march 2012

‘Worlds within for the taking’: (from left) Pádraig Duggan (Irish: Pádraig Ó Dúgáin), Moya Brennan (Irish: Máire Ní Bhraonáin), Pól Brennan (Irish: Pól Ó Braonáin, who left in 1990 and rejoined in 2011), Noel Duggan (Irish: Noel Ó Dúgáin), Ciarán Brennan (Irish: Ciarán Ó Braonáin).

For The Ages

By David McGee


Irish or no, if you want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in such a way as to not wind up a blithering idiot making a public spectacle of yourself with the attendant throbbing head ensuing the following day, do your heart and soul a favor and cue up The Essential Clannad, a long-awaited 40th anniversary retrospective of the great Irish band .

Along with an impeccably timed PBS special, Clannad--Live at Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, airing on St. Patrick’s Day itself (see news below), this new double-CD, 30-song set provides the band’s fans with a well-considered summary of memorable Clannad recordings, and serves as an impressive introduction for those new to the family aggregate’s lustrous art over the past three decades. The caveat emptor here is that Clannad recorded its first album in 1973, so its first decade, when traditional songs sung in the musicians’ native Donegal Gaelic language dominated its repertoire, is unrepresented. Which means no selections from 1976’s wonderful Dúlamán album or any of the impressive live performances captured on 1979’s Clannad In Concert. Rather, The Essential Clannad--which, regardless, addresses three-fourths of the group’s career--begins with its signing to RCA in 1983 and the release of “Theme from Harry’s Game,” an aching, hymn-like number written for a British TV drama centered on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. It entered the British charts at #5 and remains the only U.K. hit single ever to be sung entirely in Irish Gaelic. It was featured on Clannad’s first RCA album, Magical Ring, on which the quintet more aggressively pursued the fusion of Irish traditional music with rock and world music it had dabbled in throughout its first decade. Three other Magical Ring songs illustrate this adventurous thrust: “Newgrange,” a mystically oriented, throbbing number with verses sung in English, choruses in Gaelic, off-beat kettle drum rumbles and synth lines crying lost and lonely in the distance; "Coinleach Ghlas An Fhómhair,” a traditional tune sung with quiet, stately reverence by Moya Brennan (Irish: Máire Ní Bhraonáin), whose haunting voice not only defined a particular Clannad sound but also a certain strain of New Age music, although the latter has long been dominated by Moya’s younger sister--and, briefly, a Clannad member--Eithne, better known professionally as Enya. That is, if Moya seems to sound like Enya, it’s really the other way around. The third Magical Ring tune is “Tá Mé Mo Shuí,” another traditional song, done largely as a vocal and guitar duet, telling a wrenching tale of heartbreak but concluding on an encouraging note when a “fairy woman” tells the singer, “When love enters the heart it will never be driven from it.”

‘I Will Find You,’ the theme from The Last of the Mohicans. From Clannad--Live at Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, January 29, 2011, airing on PBS stations on March 17. Posted at YouTube by Dubhy63

As the years went on Clannad broadened out its sound with orchestral arrangements and pop-oriented melodies. This produced unspeakable beauty when these elements met traditional flourishes such as the keening drone of the uilleann pipes on “The Bridge of Tears,” from 1998’s Landmarks album; at the other end of the spectrum it yielded the wretched excess of 1985’s “In a Lifetime,” on which guest vocalist Bono gives a textbook example of over-emoting, robbing the song of what little soul it had left after an arrangement best described as Mannheim Steamroller meets Kenny G. (actually King Crimson’s Mel Collins on soprano sax). Yes, it’s every bit as bad as it sounds. “In a Lifetime,” though a big hit, was the weak link in a strong album titled Macalla. From it comes one of the most beautiful songs in the Clannad canon, the traditional “Buachaill ón Eirne (A Boy from Ireland),” rendered tenderly with multiple steel-stringed acoustic guitars and the slightest hint of synth in atmospheric support of Moya’s beautifully measured, empathetic reading of a tale of a rich, boastful lad courting an impoverished lass.

