The world of traditional music was shocked at the sudden death of one of its most devoted exponents, Mick Moloney, who, as performer, researcher and promoter, has inspired audiences, artists and academics internationally to engage with the music, the dance and the lore that accompanies it.
Born in November, 1944, in Limerick, Mick began playing tenor banjo aged 16. As a teenager, he listened to American folk singers and especially Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Burl Ives. As there was a dearth of traditional instrumental music being played in Limerick at that time, he used to go to Ennis to listen to and record music in the pubs.
With his growing repertoire of traditional songs and his facility on guitar and mandolin as well as tenor banjo, he became a member of the Emmet Folk Group, with Brian Bolger and Dónal Lunny. Entering the Wexford Ballad Contest in 1966, the Emmets came second behind a band from Meath called the Johnstons. Within a year, Mick had joined the Johnstons while his former band-mates had merged with the Spiceland Folk Group to form Emmet Spiceland. The Johnstons were sisters, Adrienne and Lucy Johnston, and brother, Michael, who was subsequently replaced by Paul Brady. For the next five years Mick toured and recorded with the Johnstons – releasing six albums and two further anthologies.
In 1973, when the Johnstons played the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Moloney met the American folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein, one of the organizers of the festival who was also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Moloney decided to stay in America to study folklore at the University of Pennsylvania with Goldstein as his adviser.
While studying for his PhD, Moloney gained a reputation as one of the leading performers on the Irish music scene in America, as well as one of its most prominent researchers.
In 1976, he was one of the fieldworkers for a special bicentennial edition of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, while in 1977 he worked for the American Folklife Center on its first field project – the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project – which led him to make some of the earliest field recordings of Liz Carroll and Michael Flatley, among others.
He eventually earned a PhD in folklore and folklife. His doctoral dissertation formed the basis for his book, Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish American History through Song, published in 2002, with an accompanying album on Shanachie Records. Moloney was also interested in the intersections of Irish folk music with Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, which led to several research projects, including If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, which Moloney spoke about at the Library of Congress in 2009 and also provided the material for another album. Mick taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at the University of Pennsylvania and at Georgetown, Villanova and New York Universities.
In parallel with his academic pursuits, Moloney became a driving force in Irish music in the United States. Much of the national exposure received by traditional Irish artists, such as Martin Mulvihill, Donny Golden, and Jack Coen — all earning recognition as National Heritage Fellows — was the result of Moloney’s work as mentor, producer, performer and scholar. Through his passion and scholarship, he was highly influential in bringing Irish music out of the back rooms of pubs and parlours and presenting it on festival stages and in concert halls.
As a performer and a producer/arranger, Mick was involved in over a hundred albums of traditional music. Among them were three solo albums, as well as numerous recordings in partnership with other Irish musicians, including Derry fiddler Eugene O’Donnell, button accordionist James Keane, and singer-guitarist Robbie O’Connell. He also recorded two as a member of The Green Fields of America, the touring ensemble he co-founded in 1977. Mick also supplied comprehensive sleeve notes to nineteen more albums including recordings by the Chieftains and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
Mick was ahead of his time in promoting female musicians. In 1985, he championed a concert series in New York showcasing female musicians.
Among them was the all-female band, Cherish the Ladies, whose leader Joanie Madden received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA in 2021.
His role in supporting the creation of Cherish the Ladies, is told by Joanie Madden (see Joanies tribute below). He went on to produce two albums for the band.
He also produced an album for Eileen Ivers and supplied sleeve notes for two more. Other female artists he collaborated with in the recording studio included Liz Carroll, Betsy McGovern, Sue Mogan-Mattison and Liz Hanley along with Louise and Michelle of the Mulcahy Family.
He was closely involved in a number of other pivotal recordings – including Paddy Tunney’s acclaimed 1982 album, Stone Fiddle, as producer and engineer; Brendan Mulvihill’s Flax in Bloom album in 1979 as producer and musician; Terry Teahan and Gene Kelly’s 1997 Topic album, Old Time Irish Music in America as producer; and Hamish Imlach’s 1998 album, The Definitive Transatlantic Collection as producer and background vocalist.
Moloney established the Irish Week at the Augusta Heritage Center’s summer music camp, founded the Philadelphia Ceili Group, and acted as advisor for scores of festivals and concerts all over America. He served as the artistic director for several major arts tours including The Green Fields of America, an ensemble of Irish musicians, singers and dancers which toured across the United States on several occasions and was scheduled to appear at this year’s Frank Harte Festival in Dublin in September.
