by / November 2nd, 2016 /

Interview: Donal Lunny..”There were a lot of songs that hadn’t been sung for centuries”

Even with the hyperbolic machine in overdrive it would be impossible to overstate the importance of Planxty to Irish traditional music. They spearheaded a renaissance in the ’70s that reignited the public’s interest in traditional music that resonates to this day. The four piece consisting of Andy Irvine, Liam O’Flynn, Donal Lunny (far right) and Christy Moore, they were originally assembled by Christy during the recording of his Prosperous album in 1971. They went on to form Planxty proper in ’72 and they evolved into so much more.

Christy himself needs no introduction bar to say this was all prior to his shovel going to work and the ’70s had Moore cast in a more traditional folkie-troubadour mode. Andy Irvine, fresh from Eastern European travels brought back songs, sounds and instrumentation foreign and unfamiliar to Irish ears. The inclusion of Liam O’Flynn on pipes, schooled under no lesser piping legends than Leo Rowsome and Seamus Ennis, ensured that the band had a claim on a lineage that went all the way back into the mists of the Celtic dawn. 

Central to it all and to many of the bands that came in Planxty’s wake, such as The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts was Donal Lunny, whose unassuming presence and musical genius remains at the core of Irish music today.

A recent trawl through the RTE archives of unreleased material has resulted in the release of a new CD and DVD package; Between The Jigs and Reels: A Retrospective. State took this opportunity to catch up with the Trad Father himself as we found Mr Lunny in a reflective humour.

So Donal, what prompted the retrospective now?

Well, there’s no straight answer to that one, why any time? One on hand, the fact is that the band hasn’t been active for some time.

And the other reason is that Universal Records precipitated this. Their enthusiasm spread to the band and we got involved in the process, that’s what brought it about. We weren’t jumping up and down to do this ourselves but once it got out there as a notion it started to make sense and we got involved.

So there’s no specific reason, as in it’s an anniversary year? Would you say it’s the result of the renewed interest in Irish music on the back of the success of bands like The Gloaming?

This is true, The Gloaming have definitely opened up a new audience to traditional music. People are finding their way back to traditional Irish music which had gone through the doldrums for a while (in popularity terms). There’s always been the core audience that has always been there and that will most likely always be there.

Really, it’s only when the ripples get wider and it reaches further that it acquires a different significance. And in that respect The Gloaming have pushed out the borders a lot.

What was it like for yourself and the band listening and looking back over the old archive footage?

Ah, we’re just sentimental old fools, very nostalgic. But good fun as well and most of it was bearable.

There was a lot more hair on display back then as well..

What? Yeah we did look like hippies alright…

One thing we always hear or read about when people are discussing Planxty’s inception is how they caused a bit of tut-tutting amongst the Ceoltas Ceoltoiri faithful on the trad scene. The addition of bouzoukis and mandolins as accompaniment didn’t go down well. Do you care to elaborate on that?

Ah sure, well at the heart of traditional music there is a very conservative core, which is one of the reasons why it survives so well. By definition trad music is an archive that’s kept alive. But it’s also fed by the living tradition which is realty crucial to it. But at the time the innovations happen they’re seen as a kind of invasion. This is an ongoing process of change that has always been there.

There was a time when there was the first concertina in Irish music, you know, and people would be going “you know, it doesn’t sound the same on the concertina” and would be resisting it. The one instrument that goes all the way back is the pipes. And the fact that Planxty had pipes playing authentic tunes, with full respect to the music, made it reach the ears of the arch-traditionalists and they would’ve had opinions about the accompaniment I’m sure. But that’s ok and that’ll always be so, we all agree to differ. And we didn’t do the music any harm.

We also introduced a lot of rockers to trad music who realised that it was quite cool and that it was music that had depth and style and feeling, all that kind of stuff.

There’s still a high level of interest and respect today for the band. Why do you think the music of Planxty has endured to this day?

Well, I would say that we tried very hard to make definitive versions of every thing that we played or sang. That was the intention, to see how far we could bring it at the time and end up with a version that we were all satisfied with.

By that do you mean that you’d distil a song or piece of music down to essence or that you’d look to bring it a newer place else?

Yeah, it really would be a reinterpretation at all times, a reinvention of the song or traditional tune but we’d try and bring something fresh to it but which was connected well enough to the centre or identity of the piece. And it would “last” with it, it’s difficult to define but we did build it (the music) to last and it’s really gratifying to know that people find them good to listen to still.

