Clannad's Moya Brennan: First lady of Celtic music on faith, family and Harry's Game

As Clannad prepare for their farewell tour, Moya Brennan - the 'first lady of Celtic music' - talks to Richard Purden about bringing singing in Irish to an international audience, Harry's Game, working with Bono and her deep Christian faith

"WHERE are the people going to come from?" asked one onlooker when Moya Brennan's father bought a tavern overlooking the wild Atlantic ocean in Gweedore, one of Donegal's more remote but most spectacularly scenic spots.

"There's no demand for music in pubs," was a commonly held belief in this Gaeltacht area. As a travelling musician at the end of the showband era, Leo Brennan decided to let the world come to him when opening a traditional music bar.

In a move that summons the Hollywood film Field of Dreams, the pub was packed every night and would become a catalyst in the formation of Clannad two years later in 1970.

The band's international popularity along with Enya and Moya Brennan's solo success would before long attract visitors from around the globe.

The strong links of language, culture and constant human movement since the days of the ancient Christian missionaries sailing back and forth have ensured an enduring relationship between Donegal and Scotland.

Moya Brennan has drawn deeply from that reservoir of tradition. When first performing Gaelic songs she suggests people would "turn their backs".

"They regarded it as a poor man's language, it was like we were letting them down in some way but we fell in love with Gaelic melodies and Irish was my first language - we loved to sing in Irish, our first six albums were mainly in Gaelic," she says.

Clannad would feature Brennan along with two of her younger brothers Ciarán and Pól and her mother's twin brothers Pádraig and Noel Duggan.

Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch and his band Pentangle would have a key influence on the band with the latter twin suggesting: "They were doing in English what we were doing in Gaelic."

While purists in Ireland would baulk at their eclectic musical freedom a following soon developed.

"It was all about the singing," adds Brennan, who turns 70 this year.

"We would delve into the harmonies that all our grandparents had taught us. My mother was a music teacher and she would teach us the songs of old but we also would blend the 1960s pop harmonies of The Beach Boys."

It was while on tour with luminaries including The Dubliners, The Fureys and The Chieftains that Brennan would become known as the 'First Lady of Celtic Music' after tourists visiting her father's pub signed Clannad for a 23 city tour of Germany, one of the band's early strongholds.

A decade later Clannad's fortunes would shift irreversibly after they recorded the theme for Harry's Game, a British mini-series about the Troubles. Based on Gerald Seymour's 1975 novel Crossfire, the author and producers requested to use their version of the Scottish song Mhórag's na Horo Gheallaidh. Instead a new track was suggested that was sung in Irish utilising the band's distinctive harmonies.

"When they approached us we were unsure what it was about, it was quite brutal but we liked that it was about two guys on opposite sides that both die in the end, no-one wins, it was very poignant," says Brennan.

"We were never political, for us it was always culture, Donegal is quite separate from the rest of Ireland and we were very conscious of that but you were still very close to it.

"I went to Derry for ballet lessons and people would come to visit from the north; you never thought about what side people were on but suddenly certain friends didn't come over any more.

"Harry's Game is very melancholic. We took the theme of sadness and loss of life. Ciarán opened an old book of my grandfather's (Proverbs from Connacht) and there was a line, 'Everything that is and was will cease to be, the moon and the stars, and youth and beauty.'

"We loved the whole idea of that. The song just captures a moment in time, it wasn't deliberate, we probably wouldn't have sung it in Irish if we knew we were going to be on Top of the Pops.

"It then started to be played all over the UK, it was taken off the radio for a day until they got a transcription of the lyrics because it was at the height of the Troubles."

With only three terrestrial channels and the series being screened over three consecutive nights Harry's Game set in motion a zeitgeist moment for the song which would become a top-five hit in Britain and Ireland.

The synthesisers and ambient mood of the track sung in Irish was an unlikely hit. A decade later it would reappear in the soundtrack of the 1992 thriller Patriot Games starring Harrison Ford and during a Volkswagen car advert.

Bono was so moved by the song on first listen that he parked by the roadside to absorb the moment. The U2 front-man would appear on another definitive Clannad hit, In A Lifetime, which featured Brennan's distinctive harp pattern.

Bono had been venturing into a similarly ambient terrain when recording The Unforgettable Fire with U2. The haunting video would further extend the band's global reach but as Brennan remembers the hearse (which Bono had driven from Dublin) would attract the attention of some soldiers on the border.

"Bono got into the back of the hearse and as the army guys were looking in he winked at them, of course, they jumped back until it dawned on them there was no coffin," remembers Brennan.

"The next day he was posing for photos with them."

In A Lifetime is also the title of a recent expansive anthology that draws from Clannad's 50-year career and soundtrack work. It includes their other zeitgeist hit Robin (The Hooded Man), the soundtrack to another ITV hit Robin of Sherwood, and I Will Find You, written for The Last of the Mohicans score.

Brennan admits that maintaining her health for such an extensive run has been a challenge due to a long-term lung condition.

Her Christian faith has been a boon in preparation for a tour that will take in 17 countries.

"Faith helps me with so much," she confesses.

"I know God is with me, it's when we are doing things by ourselves, that's when we feel the stress. I'm not saying I've got it perfect, we all fall but really that's where my strength comes from.

"I wish we could all agree on the power of that and share it with our young people who are lost to suicide and drug addiction.

"There is a black hole and they don't know where to go. There is a strength in knowing God is there."

The band's name translates as family, the branches of their tree have sprouted again to include Brennan's son and daughter in the line-up for the tour and on a forthcoming solo album.

"New things are on the table, I'm learning all the time. When people ask me for advice I tell them, 'When you think you know it all, give up'.

"Working with my kids, who have their project Banyah and have a completely different inclination, is what keeps me excited."

Clannad will appear at the Millenium Forum, Derry on March 27 as part of the farewell tour.