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Trad Beat Moloney named National Heritage fellow

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

The highest accolade in American folk and traditional arts, the National Heritage Fellowships, under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts, have honored a relatively small handful of Irish and Irish-American performers among the more than 200 recipients since 1982, the year of their inception. They include sean-nós singer Joe Heaney (1982), uilleann piper Joe Shannon (1983), fiddler/teacher Martin Mulvihill (1984), stepdancer Michael Flatley (1988), flutist Jack Coen (1991), fiddler Liz Carroll (1994), and stepdancer/instructor Donny Golden (1995).

Now add to that prestigious list the name of Philadelphia resident musician Mick Moloney, recipient of a 1999 fellowship, which carries a one-time award of $10,000.

"Usually awards like this are given when you’re dead, so I’m a little worried now," said Moloney jokingly from Spanish Point, Co. Clare, where he was visiting.

Turning more serious, he added: "I’m very honored and humbled by it. It’s a natural thing to start thinking of all the great people who didn’t get it, those who had inspired me and others along the way. But at the same time I feel privileged and flattered."

A talented singer and a highly skilled player of the guitar, banjo, and mandolin, the 54-year-old Limerick native came to the U.S. in 1973 to pursue graduate studies in the Folklore and Folklife Department of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Since then, he’s been an American resident and, later, a citizen.

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"When I arrived in America," Moloney recalled, "the Irish traditional scene wasn’t very visible. There weren’t performing situations where you’d be likely to hear traditional music much. Most of it was very much behind the scenes, and most of the musicians I met didn’t really play outside their houses, except for maybe an odd concert here and there. It was almost subcultural, even in the Irish community itself, which didn’t seem to value what they had."

What changed all that?

"Well, there’s the larger context of multiculturalism and the whole idea of roots and ethnic heritage as being valid," Moloney said. "With this validation of the tradition eventually came a tremendous emergence of possibilities for Irish traditional musicians. There was a huge increase in the number of places where people could actually do what they did: concerts, festivals, recordings, radio, television. They were allowed to create art publicly rather than privately, and I think it really started in the mid-1970s and developed steadily from there."

A prime catalyst of that revival is Moloney himself. Since 1973, he has produced and/or performed on more than 50 recordings for such labels as Rounder, Green Linnet, and Shanachie. In the process, he has given a crucial initial boost to the now flourishing careers of Eileen Ivers, Seamus Egan, and Cherish the Ladies, to name but three.

He also founded the Green Fields of America touring ensemble not long after organizing a seminal 1976 performance by Irish and Irish-American musicians as part of an "Old Ways in the New World" presentation sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution for its Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Before coming to the U.S., Moloney was a well-established musician, having been a member of the Emmet Folk and the Johnstons, a popular vocal group during the 1960s. In the U.S., besides his founding association with the Green Fields of America, he has toured and recorded with a host of musicians, including Robbie O’Connell, Jimmy Keane, Seamus Egan, and Eugene O’Donnell.

Moloney still tours with the Green Fields of America and does other concerts with such musicians as Zan McLeod, Marie Reilly, and Jerry O’Sullivan. He teaches part time at Villanova University in Philadelphia and will be conducting a course next spring at New York University.

Moloney also estimates he needs about three more weeks of work to finish a book based on his doctoral dissertation at Penn, "Irish Music in America: Continuity and Change," that a university press will publish sometime next year.

"I’m also going to record an album of Irish-American songs mostly from 1850 to 1900, music from minstrelsy and vaudeville," said the ever-busy Moloney. "I have 14 songs all selected. And Jimmy Keane and I have been talking about recording a banjo and accordion album together."

In addition to those projects, Moloney has been subcontracted by the Smithsonian to run some seminar tours and to participate in or lead some Irish-American educational programs in various U.S. cities.

On top of that, he conducts about eight tours of Ireland annually. "What started as a hobby has become a small business for me," he said. "I’m in Ireland 75 to 80 days every summer, and it’s put me back in touch with the traditional scene over here. I’ve also reconnected with people I haven’t hung out with in many years."