Do you have any examples of were you went through that process with a song? Say like with ‘The Well Below The Valley’? Christy learnt the song from a traveller..

He did, he got it from John Reilly, who I met myself over in Grehan’s in Boyle many, many years ago when we used to go up there for the Fleadh Ceol. John Reilly had a great collection of songs and Christy kinda knocked it (The Well Below the Valley) into a shape he was able to handle and we piled in on it and tried to give it a timeless quality because it’s such an old song and, personally I was aware that there versions of the song all over Europe and it’s uncertain as to when the song goes back to. It could go back a thousand years. So we wanted to give it a timeless quality, with the rhythm and the sparseness of colour behind it and in the harmonies that Andy and I sang on it to try and make it different.

I saw you perform it (‘The Well Below…’) with the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock and Guitar Orchestra in Hangar last year. And that sparseness and space within the song that you just spoke about really came across and it sat well with their post-rock sound, especially with the sound of guitar orchestra behind them it was really powerful…

Brilliant, good, I’m delighted to hear that. I met them last week, we’d another Young Hearts Run Free event, they’re a great bunch.

Yourself, Christy Moore and Liam O’Flynn (uilleann pipes) were all Kildare lads. I wouldn’t have though that Kildare would have been a hot-bed of trad. One tends to think more of Clare or Donegal and so on in that regard. Was there something in the water or was it pure serendipity that it came about?

Kildare was a bit too close to the pale and trad had faded out decades ago. But there were pockets of musicians playing away that probably had connections to the coal face as well. There was a branch of Ceoltas in Prosperous. A lot of us were never members of Ceoltas as such but we went there and played and as far as I’m concerned Pat Dowling’s in Prosperous was the place where I properly came into contact with traditional music. There were a lot of folk clubs in Dublin in the ’60s that I used to go to as a student, and I loved them, and that was another point of contact. But the branch in Prosperous brought us all together and that was where I met Liam for the first time, in Pat Dowling’s.

I’d known Christy since I was nine or ten, and we’d started our voyage of discovery of traditional music on and off in old books like the Joyce Collection, books that were printed two hundred years ago. That was a great time; there were a lot of songs that hadn’t been sung for centuries.

What was the level of interest in traditional music like at the time? There is a lot of interest in it now as we discussed earlier and Planxty themselves ignited a lot of interest too but when you were coming up through the ranks what was it like?

I wouldn’t say that we were the gateway on our own. There was a movement before us that was quite wide and broad-based that consisted of folk groups and trad groups  in the UK and America. People were hearing them and singing their songs, there was the Kingston Trio and the Carter Family in the States…

But folk and trad would have been separate? Or would they have been in bed with each other at that stage?

No, you’ve really defined the difference and that was that they were different and they were separate in their pure form. You would find the odd traditional player, of course, playing at sessions and so on. You would get Liam and Matt Molloy playing together at sessions and sometimes I’d play with them as a trio and there were other great players around, solo pipers and so on.

But in fact there were two different audiences, in a way for these things. They were playing specific places were traditional music dominated. There was a place in Raheny called The Old Shieling that was flying and had great sessions there. There was The Embankment in Tallaght, where people used to go as well. These places, there’d be lots of folk music but there’d be a good bit of trad as well.

But I think the bridge between the two, that Planxty was acknowledged as having created, a sort of connection between the songs and the tunes by the combination of songs and tunes that we performed and how they came about. But no better man than Liam for representing the pure trad music as well.

So the Trad and Folk heads were like the mods and rockers of the day and Planxty brokered a peace between them…

Ha, ha, well I don’t think there was much blood and guts.

But plenty of Guinness and Whisky I’m sure!

Planxty Last reformed in 2004 for an all too short sell out tour. Are we likely to see any reunion concerts to mark the release of the new CD and DVD?

That’s a very difficult question to answer and it’s anybody’s guess because the last two reunions we had were unexpected. We’re all on our various career paths and it takes a lot of organisation to pull it all together. But at the same time it did happen in the past so who knows! I’m not sure but however….

Christy has gone on record as saying that was it – there would be no more reunions…

Well, I’ve a feeling that he may have said that before the last reunion as well.

We can but hope….

Planxty photographed by Michael Putland