Clannad’s Pól Brennan tells David Hennessy about their 50 years in the business, how they became the sound of freedom when the Berlin Wall came down, how the Irish were painted with the ‘one brush’ in London when IRA bombs were going off and why this is goodbye from the band.
“One of Ireland’s best known traditional groups, Clannad are famous all over the world and not just in the folk music scene as they achieved mainstream success in the 1980s with the themes to TV shows Harry’s Game and Robin of Sherwood.
Made up of siblings Ciarán, Pól and Moya Brennan and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan, the band quickly became known for their haunting, ethereal music that combined traditional folk songs with new arrangements and their own unique close harmonies.
It is now 50 years since the band were formed in 1970 but this is the year that Clannad bid farewell to the UK as this will be their final tour.
“We’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Pól Brennan tells The Irish World. “We try to embrace it, I was away from the early 90s until 2013. I came back for that world tour we did then. Even then we were having discussions around whether that tour might have been our final one.
“We’ve had an incredible career. All the interviews we’re doing and the stuff that’s been written, we’ve been blessed with an incredible career for this band. We’ve done very well from it and the idea is to go out on a high.”
The Clannad Anthology In A Lifetime, which features two tracks produced by the legendary Trevor Horn, is also set for release on 13 March.
“To have BMG release this anthology, we chose all the different songs and it’s very fitting and a beautiful piece of work.”
Band member Pádraig passed away in 2016, just weeks after Ciarán, Pól and Moya lost their father in what must have been a hard time for the family.
“After my uncle Padraig passed, we did nothing. We literally had no shows or anything since 2015 and we did this unplugged thing in Germany last February just the four of us and that kind of made us choose because we enjoyed it. We said, ‘Do you know what? Let’s call it in’. The story of the last tour, the narrative has brought in a lot of interesting and very good support on this.”
Mainstream success came to the band in 1982 when the band were asked to record the theme for Harry’s Game, a TV show that centred around sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The song got to number five in the UK charts and won the band an Ivor Novello songwriting award and propelled Clannad’s album, The Magical Ring, into the UK top 40.
“There are many but I think the big highlight is Harry’s Game. We were in the eye of the storm that time without knowing the implications of what we’d just done. For a group from Donegal to write a song in Gaelic that would bring you an international record deal and worldwide acclaim, you couldn’t write it. That changed our lives considerably. We were a professional band before then but it just had a whole different implication for us worldwide and it had huge reach. That would be a big one.
“Once Harry’s Game was written, the whole thing changed. Our lives changed completely.”
The song made Clannad the first band to sing in Irish on Top of the Pops in 1982 which was significant as the IRA bombing campaign had made Irish people very unwelcome in the UK: “Remember the north of Ireland was very, very dodgy, there was a lot of stuff going on up there. It wasn’t the place that it is now, it was very volatile.
“We would spend a lot of time in London but I remember just being there around bombings and stuff like that and no matter where you were, what hotel or whatever, people would shun you because you’re painted with the one brush. When there were bombings going off, it was pretty tough now. It has to be said.
“We’re the closest neighbour to the UK and we have a lot of history.”
Clannad are also remembered for their work on the soundtrack for TV drama Robin of Sherwood which won the band a BAFTA.
“On the last tour, I came back and Pádraig was still there at that point and I remember going out to the Baltics and going up to Latvia. I hadn’t been up there before I left in the 90s and it was very humbling to get to places like that to find out we had affected them.
“What I found over there which was astounding was that the Eastern Bloc, certainly Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, all of those places had very limited television programmes from around the world.
“A guy and his family talked to me after a show. He explained that their TV consisted of Russian cartoons, Russian propaganda and then somehow across from the other side, from Finland or somewhere, Robin of Sherwood beamed across so they had this huge affiliation with the music of Robin of Sherwood.
“Then the wall came down so it was almost their freedom music. These people were saying it was the music that helped them across that whole period. I was kind of standing there astounded at the story but that’s what music has because the actual project Robin of Sherwood was very magical. It was fluidic and it had a lovely mysticism to it and I think that’s what people found in it so it’s amazing to have had that effect on anyone, on any place.
“It’s all about music at the end of the day and how that affects people and why it had that whole possibility.”
