Irish folk group
The history of popular music is rife with stories of grizzled, veteran acts with long, rich histories that are suddenly “discovered” through the most unlikely happenstance, and the Irish group Clannad is a perfect example. Formed in the late 1960s in the remote county of Donegal in Ireland, Clannad had been creating a unique blend of traditional folk songs, haunting vocals, and electronic innovations for two decades when in 1993, the inclusion of a song in a Volkswagen commercial made the group near-celebrities in America. The German car company found their phone lines buzzing with people interested not in buying a car, but in their commercial’s enchanting music. Consequently, Clannad had an album enter Billboard’s charts for the first time, and were welcomed by a new and unexpected share of fans. Despite their new found popularity, the band continued unshakably on their quest into the mystical past of their country’s heritage.
Clannad’s story is very much a family saga, as its members are all blood relatives from the Northwest of Ireland who have built a deep working relationship over many years. In the late 1960s, the Brennan brothers, Pol and Ciaran, along with sister Maire focused a shared love of their Celtic musical heritage into the creation of a band. Although the siblings all boasted versatile musical abilities, the central lineup consisted of Pol playing tin whistle and flute, Ciaran on double bass and vocals, and Maire offering both harp playing and her distinct, other-worldly voice as the centerpiece. Joined by twin uncles Noel and Paidraig Duggan on guitar, mandolin, and other instruments, the Brennans christened themselves “an clann as Dobhar,” meaning “family from Dore” in Gaelic.
Although the family quickly adopted the less cumbersome title Clannad, they otherwise showed no desire to smolder their strong Celtic pride. While the Brennan’s parents were both musicians who specialized in more popular styles—father Leo had played a boisterous, accordion-peppered brand of big band jazz in a local tavern—their grandparents had been a reserve of timeworn tales and legends spun in original Gaelic. “The traditional songs and legends we used to learn when we were growing up had a lot of images of places and people’s names,” Maire stated on The South Bank Show, a program on the Bravo! network. “Like, there’s an area in Donegal which is utterly gorgeous with a couple of legends attached to it as well. We tried to take in the various legends.”
The history and landscape of Ireland permeated the world of Clannad’s lyrics from the band’s onset, but the family’s penchant for tradition went further. Rather than adopting the styles of English and American pop music that had wafted from overseas, the Brennans and Duggans amassed a treasury of local songs from which they crafted a new sound. However, the fact that these songs remained in Gaelic did not win audiences over. “When we first started to actually play the traditional songs in our contemporary style, we weren’t very encouraged by what we were doing, because people thought it was a bit mad that we were singing Gaelic songs,” Maire told Lahri Bond in Dirty Linen magazine. “People used to say to us, ’Listen, you’ll not get anywhere doing that’.” As Clannad began playing live in nearby taverns, some locals were put off by the backwards, rural connotations of Gaelic, while purists of the culture found the group’s addition of contemporary harmonies distasteful.
Having built up a repertoire of over 500 songs, Clannad made the unprecedented decision to arrange these traditional tunes for a full band, and began making forays into nearby villages for live performances. Despite initial friction, the Brennans and Duggans began to charm audiences, and soon found their first big break. To Clannad’s surprise, they were awarded the first prize in the Letterkenny Folk Festival and as a result offered a chance to record with the Irish branch of the Phillips label. However, Clannad’s uncompromising use of Gaelic was met by record executives with raised eyebrows. “That was in 1970 and we were still in college and school, but we didn’t record the [first] record until 1973,
Members include Ciaran Brennan (born Ciaran—pronounced “Keeron” —O Braonain in Gweedore, Ireland, also the birthplace of other members), vocals, double bass, electric bass, guitar, synthesizer, piano); Enya Brennan (1980-82, born Eithne Ni Bhraonain, May 17, 1961), keyboards, vocals; Maire Brennan (born Maire—pronounced “Moya”—Ni Bhraonain, August 4, 1952), vocals, harp, keyboard; Pol Brennan (left band, 1989), tin whistles, flute); Noel Duggan, guitar (born Noel O Dugain); Paidraig Duggan (born Padarig pronounced—“Poric”—O Dugain), mandolin, harmonica, acoustic guitar.
