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Clannad’s special farewell at Cambridge Folk Festival

In what was arguably a golden age for TV theme tunes, there are two that even today fill me with nostalgia for the 1980s. They are Good Ol’ Boys (the theme from The Dukes of Hazzard) by country star Waylon Jennings and Robin (The Hooded Man), the theme song to the popular ITV series Robin of Sherwood, by Clannad.

Clannad live in Warsaw. Picture: Tim Jarvis
Clannad live in Warsaw. Picture: Tim Jarvis

Moya Brennan, singer with the much-loved Irish band which formed more than half a century ago, also recalls it fondly. “When we go to Europe particularly they love it,” she notes, “it’s a huge attraction. It was after Harry’s Game [the theme to another popular television series that Clannad recorded] we were asked if we would be interested to do this.

“And it was very unusual for a Gaelic band to do an English folk hero, but it was fantastic because we got really involved in the whole thing. We were down in Bristol on set and got to know some of the actors and they still come to see some of our shows, which is really nice. It was great fun to do.”

The family collective – Moya, her brothers Ciarán and Pól Brennan and her uncle Noel Duggan (her other uncle and bandmate Pádraig Duggan passed away in 2016) – began their In a Lifetime Farewell Tour just before the pandemic, and it also tied in with their 50th anniversary.

“We started in 2020 because it would have been 50 years since we called ourselves Clannad and entered a folk competition in Donegal, which we won,” explains Moya, who is known as the ‘first lady of Celtic music’, “so it was kind of marking that date, but we all know what happened...

“We did a couple of gigs in Ireland, then we went to the UK to start this farewell tour and come March 16, everything closed down. So we didn’t really get going with the UK tour again until last October, November, when we finished the UK tour.

“Obviously, a lot of musicians kept busy with different things [during lockdown] and we did some TV recordings with an orchestra here in Ireland, so we kept busy as such but we were anxious to go back on tour again – which looks like it’s not going to finish now till 2023.

“But it’s still keeping in the realm of 50 years of Clannad because our first album didn’t come out until 1973. At the end of May/beginning of June, we finished the European leg of the tour and it was amazing; we did something like 40 gigs in 13 countries and it was lovely to go to places like Poland and Estonia and Finland and Lithuania and Norway and Denmark...

“We did the whole thing, finishing off in Italy, and then we did a couple more gigs in Ireland because we wanted to touch on places that we’d played in Ireland down through the years because it will be the last time.”

Clannad. Picture: Anton Corbijn
Clannad. Picture: Anton Corbijn

It’s very common, of course, for artists to announce a farewell tour and then go back out on the road. Mötley Crüe even signed a ‘cessation of touring’ agreement in 2014 which prevented them from touring ever again after their final trip, before announcing another jaunt a few years later.

Moya is determined, however, that this really is it for Clannad. “We were quite adamant that this is something we decided that we were going to do,” she says, “and it’s a nice feeling. It’s a family band so try travelling with your family for over 50 years! I say to people when they say to me ‘Ah, you’ll be back out again’... no.

“It’s been amazing and because we can feel the spirit of farewell... I mean we were bumping into people all over Europe that were crying because they were seeing us for the last time. But there’s a lovely spirit on the tour because it’s a finale. It is emotional but we’re feeling very happy about doing it like this and going out on a high.”

When the band started out, it was never their intention to become famous. “Oh not at all,” says Moya, who has also enjoyed a highly successful solo career, singing with the likes of Robert Plant, Shane MacGowan, and Bono along the way (the latter once said of Moya: “I think she has one of the greatest voices the human ear has ever experienced”).

“You’re talking about a young bunch of musicians... my father was a musician, you see, so there were always musical instruments round the house and we always had the Gaelic songs from where we came from, in Donegal. That was our first language, so hence our draw to include a lot of Gaelic songs in our programme, from the beginning.

“I think we’re the only band that ever had a top-five song in Gaelic on Top of the Pops! It was quite nice to do because it wasn’t a cool thing to be doing, actually, in Ireland to be singing in Irish. So it wasn’t a mad rush to be famous and make lots of money or anything – we were just enjoying what we were doing, and I think that that’s always stayed with us.”

Despite Clannad’s outstanding success – more than 15 million records sold worldwide and a string of top awards, including Ivor Novello, BAFTA and a Grammy – Moya did experience some dark times, with Amazon saying of her 2000 autobiography The Other Side of the Rainbow: “This is the story of a dream that turned into a nightmare.”

Elaborating on this, Moya, whose deep Christian faith helped her through, says: “We were a young folk band and it was the time of rock ‘n’ roll and it was a madness, but everybody did it [drink and drugs] and it was just a terrible habit to get into.

“Even though we were a folk band, it was just all around you. You’d go on tour to Europe and people would be offering you things and you’d get into really bad habits and in those sort of circumstances, particularly when you wake up the next morning, you don’t like yourself very much.

“So it’s about learning how to like yourself and getting into what you originally wanted to get into, which was playing music rather than over-enjoying yourself. I think a lot of young people now, especially in the music business, are so focused – they’re not stupid about spending the money on silly things like drinking too much.

“I mean I never did hard drugs or anything like that, but it was available. I just say it’s not worth going down that road – ever. Socialising in the music business, or in the media business, can be difficult because so much is expected of you and people want to make things available to you, but it’s not great to be thinking that it’s trendy.”

[Read more: Suzanne Vega interview: ‘It was as if we had forgotten how to be public humans’, Interview: Award-winning Cambridge folk singer Nick Hart]

Clannad’s appearance at this month’s Cambridge Folk Festival will be their fourth, having previously taken the stage at Cherry Hinton Hall in 1978 (when the headliner was Billy Connolly), 1991 and 2012.

Between their first two appearances, Moya’s younger sister Eithne, aka Enya – who went on to become one of the best-selling acts of all time, of course, with worldwide record sales of more than 80 million – was briefly a member of the band, from 1980 to 1982.

Clannad. Picture: Anton Corbijn
Clannad. Picture: Anton Corbijn

“You would go to a festival and enjoy the whole atmosphere,” remembers Moya. “We used to go and spend at least two or three days just enjoying other acts. People just kind of arrive now and play their gig because there are so many other musicians and they need room to put people and to move people around.

“You were able to enjoy other acts and other musicians and join in sessions and everything – although Cambridge still retains a bit of that, I think. But for me, Cambridge is the epitome of folk music as well. You can hear the great oldies, people who have been going there for years – the Martin Carthys and things like that.

“I think they’ve retained a lot of the tradition of folk music; they’ve really been true to that and I like it for that.”

Clannad will be on stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival on Sunday, July 31. For more information, and to purchase tickets, go to cambridgelive.org.uk/folk-festival. For more on Clannad, visit clannad.ie.

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