“We’d been on a wee German tour as a folk band and suddenly we went to number five and were on Top of the Pops,” Brennan recalls, “and there was this short-notice gig in the Ulster Hall. Obviously the piece was written for that part of the world and they were tough times then in the north of Ireland, but when we went on stage, it was a welcoming that I’d never experienced before. The crowd would have been right across both denominations, but they stood up and clapped for … I don’t know how long; it just went on and on and on.
A warm welcome is also likely at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 6 March, as Clannad play their only Scottish date on what they describe as “definitely our last” tour, 50 years and 16 studio albums on from their formation. As they take their last bow, they’re also launching a 37-track retrospective, In a Lifetime – the title taken from their 1985 hit single with U2’s Bono.
There was never any mistaking the singing of the family group that emerged in 1970 from the township of Gweedore, in the heart of Ireland’s Donegal Gaeltacht. With Moya’s soprano glimmering against the darker vocal harmonies of her siblings Pól and Ciarán Brennan and uncles Pádraig and Noel Duggan, they produced an ethereal yet rich vocal sound.
Apart from the success of Harry’s Game, which won an Ivor Novello Award, they gained a 1984 BAFTA Award for their soundtrack for TV series Robin of Sherwood, while more recent recognition included a Grammy “Best New Age Album” award for Landmarks in 1999 and, in 2014, a BBC Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Folk Award.
They may have grown up as Irish speakers steeped in traditional song, but as Brennan recalls, they were also tuning in to broader sounds, not least from their father, Leo, who played in showbands and ran a musical pub. “Sure we were all teenagers growing up with the most amazing music, from the Beatles, Stones, Dylan … It was coming at you from all angles as a young fellow,” he says.
Harry’s Game took their already adventurous vocal harmonies to another level, he explains: “We were blessed because we had voice training and were involved in little choirs when we were growing up, so we were learning harmonies and it was obviously something we brought in a big way into the sound of the band.
“Even with our early records we were working with different descant harmonies and things like that. With Harry’s, the producer, who had worked with 10CC, experimented even more.”
The band also took on board the synthesisers which would colour much of their sound. Another Brennan sibling, Eithne, played Wurlitzer with them for two years before developing a stellar solo career of her own as Enya. “We were always experimenting, never sitting on our laurels.” Fellow-founder Pádraig Duggan, died in 2016, while Pól himself pursued other projects during much of the Nineties. They reformed for a world tour during 2013-14 and were already discussing a farewell tour, but after Pádraig’s passing did nothing for three years. “Then we did a little unplugged thing in Germany at the beginning of last year and that was the catalyst.”
On this final tour, the four surviving original members will be joined by percussionist Ged Lynch, who works with Peter Gabriel, as well as by Moya’s musician children Paul and Aisling – carrying on the family tradition.
In a Lifetime (BMG) is available as a double CD, vinyl and on other formats. See www.clannad.ie