Donegal’s finest export, Clannad, have created a wonderful musical legacy


Johnny Foley

I’M NOT usually one for writing music profiles. I mainly devote my attention to things that I tend to talk about more often on an everyday basis—films, the latest TV series or football-related issues. While trawling through YouTube recently though, a typically pesky advert popped up to inform me that Clannad (above) had set plans in motion for their farewell tour.

Being a fellow Donegalian— granted I’m a bit more of a Letterkenny townie compared to their more traditional upbringing in the Gaeltacht region of Gaoth Dobhair—the ad immediately cast my mind to wandering the milestones this folk band have achieved in the music world.

Now, unfortunately, I was unable to acquire contact details for Moya Brennan (harpist and vocalist) and the only real degree of separation I have with her is that my auntie—who emigrated to New York City in 1987—and her were in the same class at school many moons ago. Nevertheless, the pop-up that appeared on my screen prompted me to start replaying the band’s forgotten playlist, which I’d downloaded to my Spotify account, a number of years ago.

Career trajectory
Essentially, Clannad are arguably one of the world’s most uniquely talented groups that ever graced the stage.  Formed in 1970—and taking their name from the Gaelic version of the word ‘family’—the Brennan siblings and their Duggan uncles masterfully merged some enchanting, and often haunting, sounds of traditional Celtic mysticism into the stratosphere of pop-culture.  And what is more is that they did so by simply creating melodies, harmonies and lyrics that they felt most comfortable with. In a nutshell, they didn’t bow to popular trends of their era and instead focused their attention and deliberations on what they knew best. A testament to the notion that being true to oneself and not conforming to sporadic fads and phases that most of the music industry goes through, they were able to capture the imagination of those who listened to them.

Having started out playing at your normal run-of-the-mill folk festivals around Donegal, the band began to build their profile following a tour of Germany in the mid-1970s.  In 1980, they were joined by their sister and niece, Eithne—known to you and me as ‘Enya’—although she would part company with them to pursue her own highly-successful solo career just two years later.

Clannad started to make their first real breakthrough when a 1980s television series used one of their more haunting and unnamed tracks for Harry’s Game. They would later be asked to record the soundtrack for Robin of Sherwood in 1984. Considering they were on the go for well over a decade by the time this opportunity arose, one can’t help but admire their ingenuity and resolve. You get the feeling that even without lucrative television deals, their love of what they do would’ve still seen Clannad performing in humble public houses and makeshift stages around the county.

Having already notched a British Academy Award, they achieved greater global appeal when none other than Bono collaborated with them for In A Lifetime in 1986. Once again, one can’t help but wonder about the sheer strength the magnitude of their music had, especially given that the lead singer of U2—the world’s biggest and best rock band who were selling out stadium tours all across the USA and beyond at the time—still felt the need and the wish to temporarily give up the sell-out gigs to go and seek the possibility of releasing a song with a folk-group from the humble tranquility of northwest Donegal.

Throughout the 1990s and bypassing the dawn of the new millennium, Clannad took something of a hiatus from the media mainstream. Even with the Grammy Award presented to them in 1997, and their albums continuing to sell in vast numbers, the group were still more likely to be seen performing to small gatherings in quaint settings. Despite this, they were comically referenced by Colm Meaney’s hard-nut detective character in the 2004 cult-film Intermission. The wannabe tough-guy cop in front of the cameras regularly boasted that he was ‘such an animal’ and that the music of Clannad was, basically, guiding his soul. Humorously, this culminates when he learns that his squad car has been stolen and wrecked. The only consolation from the robbery is that the thieves also stole his collection of Clannad CDs from the glove compartment. “Well at least the buggers had taste, I’ll give them that,” he utters.

Clannad today
While Enya appeared on the armchair of The Oprah Winfrey Show, making highly-stylistic music videos for MTV and VH1, as well as having her work featured on the soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the rest of Clannad slipped into relative obscurity by comparison. That’s not to sound in any way disparaging but, in reality, not many people could point out Moya, Ciaran or Pól Brennan—or their uncles—in a photograph and maybe even fewer could tell you anything that was memorable from any video productions they might have partaken in during their heyday. And yet, when you take the time to put their record on—even nowadays in our fast-paced highly technologically-advanced world—their enchanting sounds have a rhythmic power to take you back to a time now long consigned to history.

Having said that, it wouldn’t be fair to say they’re behind the door, all the same. Only last month, they released the aforementioned In A Lifetime track online with a video shot among the cobbles of the Chapel of Dunlewy, found at the foot of Errigal and just a few miles outside Letterkenny—roughly about halfway between my parish and theirs, so to speak. The song itself may be slightly revamped, but still holds that wonderfully chilling sound which now has an added feature thanks to the accompanying vocals performed wonderfully by Denise Chalia, a rising Irish poet and singer who is of Zambian descent.

Personally speaking, the greatest time to immerse yourself in the Celtic moods and sounds of Clannad is when you can easily pop in the earphones and explore the golden beaches and rolling hills of the wilderness. Fortunately, Donegal has those in abundance—if you don’t mind the rain—and the music of Clannad has shown itself to be the perfect soundtrack for moments such as these. As a group, they’re well due a happy and healthy retirement, but even in the aftermath, what they’ve created will live on for a long, long time to come.

Follow Johnny Foley on Twitter: @JohnnyFoley1984