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Donal Lunny’s musical legacy

It scarcely seems possible, but Donal Lunny, a one-time member of Folk’s Fab Four, Planxty, became an OAP this month.

He’s now able to collect his bus pass were it not for the fact that he lives in Japan with his musician wife Hidebo Itami, and their daughter Sora Chan.

The man who has been at the helm of the good ship Irish Music for the last quarter of a century has been a member of the most influential Irish bands of all time: Emmet Spiceland, Planxty, the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts.

Donal is also credited with having established the bouzouki as an integral part of Irish music — an instrument many people feel is more empathetic to the Celtic tradition, sounding more like the ancient metal strung harps of antiquity, than, for instance the Spanish guitar or the banjo.

Lunny’s use of both the bouzouki and mandoline ushered in a new lease of life for these instruments far beyond their home territories of the Balkans and Naples.

The 20th century was kind to Irish music.

The tradition was virtually saved from extinction by the likes of piper Patsy Tuohy and fiddler Michael Colman, whose recordings in America suddenly awakened Irish people to the cultural treasure trove they had inherited from their ancestors.

The two cultural caryatids of rural Ireland and the Diaspora – the showbands and the céilí  bands – began to crumble mid-century, and were overlapped by the Clancys and the Dubliners.

Along with Seán Ó Riada, they gave graphic evidence to a waiting world that Ireland boasted one of the finest stores of ethnic music in the world.

From the 1970s onwards that huge heritage led Irish music to become a real cultural (and commercial) phenomenon.

At its forefront was one band, Planxty, and an integral part of their creative dynamo was Donal Lunny.

Lunny was born in Tullamore in Co. Offaly, and moved to Newbridge Co. Kildare.

As a teenager he joined a band called The Rakes of Kildare, which also included one Christy Moore. Later, Lunny was to join Emmet Spiceland who had huge success with Mary from Dungloe, a recording that greatly helped spearhead Dublin’s burgeoning ballad scene.

In 1971 Donal played on Prosperous, the second album by Christy Moore.

This was the forerunner of Planxty, with four of the musicians from Prosperous — Moore, Lunny, Andy Irvine and Liam O’Flynn assembling in 1972 under the name Planxty.

The band released their first album in 1973, and it was to porve one of the most important Irish albums since the days of Seán Ó Riada.

It included some truly innovative material, including the likes of the Raggle Taggle Gipsy / Tabhair dom do Lámh, starting a fashion in Irish music that had rarely been tried before — segueing from a song straight into a traditional piece of music.

This hitherto unheard of musical formula in this instance included the Turlough O’Carolan composition, in English known as Give Me You Hand.

A simple enough notion, although never attempted before, but now ubiquitous throughout Irish music.

The tricky transition from song to air was Donal Lunny’s contribution, the first of many from a man who has subsequently had a hand in most of the innovative ideas in traditional music since the seventies.

With the demise of Planxty, Donal joined the Bothy Band, formed out of a group of musicians who came together for the 21th birthday celebration of Gael-Linn records.

The first record was made on a new label, Mulligan, co-founded by Donal Lunny, and again the recording was widely regarded as ground-breaking.

Lunny’s next big musical project was Moving Hearts, a band with which he wanted to explore the possibilities of linking contemporary music to Irish traditional music.

Thus evolved the basis for a powerful and unique Irish rock sound with jazzy and traditional elements.

Alongside his own playing career, Donal Lunny has also  pursued a career as a producer, working with artistes including Paul Brady, Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart and Clannad.

Irish music has had many twists and turns since those heady days of the 1970s, and Donal Lunny has been part of many of them.

The seminal moments in Irish music from the mid 20th century onwards — the moments which turned Irish folk and traditional music into something admired the world over — basically revolve round four bands: the Clancys, the Dubliners, Seán Ó Riada’s Ceoltóirí Chualann, and Planxty.

But it is probably the latter which is most responsible for the musical formula employed by most Irish bands today, and the sound of Irish music today is largely Planxty’s vision of it.

The man at the epicentre of that musical evolution and revolution was Donal Lunny, who turned 65 this month.

Those who love and cherish Irish music should wish him the very happiest of birthdays.

 

 

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