Any New Englander with Irish blood might know the feeling of sitting and chatting with Paddy Moloney. He is your quintessential Irish uncle, your granddad, a charmer from the old country with a million yarns and a ready laugh.
His answers don’t always match your questions. Names and places are all — “Ooh, bless it” — just on the tip of his tongue.
The 81-year-old Dubliner — who speaks fluent Gaelic, who sings Van Morrison’s “Moondance” to me, who chuckles a “God bless ya, love” when we hang up — is almost a James Joyce character. When I ask him, for example, about the founding of his group the Chieftains, he starts with Christmas Eve, circa 1945, when he spotted a tin whistle in a Dublin shop window.
“I said, ‘Mammy, come on, it’s only one shilling and nine pence,' ” he recalls with a laugh. “That was one of the best Christmas presents I ever got.”
Since founding the Chieftains in 1962, the avuncular Moloney and various pals have spread their contagious love of all things Ireland around the globe. They’ve played for a pope and a queen, played on the Great Wall of China and at the Berlin Wall. They’ve collaborated with the likes of Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Ry Cooder, Tom Jones, Natalie Merchant, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Decemberists, and Jim Henson and the Muppets. They’ve won six Grammys.
Moloney and longtime bandmates Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff will kick off St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Boston with a show at Symphony Hall March 13. They’ll be joined by guests including retired NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, an MIT grad and flautist who brought Moloney’s whistle and Molloy’s flute to the International Space Station.
When I called Moloney recently, he was in a hotel in Alabama. But the vibe was this: Two easy chairs. A fire in the hearth. A pot of tea. Knickknacks on the shelf.
Q. So you’ll be here in Boston soon.
A. Wonderful to come back to Boston. And Symphony Hall. I remember ’76, it was one massive big light comin’ from the ceiling. I said, “You couldn’t turn that damn thing off, could you?” [laughs] We’ve done so many brilliant concerts there. Always feel back home again once I do Symphony Hall. There’s something about it, that sloped stage. The last time we played, a lot of them got up and danced, and I expect that to happen this time ‘round as well, you know.
Q. The name of the tour is “The Irish Goodbye.” It says in the press release that can mean both leaving and staying — but I always thought that meant leaving quietly.
A. Well, people come along and put titles on things. They never ask me though [laughs]. And I love Boston, my favorite city in the world. I mean I love San Francisco, Tokyo, but Boston is, to me, my second Dublin.
Q. I love that.
A. The other thing, my son who’s a rocket scientist graduated from MIT. He was with NASA for seven years, my son. He’s down there in Boston. He’s into nano-physics. Don’t ask my what that’s all about [laughs]. And Mass. Avenue, I love walking out with those trees. It’s special for me, you know, Boston is. And to be up on that stage, with musical friends coming to join us.
Q. So in Boston, you’ll have a flautist with you from NASA?
A. That’s right! Cady Coleman. Cady’s been a great friend of ours. She plays flute. She sent us down this incredible video, she’s floating around [laughs]. We show that. And, at the top of the concert, we show a montage of photographs of people we’ve recorded with — Tom Jones and the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney. We go onstage and they give a standing ovation and we say: Is the concert starting or is it finished? [laughs]
But it’s terrific to get that tremendous appreciation from people. And how many times have we played Symphony Hall — it’s incredible. One of the big Christmas shows we did there seven years ago, John Williams was conducting the orchestra. Boston has given us so much. We just adore the place.
Q. What are a few moments that stand out for you over the years?
A. We did the works, you know. My visit with the pope [John Paul II] at the Vatican — first of all, we played when he came to Dublin, that was 1.3 million people. We did the first 20-minute opening act [laughs]. To play in the Vatican was a tremendous honor, wonderful acoustics in the place. The pope had all 12 albums, in fact — at that stage we only had 12 albums. The only thing I was disappointed about, [was not] to have tasted some of the Polish vodka [laughs].
Q. [Laughs] Right.
A. Bono tried it when he went to see him, you know. When the queen [Elizabeth II] came to Dublin there was a whole bunch of us onstage, and she came up to thank us, but the orchestra was belting away so hard, I couldn’t hear a word she was saying.
Q. What made you want to start the band?
A. My mother bought me a tin whistle when I was 6 or 7. I went from there to the uilleann pipes — uilleann is the Gaelic for “elbow pipes” — you don’t have to blow, you squeeze the bag, and out she comes! Developed the band in the ‘50s, in fact. Eventually we made our first album in 1962, with the help of a very good friend, Garech Browne, one of the Guinness heirs, you know. That got the band together and we never looked back.
Q. You’ll be here near St. Patrick’s Day. How would you celebrate at home? Here we do corned beef and cabbage.
A. As far as I’m concerned corned beef and cabbage is all year round [laughs]. It’s delicious. We get corned beef and cabbage as often as possible. I remember my first St. Patrick’s Day here, 1969, and everybody was wearing green and talking about corned beef and cabbage and I didn’t know what the big deal was. To me, it’s just something you should have every so often.
Going back to your first question about this goodbye thing, I don’t know how it came about. But I can’t see it happening.
Q. So you don’t think you’ll ever retire?
A. They ask my wife; she says, “For the last 10 years, he’s been in rehearsal for retirement” [laughs]. It’s very difficult — once you hit the boards, once you’re on the stage, it’s great excitement. Particularly Symphony Hall in Boston. There’s something magical about that place.
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, March 13 at 8 p.m. Limited availability of tickets, 888-266-1200, www.celebrityseries.org