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  • Sean Smith

My Other Job (a series): Slán, Clannad

I work full-time as an editor and writer in academia, but also do freelance music and arts-related features for From time to time, I'll share a tidbit or two about an assignment.

Most of the stuff I do for (formerly known as the Boston Irish Reporter, and a great story in and of itself) is about Irish/Celtic performers and musicians who live in the Greater Boston area -- and lemme tell ya, there's a bunch. But when possible, I also write about the many accomplished performers and musicians who come through town, and in doing so, contribute to Boston's reputation as a hub of Irish/Celtic music.

This Friday will see the final Boston concert for Clannad, one of Ireland's most popular and successful bands, which is hanging it up after some five decades. The news of their impending finale got me thinking back to an interview in 2012 I had (by phone, sadly -- not in person) with Clannad's harpist and lead singer Moya Brennan, ahead of their appearance at the Berklee Performance Center.

I've been asked now and then what it's like to interview a celebrity -- kind of depends on whom you categorize as one, I guess -- and whether I get all nervous or gushy. I'll admit to being nervous, at least sometimes, but it's only natural, right? I don't think I've been particularly "gushy," though, because seems to me that would get quite annoying for the interviewee. Now, if it's someone whose work I've genuinely admired, I don't feel giving him or her a general compliment is unreasonable -- so long as you keep it brief and then move on.

Anyway: I was quite happy to get a chance to talk with Moya, who was pleasant and personable. She recalled how, as children in Donegal, she and brothers Pol and Ciaran -- and their twin uncles, Noel and Padraig Duggan, with whom they formed Clannad -- were tremendously influenced by their family's connection to traditional music and to the Gaelic language. At the same time, the young Brennans listened to a lot of rock, jazz and other music through pirate radio stations broadcasts that were accessible. (Moya said she even had "Sesame Street" records "because I loved the songs.")

Being young and inclined toward experimenting, the Brennans and Duggans merged the traditional sounds with the modern ones -- and it didn't go over very well, at least not in their neck of the woods. "We were shunned," Moya said. "At that time, Gaelic songs were just never done with instruments, except the harp, or with harmony voices; it was sacrilegious. That’s why we headed off to Europe a lot at the beginning, because they didn’t care what language we sang in. We were determined to stick to our guns. When you’re true to something, you do it for years because you believe in it, if you’re honest.

"Of course, after a while, there was more acceptance about our approach to singing in Gaelic, and it wasn’t so much of a problem to play in Ireland."

I first started listening to Clannad (for the record, it's pronounced "kluh-NADD," not "CLAH-nidd") in the late 1970s, a few years after I decided I really wanted to make folk music of Ireland, England and Scotland my passion. Clannad at that time reminded me a lot of Pentangle, with a mainly acoustic sound that evoked the folk-blues-jazz era of the late '60s -- but of course, with Clannad there also was the Irish/Gaelic influence which gave their music an exotic, often haunting tint.

I kind of lost touch with them once the 1980s started, just got interested in listening to other bands/performers who tended to adhere to a more traditional form of the music (which is a whole other discussion I don't want to get into right now, thanks). So I was rather surprised when they hit it big. Not horrified, mind you -- having once been a big progressive-rock fan in my teens, I liked some aspects of Clannad's transition to the so-called new-age sound, with all the synthesizers and reverb.

The last few years have been tough for Clannad: Noel and Padraig died, while Moya was diagnosed with a progressive lung disease; and of course, COVID further complicated their farewell tour plans. But glad to see them have a chance to achieve closure.

While I have to say I always preferred Clannad's earlier incarnation, when they produced stuff like “Nil Se’n Lá,” “Siúil a Rúin" and "Dúlamán," I also appreciated their creativity and innovation. And however far they may have traveled, in miles or musical style, they never got too far away from Donegal.

You can read the 2012 interview -- which includes a pretty funny anecdote about Bono -- here. My recent Clannad retrospective is here.

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