The Green Fields was never intended to have a permanent line-up that would perform and tour in a conventional way. Many individual members of the group at any given time had regular jobs outside music and were unable to tour full time and often, younger members of the group went on to develop their own separate full-time careers in music. However, scores of the finest Irish artists in America have performed with the group throughout its history and many, including Séamus Egan, Joanie Madden, Eileen Ivers, Karan Casey and John Doyle have gone on to achieve international stardom. Six Green Fields members, Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Michael Flatley, Donny Golden, Mike Rafferty, and Mick Moloney, have been awarded the National Heritage Award – the highest honour an American folk artist can achieve. As fewer than fifteen awards are handed out annually, it is astonishing that five members of the same musical culture, let alone the same musical group, should receive this award.
He hosted three major series of folk music on American Public Television; was a consultant, performer and interviewee on the acclaimed television documentary series, Bringing It All Back Home; a participant, consultant and music arranger of the documentary film Out of Ireland; and a performer on the PBS special The Irish in America: Long Journey Home.
In 1999 he was awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts — the highest official accolade for a traditional artist in the United States, while in Ireland he received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award from President Michael D. Higgins in November of 2013, followed in 2014 by the TG4 Gradam Ceoil for Special Contribution which recognises individuals or organisations who have worked to ensure the preservation and development of traditional music.
Throughout his career, Moloney was remarkably generous with his time in supporting other musicians and other researchers – but also in terms of his social activism through his involvement in numerous benefit concerts and his support for a charity home and school for poor children in Thailand where he lived part-time in recent years.
Tributes and Memories
So much of what I came to know was because of him. He taught me that I was part of a long story, one that was being told well before I came along and that would continue long after I was gone. Well, Mick has left the story now. It is an enormous loss but with the many chapters he has written we all have so much to be thankful for.
As the years went by there would be long stretches where we might not be in touch with one another. But I always took great comfort knowing he was out there somewhere, playing in some distant land, singing his songs and telling his stories. I knew I’d hear all about it when we would meet up again. It would be as if no time had passed at all. He’s away again but this will take some getting used to.
He was a champion of all things Irish and did more for the progression of Irish music, song and dance in America than anyone I know. Through his many ideas and collaborations, he brought us all to the major folk festivals around the nation and introduced me to so many artists who became my life long friends in music and dance.
I first met Mick down at the Philadelphia Irish Folk Festival when I was 16 when he interviewed my father for one of his field recordings where he was capturing the stories of musicians who emigrated to the USA - but It was the phone call in September of 1983 that I received from Mick that would change my life forever.
Mick called to congratulate me on my successes at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil music competitions… he was completely astonished at the number of young women who traveled back to Ireland from America and had returned with gold medals in various instruments. He wanted to celebrate this change in the tide of women and advancement in Irish music with a series of concerts to be held in New York City.
He applied for a grant and in partnership with the Ethnic Folk Arts Center he made it all happen. He reached out to me to help him put the concerts together and told this young 18 year old girl that she would be MC'ing the concerts. Let me tell you I hadn't the foggiest clue of how to mc a concert (and probably still don't), but I accepted the challenge and suggested the title of the Irish traditional jig, Cherish the Ladies, as the name of the series and he thought it was a great idea, and so we began.
When the series was over with every concert sold out, he brought us all together again this time in the recording studio to record an album entitled Cherish the Ladies, and we were all amazed when the album was chosen as one of the best folk albums of the year by the Library of Congress.
Mick wasn't done yet, as he applied for another grant to the National Endowment for the Arts for us to perform a nationwide tour and Mick came on the road with us, mentoring and guiding us all. He helped us put the show together and critiqued us after each gig with gentle instruction of what worked and what didn't. He then gave me the ball and told me to run with it.
In the 38 years since we performed that first concert, I have never forgotten to give him thanks at each and every one of the 4000+ stages we have since performed on - and I want you all to know that we would not be here if it wasn't for the great Mick Moloney.
It was just a month ago that Mick came to visit me at my house in Miltown Malbay in County Clare and we had a fantastic visit. We laughed, reminisced and planned some new collaborations for next year. He told me wherever and whenever he was coming on the next cruise and was excited for some new projects that he was putting together. He was always plotting and planning and always had 10 tongs in the fire.
