The original traditional Irish folk band, as far as anyone who came of age in the 1970s or 1980s is concerned, is the Chieftains. Their sound, built largely on Paddy Moloney's pipes, is otherworldly, almost entirely instrumental, and seems as though it comes out of another age of man's history. That they became an international phenomenon in the '70s and '80s is testament to their virtuoso musicianship.
The Chieftains were first formed in Dublin during 1963, as a semi-professional outfit, from the ranks of the top folk musicians in Ireland. Until that time, and for some years after, the world's (and even Ireland's) perception of Irish folksongs was rooted in either the good-natured boisterousness and topicality of acts such as the Irish Rovers or Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, or the sentimentality of Mary O'Hara. That began to change in Ireland with the advent of Ceoltoiri Cualann, a group formed from the ranks of the best traditional Irish musicians by a composer named Sean O'Riada, who hailed from County Cork. Ceoltoiri Cualann, which specialized in instrumental music, stripped away the pop music inflections from Irish music — the dances were played with a natural lilt and abandon that came from deep within the music's origins, and the airs, stripped of their worst modern inflections, came across with even greater poignancy than anyone had recognized them for in decades, and perhaps centuries. Tempos were changed in mid-song, from reel to polka to jig to slow air and back again.
Paddy Moloney came out of Ceoltoiri Cualann to found the Chieftains in 1963, seeking to carry this work several steps further. The earliest recorded incarnation of the group consisted of Moloney (pipes), Sean Potts (tin whistle), Martin Fay (fiddle), David Fallon (bodhran), Mick Tubridy (flute, concertina), and Sean O'Riada. They were a success virtually from the beginning, their music weaving a spell around audiences in Ireland and later in England, where they quickly became popular as both a performing and recording act — the only thing holding them back was the decision by the members to remain a semi-professional, part-time ensemble until the early '70s. Their first four albums, spread over a period from 1965 through 1973, were originally available only from the Claddagh label in Ireland, but were later picked up by Island Records for release in England and America in 1976, after the group had achieved international renown.
The 1970s saw the group break big in America. A new, younger generation of Irish-American listeners, who enjoyed folk music and whose cultural and musical tastes weren't limited to songs about "the troubles" (i.e. England), had already begun discovering the Chieftains' music in the early/mid-'70s. By that time, the group had elected to go professional, and to expand its line-up. O'Riada and Fallon left after the first album, and Peadar Mercier (bodhran) and Sean Keane (fiddle) joined with the second. Following the recording of Chieftains 4, they'd added Ronnie McShane (percussion) and Derek Bell (harp, oboe, timpan), a classically-trained musician. Bell's harp lent the group's sound a final degree of elegance and piquancy.
The group's big breakthrough in America, however, occurred when they provided the music for Stanley Kubrick's 1975 movie Barry Lyndon. The film itself wasn't a hit, but the Chieftains were, especially one track called "Women of Ireland," which began getting played heavily on FM progressive rock stations, and even managed to get onto the playlists of some Top 40 stations. Suddenly, the Chieftains were hot in America, and a U.S. tour and a series of performances on television — especially the network morning news/feature shows — brought them into demand.
By that time, Island Records had contracted to release both the group's latest album, Chieftains 5 and their four previous records in England and America. With their newfound audience, Chieftains records started coming out every year instead of every two or three years — Bonaparte's Retreat in 1976, Chieftains Live in 1977, and Chieftains 7, 8, and 9 in 1978, 1979, and 1980, respectively, although for their U.S. releases, from 1977 through 1980, they abandoned Island Records in favor of Columbia Records. Ever since the dawn of the CD era, their music has been available on compact disc from the Shanachie Records, while their more recent work has shown up on the BMG label, on both compact disc and home video. The latter have included a Christmas concert and a mixed ensemble performance interweaving the group with orchestras, American folk and country musicians, and rock musicians, and an album (Irish Heartbeat, 1988) recorded with Irish-born R&B shouter Van Morrison. Additionally, the group has been engaged steadily for film work into the 1990s.
Since the late '70s, the group's recordings have settled into an effective but not fully inspired level of creativity. The band has kept its sound fresh with the periodic addition of new members, and a search for sounds beyond the boundaries of Ireland — as distant as Spanish sources — as sources for their music.