Band formed in hometown of Gweedore, Ireland in the late 1960s by Duggan and Brennan families; won first prize at Letterkenny Folk Festival, leading to a deal with Phillips records, 1970; released self-titled debut album, 1973; toured Europe for the first time, 1976; released album Dulaman, 1976; embarked on first American tour, 1979; released first album with synthesizers, Fuaim, 1981; achieved European success with release of “Theme From Harry’s Game,” 1982; recorded hit single “In A Lifetime” with U2 vocalist Bono, 1986; achieved international fame with a second release of “Harry’s Game,” 1992; Maire released first solo record, 1992; scored heavily on world music charts with album Lore, 1996.
Awards: Ivor Novello Award for “Theme From Harry’s Game,” 1982; British Academy of Film And Television Arts Award for best soundtrack, Legend, 1984; Billboard World Music Song of the Year Award for “Theme From Harry’s Game,” 1992; Irish Recorded Music Award, lifetime achievement, 1998.
Addresses: Agent —Upfront Management Ltd., 14/15 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland.
Maire told Bond, “because the record company didn’t like the idea of us doing half the album in Gaelic. It wasn’t heard of to sing Gaelic unless you were really heavy into folk, ethnic, and traditional music, and then for only a really small minority of people.”
Clannad, the 1973 debut, was representative of the kind of folk-based arrangements the group would master throughout the rest of the decade. While tracks like the drinking song “Nil se’n la” (“It’s Not Yesterday”) demonstrated Clannad’s willingness to season Celtic standards with alien jazz influences, it was the more rustic instruments like mandolin and bongos which dominated the overall flavor of the album. Their third album, Dulaman, released in 1976, was perhaps the most fully realized of Clannad’s works to date, highlighted by the sprawling title track, a chronicle of two merchants of dulaman, or seaweed.
Despite the growing fan support these albums garnered, Clannad still considered themselves to be mere novices, and were uncertain of their band’s future. When journalist Fachtna O’Kelly and recording engineer Nicky Ryan heard the band in the mid-1970s, though, they gave Clannad the needed push towards a professional career when they agreed to manage them. “After working with [Irish group] Planxty as an engineer in 1975, I was at loose ends,” Ryan reflected to Peter Herbst in Rolling Stone. “Fachtna said, ’Why don’t you give [Clannad] a listen,’ and when I heard the double bass and those harmonies, I was just knocked out. But it was a big step for them, a family, to turn professional, leaving no children at home.” After a standing ovation at a 1976 Berlin performance, that “big step” became significantly smaller.
By 1979, Clannad had drawn a strong following among folk devotees, recorded the impressive Clannad in Concert album, and crossed the Atlantic for their first American tour. More importantly, they had established a sound as unique as it was universally appealing, for in spite of the obvious language barrier, Maire’s contralto vocals touched audiences at a more purely musical level. However, rather than becoming complacent merchants of folky charm, the Brennans and Duggans began to dabble in new kinds of arrangements, but did so by creating a truly new synthesis of musical sources rather than simply slapping Irish tunes into a modern setting.
With the release of the album Fuiam in 1981, Clannad showed the world their new face, and the reception was as positive as ever. Joined by younger sister Enya Brennan on keyboards and vocals, the group took on an electronic sound for the firsttime, but this only added to the rich, full sound they had already established. Enya’s voice was a perfect counter point to older sister Maire’s, and she took the lead duties on two songs, “An t UII” and “Buaireadh An Phosta.” However, Enya”s stay was short-lived as, after Fuaim, she launched a solo career that would make her perhaps the biggest celebrity of her time in new age music. Ironically enough, much of Enya’s initial solo exposure was also due advertising, as her song “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” was employed in several advertisements.
If Clannad’s music had always carried with it imagery of lush landscapes, then the addition of synthesizers bolstered that quality, and consequently the group was sought after to lend their atmospheric touch to film and television soundtracks. Their first, a theme for a television thriller titled Harry’s Game was recorded in 1982 and would beget their most popular song ever. “When we wrote ‘Harry’s Game’ we knew it was nice and it was special,” Maire stated in a 1995 Public Broadcasting System interview. “It was very special to us. But honestly, I never thought it would accomplish what it has in any form. It was just other people that latched onto it…. We thought we’d just carried on with the next phase of our life as far as writing songs.” This was the first of several releases given to Harry’s Game, and this time around it broke the British Top ten sales chart, and won the Ivor Novello Award, the British equivalent to the Grammy Awards.