Motivation for Moloney has never changed. "When I first heard all this great art," he said of the Irish traditional music he heard in America, "I got very excited, and I just wanted other people to know how great it was. For me, it started from basic, unadorned enthusiasm. I can’t think of a better way to spend your time or spend your life than to be involved in something like that."

For his important long-term involvement as producer, performer, scholar, teacher, consultant, mentor, and unswerving supporter of Irish traditional music and dance in the U.S., Moloney has earned his National Heritage Fellowship many times over. The Irish Echo joins the Irish community at large in congratulating one of its finest musical exponents on this signal honor that will be officially bestowed on him this fall at the White House.

Carroll back in studio

It’s been 11 years since Chicago-born fiddler Liz Carroll made a solo recording. The good news is she’s back in a recording studio in Philadelphia to cut another. It’s being produced by Solas founding member Seamus Egan and will be released on Green Linnet, probably in the early part of next year.

Hat trick for Solas

In the history of the Association for Independent Music (AFIM, formerly NAIRD) awards, no band has ever won three straight times in the Celtic/British Isles category — until now. "The Words That Remain" (Shanachie), by Solas, now out on the road with Mary Chapin Carpenter, was named best Celtic/British Isles album of the year for 1998. (The Irish Echo selected it as the No. 1 traditional album of the year.) For 1996 and 1997, Solas took top honors for "Solas" and "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers," also Shanachie recordings.

Other candidates in this category for 1998 were Susan McKeown’s "Bushes & Briars" (Alula; No. 18 in the Irish Echo’s top 20 trad list), Joseph Cormier’s "Informal Sessions" (Rounder), Kathryn Tickell and Friends’ "The Northumberland Collection" (Park), and Kate Rusby’s "Hourglass" (Compass).

Two other Irish acts have also won a total of three AFIM/NAIRD awards: De Dannan for "The Star Spangled Molly" (Shanachie, 1981), "Song for Ireland" (Sugar Hill, 1983), and "Ballroom" (Green Linnet, 1987), and Altan for "The Red Crow" (Green Linnet, 1990), "Harvest Storm" (Green Linnet, 1992), and "Island Angel" (Green Linnet, 1993).

No other group has won more than once in this category, though Scots piano accordionist Phil Cunningham won for his solo album "Airs & Graces" (Green Linnet, 1984) and as a member of two bands, Relativity ("Relativity," Green Linnet, 1985) and Silly Wizard ("A Glint of Silver," Green Linnet, 1986).

Solstice celebration

Summer Solstice Grammy-winning musician Paul Winter will be holding his sixth annual Summer Solstice Celebration on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. and on June 19 at 4:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Amsterdam Avenue and W. 112th Street, NYC. Joining him inside the world’s largest Gothic cathedral will be former Moving Hearts and "Riverdance" uilleann piper Davy Spillane, Arcady lead vocalist Niamh Parsons, fiddler Kevin Glackin (son of Tom Glackin, who’s from the Rosses in Donegal, and brother of Paddy and Séamus), and guitarist Zan McLeod. Tickets, (212) 662-2133 or (212) 581-1212.

Gaelic Roots

The seventh annual Gaelic Roots festival, plus summer

school, will take place from June 20- 26 on the Chestnut Hill campus of Boston College. Instructional classes will run from June 21-25. There will be a seisiún cruise around Boston Harbor at 7 p.m. on June 23 and two formal concerts held later that week: a faculty concert at 8 p.m. on June 24 in Robsham Theater, and a farewell concert at 8 p.m. on June 26 in the same theater.

Among the instructors and performers will be accordionists and concertinists Joe Derrane, Tony MacMahon, Martin Connolly, and Tommy McCarthy; fiddlers Paddy Canny, Brendan McGlinchey, Bobby Casey, Liz Carroll, and Brian Conway; singers Frank Harte and Tony Cuffe; percussionist Tommy Hayes; ex-Chieftains’ tin whistle player Seán Potts, and the Irish traditional/baroque quartet Dordán.

For information, contact Séamus Connolly, Boston College, Irish Studies Program, Connolly House, 300 Hammond St., Newton, MA 02467; (617) 552-0490; connolsb@bc.edu.

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