"Youth is a funny thing, isn’t it?" Clannad: their final chapter

Clannad group photo from 2020 against rocks on a beach
(Image credit: Anton Corbijn)

When Prog first spoke to Clannad in 2013, the award-winning Irish band were uncertain they’d describe themselves as progressive artistes. But as they prepare to draw a line under their 50-year career, their anthology In A Lifetime – featuring two news songs produced by Trevor Horn – finds both Moya and Pól Brennan far more comfortable embracing the idea.

Sadly, this is one farewell that won’t be followed by a comeback. “I have a lung condition called pulmonary fibrosis,” Moya reveals. “I’m going to lose my breath, basically. There’s no cure for it. The only alternative is a double lung transplant, and you know how easy that is to get. I’ve had to rephrase some songs, but singing is good for my lungs. It is something that is going to progress, so that’s a very good reason to stop!”

She adds: “Would you believe I’m fine about it? I’ve dealt with it. I’m a spiritual person and that helps big time. The lungs are the last thing they know least about, so they’re still experimenting with loads of things.” Confirming that she and younger brothers Pól and Ciarán, plus uncle Noel Duggan, decided to say goodbye while they still can, Moya adds: “People are going, ‘It’s the farewell tour but I’m sure they’ll be doing more.’ I’m going, ‘Hmm, no, not really…’”

Clannad grew up in a Gaelic-speaking part of Donegal and learned English at school. Surrounded by Ireland’s musical heritage, they heard their father’s band rehearsing the hits of the day, and listened to the sounds of pirate radio from worlds they could only dream of. Their first achievement came when they won a folk music contest in 1970, and the prize was the chance to record an album. 

“We didn’t do it until 1973,” Moya recalls, laughing at their own naivety. “We did it in two days. The producer [John Cunan] brought in one of the best jazz drummers in Ireland. Our eyes were bigger than our mouths – ‘What’s going on? This is great!’” So Clannad were progressive from their very first recording session. “Everything stretched us and we were always going, ‘Let’s do more.’”

Pól remembers: “There was no professionalism, just a thing we were passionate about. When the harmonies became the focus on the second, third and fourth albums, and as [sister] Enya came and went, all those albums formed what we did.”

Despite disapproval from those who thought their experimental approach disrespected their heritage, and others who wanted them to adhere to folk circuit standards, the band continued to feel out their own path. Their big break came with Theme From Harry’s Game, the first hit single sung in Irish, when it reached No.5 in the UK Singles Chart in 1982. They’d come up with what Pól describes as a “hymn” to contrast the horror of the three-part TV drama Harry’s Game, about an IRA assassin who finds himself in a no-win scenario. 

“Appearing on Top Of The Pops singing a Gaelic song – you knew something was happening!” Moya says. “People are asking you, ‘What’s it like writing a hit song?’ We’re looking at them, ‘We didn’t write it as a hit song!’”

Pól says he’d have no problem at all if Clannad are only ever remembered for Harry’s Game. “It made the change from doing okay to being a million-selling band,” he argues. “We were on our way to Germany to do this folk tour, and we stopped in London to watch Harry’s Game at a full theatre of press. After the first hour, people started getting up and going out, then back in for the next one. I remember being disappointed that people were getting up during the song; and then the second hour, less people getting up; and the third hour, the fucking theatre went to dark and not one person moved. Holy shit!

“We went off to Germany, and within 10 days we were flying back to do Top Of The Pops – it was just mind-boggling! It was a lot smaller than I thought: the show itself just had this huge voice, but what an underwhelming production. That was the moment. Suddenly there was a bidding war for Clannad – that was unreal!”

The single helped fuel the success of 1983 album Magical Ring, but an even bigger TV tie-in was to come when Clannad created the BAFTA-winning music for Robin Of Sherwood, and later adapted it into the album Legend. “After doing the album, we started playing venues we’d only dreamed of, and that was the turning point,” Moya says. “Winning the BAFTA and being acknowledged, that was for real. We were selling a lot of albums, and we weren’t playing arenas but for us it was arenas. ‘Wow, it’s really happening!’”

It wasn’t all plain-sailing, though, and Pól can’t forget the battle to keep their identity that many prog artists struggle through. “It took the label a long time to understand how folky and how Gaelic we were and what we weren’t going to give up,” he says.
“We did embrace the pop thing with [1987 single] Closer To Your Heart and things like that. There were times with Ciarán when I’d have loved to have gone more dark. The enormity of getting a major deal, for us, was worth it, but it may have affected how, instead of sitting down and having a clear idea of a direction, we hovered between things like Closer To Your Heart and [their 1983 single] Newgrange. One is a pop song, and the other is a very stylised, amazing piece.”

