
Moloney is in the process of composing a large-scale symphonic tribute to the Famine victims. A 1994 visit to the memorial at Grosse Ile, where huge numbers of Famine immigrants lie in mass graves, solidified his impulse to create the work. "I went there 3 years ago," he recalls, "and on approaching this island and the big cross standing up there, I just got the shivers up my back, took out my tin whistle and started to play a little tune. This wasn't being over-dramatic, this was just a genuine feeling. I felt a peace there, and a presence amongst the mass graves. I walked across the mounds. I pictured these dreadful little cubicles that they had to go into and be frozen to death being washed down, their clothes being burned and things like that, and quarantined. But I got a calmness. I could have been on a little island off the coast of Clare or Galway, with wildflowers that were growing there; misty day.. misty day."
The symphony is nearly complete. There were setbacks when his earliest funding dried up, but his forces are now in place. The inspiration for the piece goes beyond the Famine itself. "My attitude was commemorating this dreadful holocaust, and it was just as horrible as any famine that's going on in the world; but bring emphasis on hunger and starvation in the world today." He expresses tender admiration for the desperate yet plucky victims of what he repeatedly refers to as "the Irish Holocaust". "The Irish being a very proud people, we just struggle on to the very end. My symphony wasn't going to be dark all the way through. Even in the worst of times, their hearts came up. They danced on the boats, those "coffin ships". They played some music, they brought music with them, we know that for a fact. There would be a lot of music and dance (in the symphony), and then a good finishing up. We did get out of it eventually," a small, bitter smile touches his mouth briefly, "bar some of us."
Asked for his perspective about the role of economics and politics during the Famine and how they are perceived today, he muses, "I think that what happened was a disaster. There was some people abroad, in England too, who were very concerned and voiced their opinion, that did try to do something. But, on the whole, it was getting rid of these poor beggars, off the land that they wanted to take. We were a different race. A lot of notable people now in the BBC have re-read history, not what they were taught in school. They've come around to the dreadful atrocities."
His symphony is slated to feature a roster of musicians from other nations, such as a flute master from China, plus African and Native American players, as hunger is an international problem. The Chieftain's bodhran (frame hand-drum) percussionist and vocalist, Kevin Conneff, will personify the immigrants. "Kevin has a beautiful, a very sympathetic voice." he says. Will Moloney play the Uilleann pipes during the piece? "Oh yeah, oh God!" he says, brightening, "The Pipes are wailing!"