He was a mighty man, a great friend and I will miss our frequent chats as we had so many great times over the years. The saying, "The likes of him we will never see again," is a catch phrase you often hear, but when it comes to the life of Dr. Mick Moloney it is so true – the likes of him we will never see again as Mick was literally one in a million.
Mick ran a few extravaganzas at the University of Pennsylvania and my group, The Flying Cloud, took part. That was in the mid 1970s. I invited him to the Eagle Tavern on a night when it rained cats and dogs and bicycles. It rained like hell but still they came... a full house... absolutely amazing!
Mick very kindly volunteered to join me on two of my CDs: Irish Ballads & Songs of the Sea and Irish Pirate Ballads, which had a host of great players and singers including Joanie Madden and Gabriel Donahue. I joined him in the NYU Washington Harp & Shamrock Orchestra along with Don Meade and Dan Neely. What a lot of fun we had thanks to Mick's inclusionary ideals and kindness.
One thing about life is that it holds few certainties. Mick, we would have loved you until you were a hundred but we were lucky to have you for so long.
If there was a catch phrase for Mick, it would be his own “The Best Ever” description whether he’d be talking about a meal, a tune, a drink (back in those days), a song, a book, a friend, his son Fintan, or the weather (yes, even in rainy Limerick)... But the one true Best Ever was himself.
Mick’s amazing energy and vitality never flagged. He did so much work to promote traditional music, organizing concerts and festivals and encouraging budding musicians. It is impossible to gauge the extent of his influence but I can safely say Irish music would not be in the great state it is in now were it not for Mick.
He was also a consummate performer. He could hold his own on any stage, anywhere in the world. His eloquence was as renowned as his musicianship and scholarship. He toured every state in the US as well as in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia bringing Irish music to countless people who might never have heard it otherwise. His ensemble group, The Green Fields of America, was like a graduating class for countless musicians, singers and dancers. He brought older musicians into the limelight and gave younger ones a chance to shine. The list of Green Fields alumni reads like a Who’s Who of the traditional Irish music scene.
Before I got to know Mick, I was a huge fan of his work with the Johnstons and of his early solo albums. Button accordion wizard James Keane from Dublin introduced me to Mick at the Eagle Tavern in New York when I sat in with them on a gig there. Later, piano accordion player extraordinaire, Jimmy Keane and I toured and recorded with Mick for several years.
In the 1980s, Mick was the music director of the Irish Week at the Augusta Heritage Arts festival in Elkins, WV. For a week every July, it became a Mecca for Irish musicians, singers and dancers, from all over the US. Many of the similar summer schools in operation today were modeled on those classes.
Mick also did an enormous amount of charity work. His annual concerts in Camden, NJ and his work for the Mercy Center in Bangkok are only part of that story. Over the years, he organized numerous benefit concerts for various charities and always delivered spectacular shows. When he lived in Germantown, PA, his old Victorian house on Harvey Street was alike a hotel for traveling musicians and he, and his wife Phil, were the most hospitable people you could ever meet. Just about every musician I know stayed there at one time or other. For years it was like my second home since it was there that we rehearsed for tours and recordings. Many a legendary session took place in that house or front yard.
I didn’t see as much of Mick since I moved back to Ireland in 2019 but we were in touch frequently by phone or text. Luckily, he and his girlfriend, Bee, visited here just a few weeks ago. We had a great time singing a few songs together in Ring at the after party for Michelle Mulcahy’s wedding. He was planning another visit in the fall. We often hear the expression, “We will never see his likes again,” but in Mick’s case it couldn’t be more true. His loss leaves a vacuum that can never be filled.
Thank you for absolutely everything, Mick. You truly showed me the world
His loss to the world of traditional music is immense but for me the loss also feels personal. For many touring musicians our musical friendships are scattered across the world and we rarely get to spend enough time in each other’s company and I didn’t ever get to spend nearly as much time in Mick’s company as I wanted. The depth of friendship for me, however, is measured not in the amount of time spent together but rather in the depth and quality of that time. He loved people in a very transparent way, just in his attitude, in his smile and body language, I’d fell it whenever I was around him.