He describes the experience as being “caught in a whirlwind” but remains proud that their individuality endured. “We still chose traditional songs but there was more emphasis on writing. I thought in Magical Ring there was an innocence to some of the writing which was great, then doing the music for Robin Of Sherwood was a great one for us because it was stylised for TV. At that point we really did experiment a lot more.” 

He accepts the criticism that too little music was overused in the show, but blames tight timescales and budget, pointing out, “No one was able to go in and strip some of the sounds, use certain aspects. We were giving them stereo mixes and they were just whacking it in. I wouldn’t knock it because at the time it was iconic, and the producers took a huge risk – which paid off.”

By the late 80s Clannad were a big deal, and, like many bands before them, found themselves with lifestyle challenges. Moya, who endured drink and drug issues, recalls, “It was everywhere and there was no warning about it. On tour someone would have a party for you and for them it was one night, but for you it was every night. It was a downhill slip.” 

She remembers one studio session in the late 80s: “I was doing my last vocals and I daren’t go near the cocaine because it stuffs your nose. So I said as a joke to the guy looking after me, ‘Oh, as soon as I’m finished I’ll get a little bit of that,’ and as soon as I’d finished he handed me some! Now, I couldn’t afford it, and I was embarrassed to say that to him. Lucky there were so many interested in taking it off me!

“I had a miscarriage and I just looked at my life: Am I serious about music, am I serious about singing, do I want to look after my voice? Now, I never experimented with serious drugs, thank goodness. I was scared of them, being honest with you. When I go on tour I’m too old and too tired! You see even young artists today take care and look after themselves. It’s good to see.”

Nothing represented Clannad’s continued experimental approach like 1988’s Sirius, surely the most prog album they ever made – and the only time ever that Journey singer Steve Perry was persuaded to sing backing vocals as a guest artist. The record was widely panned, but the value of bringing in new listeners in undeniable. “If you don’t try something you’ll never know,” Moya observes. “It brought us to a different path, another world, and that’s what music is about. And there’s some songs on it that I love. The producer was asking me to sing out more than I normally do, and it just didn’t suit my voice; but there again, that’s all part of the experience.” 

Pól, who harboured hopes of revisiting some of the Sirius material, accepts it’s unlikely to happen now.

In A Lifetime involved selecting more than 70 tracks, an experience that Pól enjoyed. “After I’ve done an album I don’t want to hear it, I want to move on,” he says. “Reviewing all our songs and choosing the ones that explain how the band developed was a really good exercise.” 

He presents another prog credential: “The background to our musicality was so diverse – the classical side, the real traditional place we were born, with heritage being a massive pull, all of those things played in.”

Trevor Horn was at the top of their list to produce their last two songs, A Celtic Dream and Who Knows (Where The Time Goes). Pól admits they were very aware that he and Ciarán had to offer some kind of conclusion with the new tracks. Ciarán led A Celtic Dream – his telling of the band’s own story – while Pól was inspired by Sandy Denny’s Who Knows… for his own version of events. “I used the Sandy Denny song as the inspiration for the melody,” he confirms, “but I couldn’t get away from it: it said it exactly. You blink and 10 years have gone. You blink and 25 years have gone. You blink and you have two families; you blink and your dad’s gone over to the other side. That’s what life is.”

Pól originally left the band in 1990 and established himself as a world music artist via Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, but he returned in 2011 in order to co-write once again with his brother. “The exciting thing for me was getting back in the room with Ciarán. Going in with Trevor on these two songs, and going back with Ciarán, was the real payback for me.” 

Early discussions with Horn cleared any doubts of a Sirius-style misstep. “That was never going to happen,” Pól says. “Trevor was in a different place approaching this with us.” 

“Working with Trevor brings you into another realm,” Moya enthuses. “I’d worked with him before on a Shane McGowan track [You’re The One] for the movie Circle Of Friends. I spent a lot of time with him for the simple reason that he didn’t want to go into the studio without me, because he couldn’t understand Shane! Trevor has a great musical brain. He hears everything. It’s not like he comes in with huge ideas – it’s the moments he creates. It was great to spend time with him and have the craic – not the ‘crack’ craic, the Irish craic!” 