The success of “Harry’s Game” made Clannad minor stars in Europe, and throughout the 1980s the Brennans and Duggans were seen as something like godparents by a new generation of acts who were proud of their Irish heritage. The impetus of their surprise hit single pushed their 1983 album Magical Ring’s sales to gold status, and Legend, a selection of music the band composed for the 26-part Robin of Sherwood television series, yielded a second gold record and a British Academy Award in 1984. Meanwhile, the Irish pop group U2 adopted “Harry’s Game” as their theme music in live performances, and their outspoken singer Bono joined Maire for “In A Lifetime,” a duet featured on the 1986 Clannad album Macalla. Despite all this, the group retained their sensibility, as well as their sense of humor. As Maire told Bond, “People were saying to us, ‘What’s it like to write a hit song?,’ and we’d say, ‘Oh, come on, if you were trying to write a hit song would you have written it in Gaelic?’”
The band’s growing marketability led American rock producers Greg Ladany and Russ Kunkel to invite Clannad to Los Angeles to produce their next album. Collaborating with middle of the road singers like pianist Bruce Hornsby, J.D. Souther, and ex-Journey leader Steve Perry, the band created Sirius in 1988 with disappointing results. As Bond wrote, “[t]he resulting sound was typical of what American producers do with ethnic music… bland, over produced, and formulated for easy radio play.” Although Clannad themselves were aware of the album’s weakness, they did defend a few of its cuts, but did not continue to move in Sirius’s direction.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Clannad found themselves in a flurry of activity, in spite of the amicable departure of Pol in 1989. In addition to releasing two retrospective compilations in 1990, Past-present and The Collection, the group had scored an animated feature called The Angel and the Soldier Boy. While still intact as a group, the members of Clannad also offered several solo albums, Pol’s somewhat disappointing Trisan, released in 1993, and Maire’s selftitled debut, released in 1992 with the help of sisters Deirdre, Olive, and Bridin. In 1992, the band proved that they had not been spreading themselves too thinnly with the release of Anam, their best album in years.
In addition to ten new compositions, the American version of Anam featured “In A Lifetime” and “Harry’s Game,” perhaps as selling points for listeners unfamiliar with Clannad’s previous work. However, the inclusion of “Harry’s Game” in a commercial for the Volkswagen Passat as well as in the soundtrack of the Harrison Ford film Patriot Games created an unexpected storm of demand for the song, and it became an even bigger hit the second time around. From the strength of one song, Anam became the first gold record for the band in America, and created new Clannad fans along the way. While Clannad was again mildly shocked by their mass success, they found Volkswagen’s use of their music tasteful, and warmly welcomed overseas admirers. “We were really stunned by the public response,” Maire told Bond. “It’s funny, I was in Tower Records and they said, ‘You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who come in looking for the Volkswagen Song. It kind of worked out really well, being in the charts, for the first time. We thought America had passed us by.”
Soon after their second big breakthrough, Clannad returned to the studio to create Banba, a rich work that was released to mark the twentieth anniversary of the group in 1993. Blending the band’s earliest styles with its most recent innovations, Banba boasted a large selection of musicians in addition to the four piece core. Also that year, Clannad contributed yet another popular track to a film soundtrack, Last of the Mohicans. Showing their dedication to authenticity, the group did extensive research to write the song in the near-extinct language of the Mohican tribe.
For over two decades the Brennans and Duggans retained the same commitment to music that guided them from the start, notwithstanding any commercial success they may have found. “We’re successful because we stuck from day one to the same thing… we like doing things from our locality,” Ciaran posited to Herbst. “And if people get off on it, we’re just amazed.”
Clannad, Phillips, 1973; re-released on Boot, 1997.
Clannad Two, Shanachie, 1975.
Dulamain, Shanachie, 1976.
Crann UII, Tara, 1978.
Clannad In Concert, Shanachie, 1979.
Fuaim, Atlantic (repackage), 1981.
Magical Ring, Tara, 1982.
Legend, RCA, 1984.
Macai la, RCA, 1986.
Sirius, RCA, 1988.
Pastpresent, RCA, 1990.
Anam, Atlantic, 1992.
Banba, Atlantic, 1993.
Lore, Atlantic, 1996.
Rogha: The Best of Clannad, Atlantic, 1997.
Dirty Linen, August/September 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, March 17, 1995.
Newsweek, April 5, 1993.
Rolling Stone, November 29, 1979.
Vogue, May 1988.
