Back To The Rock Of Ages
Maire Brennan Talks to Christina Roden About Clannad, Her New Album, And A Spiritual Awakening
Maire (Pronounced Moya) Brennan is the angelic soprano lead singer-harpist of the Irish folk band Clannad. As they developed a more commercial, produced sound, Clannad had a big hit with the theme from "Harry's Game," which later turned up in commercials and on the soundtrack to the film "Patriot Games." Maire's soaring voice also graced Last Of The Mohicans and most recently, the best-selling Back To Titanic album. But on her new solo release Perfect Time (Epic/Word) she has made the intensely personal choice of choosing to testify openly about her Christian beliefs.
That "Clannad" translates to "Family" is no accident. Clannad originally consisted of Maire, two of her brothers (Pol has since moved on and is now a producer) and identical twin uncles. A sister sat in briefly, but later achieved fame as the New Age star, Enya. It was hard to find an audience for their music in Ireland, Maire remembers. "When we sang in English, they loved it, when we sang in Gaelic, they wouldn't clap! People were literally laughing at us!," she says, "Singers in Dublin said 'Listen, you have a grand sound. Just forget about the Gaelic, that's not going to go anywhere!'" Nonetheless, the band stuck to their vision. "We never said, 'let's go out and rock the world!' The band came together because we were a family. We enjoyed playing together!" she says emphatically.
Clannad's now-legendary early acoustic recordings were financed by whoever would spring for studio time and the genesis of their second album was typical. "Gael-Linn brought it out and distributed it, but it was financed by a sewage company!" Maire says with a comical grimace. The story behind the enigmatic cover art of Dulaman is similarly enlightening. "Six o'clock in the morning on a beach outside Dublin with a photographer that Gael-Linn gave us," she says crisply, "We got an old table from an antique shop, a stool we stole from a pub that wouldn't listen to our music, three candles because it was the third album and we were in heavy coats because it was freezing!" On the album covers and throughout the music, the tiny, fragile-appearing Maire emerges as a cohesive force. "It's true, you know!," she laughs, "The boys called me 'Ma'! These are the real details. My brothers are going to kill me!"
Clannad decided to hit the road. Continental Europe beckoned and proved hospitable, if at times delusional. "We went to Germany and people said - 'your brothers don't look Irish!' I said 'See the door? Out! Before the boys hear you!'," she says with an incredulous giggle. Clannad eventually developed a solid fan base and did some cloak-and-dagger record distribution." We'd smuggle out as many albums as we could in the doors of the van. I remember coming into Hamburg on the boat and we were searched! It was tough going!"
When stardom finally caught up with Clannad during the eighties, it brought vindication, personnel changes amid tales of acrimony, growth and compromises. The desire to write her own songs evolved slowly. "I did very little in the beginning, from laziness. I was a singer and my two brothers knew how I sang. When Pol left the band in '90, Ciaran was left holding the bag. I was curious. I was looking at other people's songs before I started to write myself. I saw the progression of how my brothers wrote. I was listening to world music and different rhythms. I was fascinated with what I was coming out with!" The idea of a solo record was growing on her, too. " A change is as good as a rest!" she says, laughing.
The decision to make a Christian album was born of Maire's own return to the fold, although not to any particular doctrine. "There's so much interest in Irish music, dance, mythology and folklore. But people outside Ireland don't see the spiritual side of the Celtic race. Our ancestors' courage, love and humility came from their Christian background!" She began to read about the birth of Irish Christianity and how Irish monasteries preserved the written word during the European Dark Ages. She was especially drawn to Saint Patrick, a heroic figure who has been trivialized into a kind of patron saint of party animals. "Saint Patrick is celebrated all over the world. Well, do you know who he was? We celebrate, we drink, we get silly, but who WAS this guy and what did he do? He was an extraordinary man!"
Given this history, the sectarian violence in Ireland is especially disturbing to Maire. "Christians fighting Christians, Catholics and Protestants!' she says wistfully, "It breaks my heart, because we're all stemming from the same rock. We should look at that and not at what we've become. I discovered an awful lot, being from a Catholic background and getting married to a Protestant. The biggest thing about Christ is love and humility. People think being humble is a weakness, I think it's a strength because the hardest thing to do is to forgive, or give in and not many people can do that nowadays."
Perfect Time turned out to be another kind of Brennan family enterprise as well as a declaration of Maire's faith. "It was very important to include something that was precious to me and part of my childhood. Recording my mom's choir in the local Catholic church, was so earthy and real - I love that! My mom, my dad and two of my sisters are in it and the people from the parish!" She only has to look back home for living examples of the fabled spiritual resilience of the Irish people. "For me, it is important to make an issue of this. It's amazing how a race that has known such tragedy can make melancholy songs that are never dark! There's always a sense of hope and Irish is such a language for blessings!"
Christina Roden is a freelance writer and world music promoter from New York City.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in Rhythm Music Magazine in 1999