Opinion: Who will be Highland piping’s Paddy Moloney?
The passing of the great Irish piper Paddy Moloney in October saddened millions worldwide. As a co-founder of the Chieftains in 1962, Moloney was a superstar of not just the uilleann pipes, but of traditional and new Irish music. He was revered by those who play the instrument and love the genre, but also by rockstars, politicians, actors, popes, and dignitaries of all stripes.
Safe to say, before Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains, the uilleann pipes and Irish music were only a niche, followed by only die-hard traditionalists. Through his force of talent, his extraordinary charisma, and not a little eye-twinkling charm, Moloney brought Irish music to the masses.
He played for American presidents and Queen Elizabeth II. For goodness sake, he collaborated with the likes of U2, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Sting, the Who, and even the Muppets. He licensed the Chieftains’ music for countless commercials and screen productions to the point where, today, you’re more likely to hear uilleann pipes in “Scottish” movies than you are Highland pipes.
True, there are Irish immigrants everywhere, and Ireland is a beloved and tourist-attractive country. But the same can be said of Scotland.
True also, Ireland and its descendants have St. Patrick’s Day. But the Scots and those with Scots heritage have two occasions when much of the world stops to celebrate all things Scotland: St. Andrew’s Day and Robert Burns Day.
Scottish piping has some great players with every bit of the chops and creativity as a Paddy Moloney. A few who come to mind: Fred Morrison, Eric Rigler, Matt MacIsaac, Lorne MacDougall, Ross Ainslie, Iain MacInnes, Gary West, Robert Mathieson, Stuart Liddell, Lincoln Hilton, Brìghde Chaimbeul . . . too many to mention.
The closest Highland piping-infused bands to the Chieftains so far might be the Tannahill Weavers, Battlefield, Ossian, and, more recently, Gnoss and Assynt.
Why is it that the Highland pipe doesn’t yet have nearly the stature and excellent reputation worldwide that the uilleann pipes enjoy?
Looking at the Chieftains and Moloney’s history, they aligned themselves with far more famous leaders and artists, starting around when Moloney was in his late twenties. This introduced millions to their art and gave them credibility with unlikely new audiences who otherwise would probably never know uilleann piping from, well, Highland piping.
The Chieftains gained fans with dignity, remaining true to their genre, and, led by Moloney, created incredible musical energy without needing garish outfits, over-amplification, or pyrotechnics.
So why is it that the Highland pipe doesn’t yet have nearly the stature and excellent reputation worldwide that the uilleann pipes enjoy?
We can’t simply chalk it up to luck or the sound of the instrument. A well-tuned Highland pipe in the hands of a good player is at least as attractive as the uilleann pipes. Traditional Scots music and derivations of it are every bit as appealing as traditional Irish. We’ve proven that the Highland pipes can have a voice in a multi-instrument ensemble.
As lovely as they are, it makes us cringe when we hear uilleann pipes prominent in movies set in Scotland, and it makes us want to write scornful letters to Hollywood.
But, it’s no one’s fault but our own. Maybe Highland pipers are trained to think we don’t deserve such prominence and we can’t compete with the vaunted Chieftains or the late Paddy Moloney. Perhaps we’re just so used to being ridiculed as an instrument that we deny ourselves the chance.
Or maybe we’re just waiting for that lucky big break, for that charming Highland piper and their group to catch the ear of a movie producer who incorporates the music into the Academy Award-winning production, launching the artist on a world tour with dignitaries and rockstars yearning to be aligned with them.
But, to be sure, to be sure, Paddy Moloney didn’t sit back and expect the luck of the Irish to make the big break happen. No, he worked it. He knew that what he had was attractive to anyone with an appreciation for excellence and musicality. He aligned his piping with pop music and persevered to have it surprise and delight large audiences in the unlikeliest of places. It was calculated through sheer hard work, belief in his craft, and dogged persistence. He didn’t try to be a rockstar or someone he wasn’t; he remained true to himself and Irish music.
Paddy Moloney had the guile, confidence, and charm – not to mention some serious chops – to be a true world ambassador for his music and his instrument.
Will Highland piping ever have a Paddy Moloney?