Clannad (IRE) are an iconic Irish band whose influence, in various ways, reverberates strongly through the modern Celtic folk and Celtic-based music scene. They can be credited, even if arguably, with breaking the glass ceiling that had kept Irish and Scottish folk music (especially when performed in Irish or Scottish Gaelic) very much apart from the popular music universe. As such, their importance is hard to overestimate.
The traditional folk music of the British Isles, in the form it had been categorised in since the mid 19th century, had shown signs of branching out into the new world of popular music in the late 1960’s. Groups like The Incredible String Band weaved folk into psychedelia and others like Fairport Convention and Lindisfarne effectively invented British folk rock. These new subgenres were essentially contemporary popular music spiced and enriched with traditional elements, but they certainly paved the path for actual folk and trad music’s possibilities to succeed in the pop music universe.
Clannad, formed in 1970, released their first three albums in 1973, 1974 and 1976, respectively. Had they been released five years earlier, I believe they would have made no mark in the music scene. But with the artists mentioned earlier having broken the ice, Clannad were in the right place and right time, even if their big time success had to wait until the 80’s.
Their first three albums – Clannad, Clannad 2 and Dúlaman – are actually the only period of what we could call folk music in their sizeable recorded output. They are predominantly acoustic recordings, featuring a rich selection of trad and original songs and introducing Maire (Moya) Brennan’s unique voice to the world. They show a very quickly improving and developing band; the difference between the sometimes a bit amateurish debut and the very self-assured Dúlaman is staggering. The songs are mostly in Irish and the style of the music is contemporary trad. It was a rebirth of traditional Irish song tradition in the late 20th century and Clannad as band was firmly established.
Then there’s a sudden few years’ pause in recording; busy touring during those years boosted their career and popularity (and connected them more strongly to the music business of the day, I presume). When they eventually released a new album, Crann Úll, in 1980, there were synths and other electric instruments. This, I think, is the first Celtic Crossover album and a signpost for Capercaillie and other artists who would a bit later start to develop and redefine the style. It also marks the end of Clannad as a folk group and their first step into the commercially successful, mostly English-language, Celtic-tinged pop and New Age group they turned into during the 1980’s and continuing into the 1990’s.
The 1980’s/90’s Clannad had a global fan base and stars like Bono of U2 appearing on their albums. The music of that long period, highly polished and produced and quite synth-driven as it is, is not that much up my alley, but these are always matters of subjective taste and orientation, of course. I much more enjoy their almost final album, 1998’s Landmarks, which brings back much more of the folk roots and styles and successfully mixes them with the electric and the digital. After that, Clannad de facto folded for a number of years but made a “slow comeback” after 2000, first with a show here and another there, until a full comeback in 2013 with the Nádur album that continues in Landmark’s style.
As this is being written in March of 2019, Clannad continues to be active, despite founding member Padraig Duggan’s death in 2016. Their influence is huge; without their pioneering work, the audiences for Celtic music in the 2010’s and surely in the 2020’s around the world would be much smaller.