Formed: 1970, County Donegal, Ireland
Members: Ciaran Brennan, vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards (born Gweedore, Ireland, 1951); Márie Brennan, vocals, harp (born Gweedore, Ireland, 4 August 1952); Noel Duggan, guitar, vocals (born Gweedore, Donegal, Ireland, February 1949); Padráig Duggan, vocals, mandolin, harmonica (born Gweedore, Donegal, Ireland, February 1949). Former members: Enya Brennan, vocals (born Gweedore, Donegal, Ireland, 17 May 1961); Paul Brennan, guitar, percussion, flute, vocals (born Gweedore, Donegal, Ireland, 1957).
Genre: World, Celtic
Best-selling album since 1990: Anam (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Harry's Game," "In a Lifetime," "Lore"
Clannad has achieved gradual success and spawned modestly selling albums throughout the world, despite the band's rich and long history as a beloved act in Ireland. Clannad is one of the few Irish bands to bridge the gap between the traditional sounds of their homeland and the more accessible pop music, without compromising their roots or their musical integrity. Early fans were exposed to their ethereal vocals, stellar musicianship, and love of traditional Irish folksongs and ballads through the use of one of their songs in a Volkswagen commercial in 1993, more than twenty years after they formed. Clannad, however, is probably best known for their famous soprano Enya Brennan, who left the band in 1982 to pursue a highly successful solo career.
Clannad formed when siblings Paul, Ciaran, and Márie Brennan started performing with their twin uncles, Padráig and Noel Duggan, at a family member's pub. The Brennan siblings began with Paul on tin whistle and flute, Ciaran on double bass and vocals, and Márie singing with her hauntingly lovely soprano, a voice that, coupled with her sister Enya's, seemed to typify the mystical, beautiful, and otherworldly qualities of Ireland itself. Uncles Padráig and Noel joined on mandolin, guitar, and other assorted instruments, and the group named themselves Clannad, which is derived from the phrase "an clann as Dobhar," which roughly translates as "family from Dore" in Irish. Initially they did not stray from the traditional music they loved and which defined them. This staunch commitment to their homeland meant that they sang in Irish, a testament to their upbringing in the west of Ireland where Irish is more commonly heard than English.
Clannad began their career performing in folk festivals through Ireland, and after a few years of gathering a loyal following released an album. Their self-titled debut, with songs in Irish, was released in 1973, but they did not achieve wider success in Europe until they toured in 1975. Although they began to play traditional songs with a slightly more contemporary style by adding harmonies and a full band, they were torn between pleasing Irish music purists and winning over the masses.
However, Clannad continued with their signature folk-based arrangements and beautiful vocals. The addition of Enya to the band in 1979 marked a turning point. During Enya's tenure, Clannad released a live album and toured the United States for the first time. With Enya on keyboards and vocals the band's sound, perhaps influenced by the popular trend at the time, became more electronic and less based on guitar and mandolin.
Clannad recorded albums and remained popular even as Enya's success began to overshadow them. Clannad became sought after for television and film scores. They were commissioned to write the theme song for a television show Harry's Game (1982). Ironically, it is their most popular song ever; it broke through to the United Kingdom Top 10 sales chart, and won the Ivor Novello Award, Britain's equivalent to the Grammy Award.
By the start of the 1990s, the band had enough material for a retrospective album, and they began recording for the Atlantic label. They released Pastpresent (1990), their last album for RCA. Around this time individual members began to release solo albums, including Márie Brennan, who was now the primary vocalist. In 1992 they released their best album in years, Anam, and included for the United States audience the tracks "In a Lifetime " (a duet with U2's lead singer Bono) and "Harry's Game." Inclusion of the latter proved to be a wise move, because it was picked up for use in a Volkswagen Passat commercial and as a song on the Patriot Games (1992) soundtrack.
Anam became Clannad's first gold record in America and their best-selling work. Clannad also contributed to the soundtrack to The Last of the Mohicans. In 1993 Clannad released Banba, which marked their twentieth anniversary together. Banba fared well with critics and audiences, a testament to the band's rich musical history and spare, careful inclusion of more contemporary sounds.
For three decades, Clannad has stuck together as a family of versatile musicians who are proud of their heritage and committed to remaining true to their roots, whether or not their music is commercially successful.
Clannad (Phillips, 1973); Clannad 2 (Shanachie, 1975); Clannad in Concert (Shanachie, 1979); Fuaim (Atlantic, 1981); The Legend (RCA, 1984); Pastpresent (RCA, 1990): Anam (Atlantic, 1992); Banba (Atlantic, 1993); Lore (Atlantic, 1996); Rogha: The Best of Clannad (Atlantic, 1997). Soundtracks: Patriot Games: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (RCA,1992); The Last of the Mohicans: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Morgan Creek, 1992).