Just knowing that I was going to run into him at some event or festival was a cause for delight in itself. He was the best conversationalist ever, but not just that, it was also coupled with his natural charm and genuine warmth. He was a curious, enthusiastic and intellectually brilliant man who was almost always smiling. I still see his smile and that glint in his eye, he was totally engaging, I just loved meeting him. I can’t believe that I will no longer have the pleasure of meeting him in my musical travels. He left this world as a very loved man,
The embodiment of an artist-scholar, he was equally charismatic as a lecturer and a musician. His relationship with the Academy embraced many roles including consultant, external examiner and most recently, adjunct professor. He played an important part in many performance events at UL, most notably in his curation of the Banjaxed concert in 2007, featuring all the leading Irish banjo players of the day. He was also central to the development of the University of Limerick’s unique relationship with the Music Department, New York University, from where he shone a light on the music of Irish America and more.
Mick’s passion for Irish traditional music was only rivalled by his commitment to justice, equality and fairness in this world, recently exemplified by his work with the Mercy Centre in Bangkok. Mick was a proud Limerick man, but a global citizen. He revelled in the fact that traditional music programmes came out of the university that sprung from his birthplace in Castletroy. Above all else, his was a creativity marked by generosity to his students, other musicians, and the causes he believed in. He will be sadly missed by all of us in the Academy and we extend our sympathies to his family and wide circle of friends.
I didn’t know him half as long as a lot of ye musicians out there. I met him in Bangkok in the early 2000s. I was a regular in Thailand at the time, sometimes spending six months a year there. It was my sister Emily Castles that first ran into him on a trip there and had a tune with him. My father's a banjo player and Strings Attached was a staple in our house growing up. My parents were massive Johnstons fans too. So the next time I passed through Bangkok I made sure to look him up and had a few tunes with him in Finnegan’s. At the time I was trying to make my way home from Asia over land and I was writing a regular group email (before blogs) about my travels. I put his email address in the group and that’s how we stayed in touch.
He invited me to New York a few years later and then helped me get the first of many visas that led to me spending more and more time in the States. He encouraged me to sing more frequently, and I just loved singing harmonies on his songs. I have plenty of emails still to go through with songs or tunes attached that he thought might suit me. We had just worked out an arrangement for The Diamantina Drover that he loved. I’ll never get to sing it with him.
He brought me out to play in Bangkok several times, Vietnam, Scotland, France and all over America. I’m so grateful I got to spend four weeks of the last two months in his company in Ireland, Portugal, Asturias, Galicia and New York. He was in the best form ever over those last weeks. We were to meet in NYC on Monday but there was a storm, and I was running late and so we agreed to talk on Tuesday but he didn’t pick up. I guess he was already gone.
He was 77 but to me it feels like a much younger person has died. He had an abundance of energy and was working on a million things. We had so much coming up, so many plans all the way into next year…
He taught me so much in the years I knew him - both musically and in life in general. We were cut from the same cloth when it came to travel and adventure but I learned a lot from him about people and stagecraft and attitude and so much more. I wouldn't know half the great people I know if it weren't for Mick.
In my opinion, Mick was the man responsible for taking master musicians such as Jack and Charlie Coen, Mike Rafferty, Eugene O'Donnell, etc. and making it possible for them to perform in venues that musicians of that caliber truly deserved; Mick made Traditional Irish Music at home in Arts Centers, Concert Halls, and Academia. This was a groundbreaking development, looking back!
Mick was generous and selfless, and I fondly look back to a visit to Limerick in the early 1980s at which I met Mick's parents, his aunt Buzz, and his brothers and sisters. All the Moloneys were cut from the same cloth as Mick: intelligent, witty, and welcoming.
I personally owe Mick a huge debt for his inclusion of myself on myriad performances with The Green Fields of America. He was also responsible for my first solo album, The Invasion, being recorded. Through Mick, I met and performed with many wonderful musicians at first class venues. There are many other ways in which Mick helped me, and I realize that my experience was shared by many others. I will dearly miss my old friend. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.
I first met Mick when he gave Solas one of our first gigs in Georgetown University. He was tearing around the place organising everything. There were over 400 people there. I nearly died of fright. "It’s alright," he said on stage, "two or three of you are experts but the rest of you know nothing!" The whole audience roared laughing.