Clannad, ‘Theme from Harry’s Game,’ live, April 2007. Posted at YouTube by mercuryrazvedka

In fact, the performance of “Buachaill ón Eirne” inspires one of the most insightful and heartfelt of many such passages in the stirring liner notes penned by Black 47’s Larry Kirwan (also host of SiriusXM’s “Celtic Crush”). Getting to the essence of Clannad’s magic, Kirwan observes: “But it’s the traditional songs that I return to time and again. It’s there you find the naked roots of Clannad and their connections to the brooding loveliness of Donegal. Do your ears a favor and dwell on ‘Buachaill ón Eirne (A Boy from Ireland).’ Simple as the song may seem in Moya’s disarming delivery, there are worlds within for the taking. Though on the surface the Gaelic lyrics highlight the almost Dylan-esque boasting and desires of a young rake, Clannad leaves us in little doubt that the real theme is the fleetingness of love and life.”

‘Buachaill ón Eirne (A Boy from Ireland),’ Clannad, live on The John Murray Show on RTÉ Radio 1

This is what they have been doing--“they” being siblings Moya Brennan, Ciarán Brennan (Irish: Ciarán Ó Braonáin), Pól Brennan (Irish: Pól Ó Braonáin, who left in 1990 and rejoined in 2011) and their twin uncles Noel Duggan (Irish: Noel Ó Dúgáin) and Pádraig Duggan (Irish: Pádraig Ó Dúgáin)--since the turn of the ‘70s when they were singing Beatles, Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell songs in their family’s pub before entering a local music competition billed as Clann As Dobhar (Irish for “the family from Dore”). In 1973 they emerged on record as Clannad, exactly a decade after the Chieftains had cleared a path the family from Dore first followed and then departed from in exploring new trails it blazed off the main road. Clannad’s own journey will bring it to North American stages for the first time in 20 years come this September. At which point the truth Larry Kirwan articulates will be self-evident: Clannad makes “popular music for the ages.”

The Essential Clannad is available at


Preview: Clannad Live at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin


In January 2011, the five original members of Clannad, the legendary family group from Donegal, Ireland, came together for a rare live performance marking the band’s 40th anniversary. It was the first full concert in 20 years featuring all five founding members. Recorded at the 11th century Christ Church Cathedral as part of the Temple Bar Tradfest, that magical evening has been captured in the new public television special, Clannad Live at  Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Highlights of the set list of the Live at Dublin program underscore the impact Clannad has had beyond traditional Celtic music into international pop culture--“Theme from Harry’s Game,” originally a TV series theme, became the United Kingdom’s first top ten hit in the Gaelic language and went on to international attention in the film Patriot Games and in Volkswagen ads in the U.S.; “Newgrange,” a song given pop culture attention again recently as covered by Celtic Woman; and “I Will Find You,” the haunting love theme from The Last of the Mohicans.

‘Two Sisters,’ Clannad--Live at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, January 29, 2011, premiering on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, on PBS stations. Posted at YouTube by Dubhy63

Featured guests are Anúna, Ireland’s National Choir, and Brian Kennedy, known for his years singing with Van Morrison and as the lead singer in Riverdance on Broadway. Brian joins the band for “In a Lifetime,” originally a duet with Bono on Clannad’s album Macalla.

Siblings Moya Brennan, Ciarán Brennan, Pól Brennan, and their twin uncles--Noel and Pádraig Duggan--comprise the current lineup of Clannad. Clannad first made their mark in the folk and traditional scene in the 1970s in Ireland and mainland Europe. With their hauntingly beautiful songs, mesmerizing vocals, and captivating sound, Clannad has sold more than 15 million records worldwide.

Clannad Live at  Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin is produced and Directed by Cathal Watters, Odyssey Media. Co-Produced by Shane McDonnell. Executive Producers are John Scher, Keith Naisbitt, Gustavo Sagastume and Carole Myers.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024