She adds: “We finished before we needed to, because we were all on the same feel. And the moments he put his two-bob’s worth in were beautiful. It’s lovely to work with someone who respects what you do and adds to that.”

Pól and Horn both agreed that “there had to be huge Clannad influence in the middle of anything; it doesn’t matter where the production goes. Says Pól, “Ciarán and I work well as a team, but it’s great to have somebody to bounce off who’s done as much as Trevor. From the minute we touched down in the studio we were just playing. We started talking about the songs, we started with three guitars, and it went, ‘Go on, you try the bass,’ and we just played. It was a magical experience and a great one for us to finish on, really.”

And so, after 50 years, it’ll be over in another two – although Pól hints at a couple of extra projects they hope to do before the end, one being his idea of performing Robin Of Sherwood music to filmed scenes, screened at Lincoln Castle.

Clannad’s 16th and final album was 2013’s Nádúr, released three years before the death of co-founder Padraig Duggan (his passing being another reason for the band to wind down). By that time their music had been heard in productions as far apart as Patriot Games, The Last Of The Mohicans and even Baywatch, and Moya had guested with big names including Alan Parsons, French folk-rock mastermind Alan Simon, Robert Plant and others.

“You look at Clannad and you think, ‘Oh, a folk band’,” Moya reflects. “But it’s really funny how different types of people like us… Joe Elliott from Def Leppard came up and said, ‘I love the band!’ There I was, a couple of years ago, invited to go and see the Red Hot Chili Peppers, because Josh [Klinghoffer, ex-guitarist] is a big Clannad fan. You’re like, ‘Why?’ And he goes, ‘Because Jimmy Page is a big fan.’ These are people I totally admire as a Donegal girl. Being asked to sing on Robert Plant’s solo album, I’m going, ‘Are you sure it’s me you want?’ We’ve kind of crossed the border from being a nice folk band to something that does reach more people.”

She still can’t get over their early contest win. “Winning BAFTAs, Ivor Novello awards, Grammy awards – they’re great, but that raw feeling of 1970 will stay with me: we’re doing something right! We were different then, and that’s why we won it. I know there will be moments on this tour that will be special, knowing it’s going to be the last time. I cherish a lot of special moments – when you do the Royal Albert Hall and things. A family band from Donegal ending up at the Royal Albert Hall! ‘Wow, I’ve made it!’”

Asked to choose one single song to represent Clannad, she doesn’t hesitate to pick out In A Lifetime, the 1986 single featuring U2 frontman Bono, arguably a prog-pop masterpiece. 

“It was another experiment, we didn’t know if something like that would work,” she says. “You’re talking about one the world’s great rock singers… and me! It’s an unusual song as well. We were in studio in Dublin and we had the backing track, then there was enormous thunder and lightning that night… And everyone came in with lyrics the next day – so even that was magical! I think it’s one of his best vocals ever. Every time I hear it myself, I go, ‘That’s special.’”

While Moya, the eldest of nine, professes to be comfortable with her medical situation, Pól admits he’s less so. “Her voice has brought so much to so many people. One way or the other it’s going to be a very emotional two years! Please God, and with all things, she’ll be with us for a good time yet. 

He confirms the tour will take place in sections to allow her to rest. “We’re trying to make it as enjoyable and as easy on her as we go. Singing is encouraged, but everything else around touring is hard work.” 

Pól’s own selection of a single track to represent Clannad’s catalogue takes him a while before he names The Last Rose Of Summer from 1980’s Crann Úll. “It was really at the cusp of the big harmonies that were about to come down the line,” he says. “The chorus does it for me every time. It was a precursor to Harry’s Game.”

Pól’s summation of Clannad’s achievements reflects his words on Who Knows… “We were able to take what we dreamed of and manifest it. Youth is a funny thing, isn’t it? You don’t think time is going to matter. We just lived for music; then, that point when it became clear that we were going to go professional… and to do what we’ve done. It’s just fantastic to have been in the middle of it.” 

This article originally appeared in Prog 108.

Freelance Online News Contributor

Not only is one-time online news editor Martin an established rock journalist and drummer, but he’s also penned several books on music history, including SAHB Story: The Tale of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, a band he once managed, and the best-selling Apollo Memories about the history of the legendary and infamous Glasgow Apollo. Martin has written for Classic Rock and Prog and at one time had written more articles for Louder than anyone else (we think he's second now). He’s appeared on TV and when not delving intro all things music, can be found travelling along the UK’s vast canal network.