Pól left the band in 1990 to rejoin in 2011. What was it like leaving the band that just happened to also be his family? Was it all okay with them? “To be honest, it wasn’t.
“Ciarán and me were in the middle of all the writing and stuff like that and we didn’t always agree but that would be the way in any band.
“But they didn’t believe me. At the end of ‘89, I was telling the manager Dave Kavanagh and Moya and Ciarán especially. We went out on this wild, amazing, successful world tour and we came back to the Three Arena in Dublin and that was the last show.
“I threw all my plectrums and finger picks and whistles and everything into the audience. No one knew it. I had only told Ciarán, Moya and Dave but two or three months later they didn’t believe I was leaving.
“I was starting a family. I had no intention of coming back. It took them a good six to eight months to realise that. There was a bit of mud-slinging going on: ‘Come on, what are you talking about? Come back’.
“It’s interesting. In the anthology, Noel does mention that he thought my leaving may have caused the break-up of the band. I didn’t see it. I thought it was going to carry on. Ciarán mentions that it was myself and himself that did all the writing and suddenly he was thrust into the full responsibility so there were implications but we worked them out.”
Pól was not the only family member to leave the group as younger sister Enya was recruited to the band in the late 1970s before going on to have international solo success.
“She came in out of school and we were moving across into more keyboards. We had used keyboards on records before but obviously it was all hands on deck onstage. We didn’t have anyone. We were still very, very much a folk band so there was the discussion around Enya, who was 18 at that stage and a very accomplished pianist and obviously a voice as well, with her manager then who was Nicky Ryan.
“She came into the band but she left after two albums. We parted ways with Nicky and she didn’t feel she wanted to stay part of the family thing at that stage. They had got close and they had ideas and of course history has shown that to be an amazing project that they have done.”
There was also mud-slinging on that occasion but not between family members, more with the band’s former manager who would take Enya to solo success: “There was a bit of mud-slinging with Nicky Ryan because he was the manager, not with Enya. She was an innocent in this. We were fully professional and Nicky was part of the woodwork. He was part of Clannad and the collection and stuff like that. When we sacked him, there was a bit of animosity there but that’s the end of that. We felt that he wasn’t doing what he needed to do. We had to make that decision.”
The band will be touring for the rest of the year and next, getting all over the globe before they say goodbye to the road.
“The idea then is to do festivals next summer and finish off with a couple of iconic shows, maybe something in the Royal Albert Hall. We’re just toying with something to hang it all up. We may do something in Donegal, we don’t know. And that will be it. We’ll not be back touring ever again.
“After the end of ‘21, there may be the odd one or two things that come up but to all intents and purposes we will hang up our spurs.”
In their 50 years in the business, the band have seen a lot of changes: “It went from vinyl to cassettes to VHS to CDs and now back to vinyl. That’s changed for everybody, now it’s all streaming and not that many physical units that you sell. It is still the same. Music is still music. It’s changed in the way it’s all media and all online between Facebook and instagram and YouTube and everything like that, but it’s still about reaching out and playing music to whoever you’re playing it to whether you’re playing it in Donegal or Tokyo or Warsaw. It’s still that same thing. If you stay attached to that one and you’re able to do it which we are. We are blessed because we’re still able to command an audience in all these different places. We’ve had a very good innings.”
Pól Brennan was getting involved in the environmental cause as far back as when he left Clannad in 1990. What does he make of the new focus on sustainability and the environment? “It’s late. I’ve always been involved and to be honest, we can’t do enough to highlight the dangers that are there right now. I think it’s much more talked about but there’s still very little going on at the very top and that’s where it needs to be. We do so much more recycling now than we would have years ago but it just feels like we’re dragging our feet all the time.
“Anybody who’s got a voice and can put across the need to be completely aware we’re killing grandmother earth for our children and it’s a sadness because we’re passing through it but we’re not leaving something very healthy for our children and our children’s children. They’re going to have to lift it all up afterwards. They’ll be left with it.”
Clannad tour the UK on their Farewell Tour from Wednesday 4 March. Clannad.ie.
The Clannad anthology In A Lifetime, that includes the single Celtic Dream and one more track produced by the legendary Trevor Horn, is out on 13 March.