Before Björk invented her robotic Gravity Harp, or Lizzo learned to play the flute and twerk at the same time, and long before The Corrs took the global stage with a violinist front and centre, there was one distinctive musical movement that encompassed and started it all: Clannad.
Celtic music may be one of the first genres to kick off entire subsets of movements and devout followings (it did emerge from six Celtic nations in 18th century Western Europe after all), but it’s also maintained its zealous following.
One prime, modern example of the sheer impact Celtic music still has on the world is Clannad. Having formed in 1970, Clannad took the title early on as the first group to bridge the gap between Celtic music, its Irish folk cousin genre and mainstream pop.
The group consisted of Ciarán, Pól and Moya Brennan, their twin uncles Noel and Duggan and their younger sister Enya (yes, that Enya), before Pádraig sadly passed away in 2016 following a recurring illness.
The family clan kicked off the now legendary Clannad tale by performing at their family-owned pub Leo’s Tavern in north west Ireland. The group, appositely taking their name from the Irish word for ‘family’ won the major prize at the Letterkenny Folk Festival in 1973, landing a record deal with Philips. The winning song ‘Liza’ was written on the rooftop of Leo’s Tavern and re-recorded years later for Pádraig and Noel’s collaborative album, Rubicon.
Clannad’s music is ethereal, meditative, and weaved with Irish history and its vast landscape. It was a far cry from what was topping mainstream UK charts at the time; thanks to the building hype of good looks and pop hooks led by Bay City Rollers, Rod Stewart, The Bee Gees and the like.
Despite Clannad’s stark difference in arrangements, it was their unique harmonies and nostalgic tip of the hat to forgotten folk songs which saw them achieve mainstream success in the 80s.
Their initial success came from them writing the themes to TV shows Harry’s Game and Robin of Sherwood. ‘Harry’s Game’ charted at #5 in the UK in 1982 and picked up an Ivor Novello songwriting award. Meanwhile Clannad’s soundtrack for Robin Of Sherwood won a Bafta.
That same year, just over 10 years since they took out the grand prize at their local folk festival, Clannad made history as the first band to sing in Irish on UK music TV show Top of the Pops.
Check out Clannad perform on Top of the Pops (1982):
The following year in 1983 ‘Harry’s Game’ was played as the entry music on U2’s War Tour, and with 110 shows on that tour over more than a year, it helped to push the group’s seventh album The Magical Ring, into the UK top 40.
A highlight reel for Clannad’s career so far would fill a movie theatre. From Bono featuring on the group’s hit single ‘In a Lifetime’, to Volkswagen picking up ‘Harry’s Game’ for a TV commercial in the 90s, to winning a Grammy award in 97 for their 15th album Landmarks, selling 15 million records worldwide with eight Top 10 UK albums, or even taking out lifetime achievement prize at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards in 2014, Clannad’s history is a decorated one.
Check out Clannad & Bono’s ‘In A Lifetime’ (1985):
Thankfully, that history is still being made. When Clannad announced new anthology In A Lifetime through one of the world’s biggest music companies BMG, multiple generations of music fans rejoiced. Clannad is a group which has kept one of the oldest music movements of all time alive, all while staying true to its form and picking up the uninitiated along the way.
Featuring hits like ‘Skellig’ and ‘Now Is Here’ as well as new songs ‘A Celtic Dream’ and ‘Who Knows (Where The Time Goes)’, the collection is nothing if not comprehensive. It takes us through Clannad’s two self-titled releases in 73 and 74; it covers 85’s Macalla, which featured the hit Bono collaboration and this anthology’s namesake; and it takes us all the way to the group’s last studio album in 2013, Nádúr, which features this writer’s personal favourite in the warm, superb composition of ‘Vellum’.
The In A Lifetime anthology is available across various physical formats including a 2LP coloured vinyl and a super deluxe edition box set that features four CDs, three vinyl LPs, a seven-inch record, a book, postcards and poster.