Mesmerised is the word I would use mostly when it came to Mick. His passion for living, his joie de vivre, his organising another benefit, from Camden to N.Y. to the orphanage in Bangkok, his constant evolution politically, his veganism, his going to the gym at 70, his constant bringing together of musicians, and often of disparate and marginalised people, his acute and unnerving intuition, his never plámásing you, his saying the hard thing in the room and urging gently when to shape up, his consistent answering of calls and emails and texts and WhatsApping so many people, his giving and giving. His loss in incalculable.
His measured reasoning as to what mattered, his management and encouragement behind the various summer schools, the bus tours, finding a good song for people, tailored to the needs and persuasions of the singer, passing on the lore of the songs, his in-depth scrutiny of the thinking behind a chapter in your PhD. And his enriched style of teaching… when I would despair and say I’m after reading this chapter seven or eight times Mick and I still don’t get it. His answer that himself and Nancy Groce had come to the conclusion in their research days “that if you read something twice and you still don’t understand it, that’s not your fault” was so comforting and true.
One of his more infamous lines I am remembering and even managing to smile about and among the ones I can write here today is “Fuck Foucault, write what you know”. A particular favourite of mine. (I still don’t know!). The best thing that I have learned from Mick’s teaching and guidance is that he wanted his students to pass him out. He was never happier than when he would see people doing well, especially younger people, not in the sense of being famous or any of that nonsense but in enjoying and living a deeper life through music and learning, his lifelong passions.
Mick was also my road back to Frank Harte, myself and Mick were staying with Frank in Dublin in the late 90s and I woke up on the couch to hear them arguing over the rashers, whether to fry them or grill them. Ye can imagine.
I could go on but O how I shall miss him. How not being able to pick up the phone will be desperately lonely for so many of us. How not feeling his extraordinary presence in the room will feel like a massive void for some time to come. But Mick gave us so much, so many tunes on that banjo, so many songs, so much impassioned singing, so many lines remembered by heart, so much wisdom in his advice giving centre of a heart, so much growing up for us all, so much love for books, so many albums, recordings, academic articles, teachings, videos, classes, so much tender guidance to those of us off the drink or trying to stay off it, and so much more in his lending a kind ear to all our woes and joys, so much thinking in the back of that mad head of his behind those blazing blue piercing eyes, all done for no personal gain, so much for love. My deepest condolences to Mick’s family and friends. May Mick Moloney rest in peace.
When I started my career in the '90s, we ended up sharing a big stage in Philadelphia, and since then, he'd call me up if he was around in Ireland, inviting me to sing to his visiting groups all over Ireland. He also invited me to sing with him and his band at the various festivals we were both involved in, he was so generous with his own stage time. And then when he chose me to sing with my childhood heroes, The Johnstons, in 2011, I was overjoyed at his confidence in me as a singer.
Just a few weeks ago, we met in Slane, and there he was, onstage, including us all in the musical journey. Afterwards, he invited me back to the USA, and said he’d arrange visas etc. As mentioned elsewhere he was always championing the young musicians/singers, and the older musicians/singers.
Mick was my mentor, my collaborator, my dear friend and my musical partner for over 20 years. When we played together, there was another force that took hold of my bow, it often surprised me and I was always aware it was special and so much greater than me or him alone. I am so grateful to have had the privilege to walk in his aura on so many adventures, and our musical connection brought a joy to my heart I will treasure forever.
It was always a joy to meet Mick (he more often than not greeted me with, “Elizabeth!”) He was always delighted to talk about old times, going back to the 70s – Greenfields tours, 1976 in D.C., Milwaukee Irish Fest, Eugene, Hamper, the West Africa tour (Ouagadougou!), Cherish the Ladies, Fathers and Daughters, Philly, and his love of so so many places and people. I’ll miss the reminiscing, the moments on stage (not the rehearsals), and the great fellowship of Irish and Irish-Americans that permeated everything he touched.
Thank you for everything, and God speed, Mick – you were our leader and we were happy followers.
In his lifetime he was awarded accolades for all aspects of his contribution in Ireland and in the United States… The ties that bind the traditional music community in Ireland and the United States were most firmly strengthened and enriched by his life's work.
In April 2021, Mick Moloney contributed to a Zoom session hosted by Dublin’s Clé Club. The theme of the session was the musical links between Ireland and the US. So Mick was an obvious choice as a guest. He is joined on the performance pieces by Brenda Castles (concertina and vocals), Haley Richardson (fiddle), Lucy Johnston (vocals) and Jimmy Keane (accordion).