Donal Lunny - a short biography.

by Han Speek.
(Copyright © 1995/1996)

The Early Years

Donal Lunny is from Newbridge, Co. Kildare, where in his early years he formed a duo, the Rakes of Kildare with Christy Moore (who also lived in Newbridge at the time), occasionally assisted by Donal's brother Frank on the whistle. Donal played the guitar, while Christy picked the songs and sang them. After the demise of the duo, Donal's next (known) musical adventure was with the band Emmett Spiceland, where he also played the guitar. This band had a hit record, sort of, with the song "Curragh of Kildare", for which Christy had written the revised chorus. Donal was given a roundback (Greek) bouzouki by Andy Irvine in 1970, and things took off from there. Donal was very pleased with the new sound, and it soon became his main instrument. And since it was new to Irish traditional music, Donal had plenty of room to create his own style of playing. He first recorded with the instrument on the album Christy Moore made on his return from England in 1971, "Prosperous", on which they were also joined by Andy Irvine (on mandolin and harmonica) and Liam Og O'Flynn as well as some other guests. On this album Donal's bouzouki playing is still very modest, subtle and mostly melodic. On one track ("The Hackler From Grouse Hall") he experiments with playing bottleneck bouzouki, but this is completely drowned in the mix due to an overly present bodhran.


Out of the Prosperous get-together the band Planxty was formed, and on the band's first self-titled album (also known as "the black album") the opening song of the "Prosperous" album reappears - again as the opening track. This track features the song "Raggle Taggle Gypsy", which goes into a slow air, "Tabhair dom do lamh". The tricky transition from song into the air is credited to Donal. Planxty is considered seminal in the developement of Irish music as we know it, because they were able to mix traditional instrumental tunes with the more commercially appealing chorus style song (as popularized by Clancy Bros. and Dubliners) - without loosing acceptance among the musical purists. Also the blending of guitar, mandolin and bouzouki with the traditional Uillean pipes sound was a successful innovation. At the time this album was recorded Donal had already switched to a flat-backed bouzouki, which was easier to play standing onstage, and projected better than the bowlback original. Donal also plays bodhran and guitar on this album, and he even sings (rare !). Donal's perception of how Irish traditional music should be treated in terms of adding accompaniment soon led to a musical break between Donal and the others, and Donal is soon replaced by Johnny Moynihan in the Planxty line-up, although he is still involved in the recordings for the next album, "Cold Blow and the Rainy Night", both as a guest musician and as a help in the mix-down of the record.

Bothy Band

In 1975 the Bothy Band, which was formed out of a group of musicians who came together for the 21th birthday celebration of Gael-Linn records, and originally went under the name Seachtar, went pro. Box player Tony MacMahon and fiddler Paddy Glackin, who were both part of the original group left, the latter being replaced by Tommy Peoples, even before the first record was made. This first record was made on a new label, Mulligan, which was co-founded by Donal Lunny. It was in this band that Donal laid the basis for the modern use of the bouzouki in Irish music, as a rhythm instrument, sometimes combined with harmony, and often using counterpoint to give the music some extra "lift". In the afterdays of the band Donal introduced the sound of the synthesizer, which was indeed used on the band's last studio album, "Out of the Wind, Into the Sun", moving towards a more modern, electric sound. The band had it's ups (listen to any record) and downs, and by '77 Donal and Kevin Burke were involved in the folk-rock band "Midnight Well", a band of which songwriter Thom Moore was the key figure. This resulted in only one album, produced by Shaun Davey (later to become known for his compositions for pipes and classical orchestra). Kevin also recorded a solo album with help of Donal and Michael O'Domhnaill and stand-in Bothy piper Peter Browne, "If The Cap Fits". Donal also produced and played on the first solo album of another "Midnight Well" member, box player Mairtin O'Connor, which instantly established Mairtin as one of the leading boxplayers of Ireland. The Bothy Band never broke up, but had effectively fallen apart in 1979 due to the members' involvement in other musical projects, and Christy Moore's initiative to re-form Planxty (he had noted that Andy Irvine and Liam O'Flynn were also available, and had collected plenty of song material that he thought would do well with the Planxty sound) seemed to confirm at the time that the Bothy Band no longer existed.

Planxty reborn

Originally a month-long reunion-tour was all that was intended, but it lasted a while longer than that, and resulted in 3 more Planxty albums. Donal was playing a huge 10-string bouzouki at the time, made for him by Dublin based luthiers Andrew Robinson & Anthony O'Brien, which was nicknamed "Blarge" (bouzouki, large) by writer Seamus Heaney. Donal tuned this instrument CGDAD, a hybrid tuning between cello (lower 4 pairs) and his usual bouzouki tuning (GDAD). In this new incarnation Planxty is joined by ex-Bothy (flute player) Matt Molloy, who was later assisted by Donal in recording his first 3 solo albums. Matt also joined Donal and Christy and various others in the highly political "H-Block" project, of which an album was released which was (and is, since it never was re-issued) sort of an immediate collector's item. The money from the album was donated to the families of the IRA prisoners on hunger-strike.

Moving Hearts

But there came a point that both Donal and Christy felt the need to do something different, Donal because he wanted to explore the possibilities of linking contemporary music to Irish traditional music, and Christy because he had collected quite a few songs that went beyond the scope of Planxty. This lead to the formation of Moving Hearts. Starting out as a trio, with guitarist Declan Sinnott as the 3rd member, the band rapidly expanded and soon included Uilleann pipes (Davy Spillane), saxophone, bass, drum kit, keyboards and percussion, thus laying the basis for a powerful and unique Irish rock sound with jazzy and traditional elements. The songs in the band's repertoire were not only more modern in style than the Planxty material, but also showed more political engagement, especially concerned with the situation in Northern Ireland. Part of the band's repertoire were instrumental pieces, composed by Lunny and Declan Sinnott, which often were rather experimental. Within the scope of this band Donal also experimented with a solid-body electric bouzouki (ugly !), which was made for him by Danvel. But after a while the musical complexity of the band (and the rehearsals required to master the complicated arrangements) grew beyond Christy's intentions, so he left after the band's second album. He was replaced by singer Mick Hanly. The band's last album was issued in 1985 as a post-mortem: the music had outlived the band. It was an all-instrumental album called "The Storm".

Overview of later activities

  • producing other artists

    Throughout his active involvement in Irish traditional music Donal has been incredibly productive as a producer and sometimes engineer for the recorded work of his fellow musicians. The first album for which Donal is credited as producer dates from as early as 1973, which is even before his recordings with Christy Moore. The list of artists which were at some point in their career produced by Donal is sheer endless: Christy Moore (of course), Clannad, Planxty, Altan, and many, many more (see discography below).

  • Sean O'Riada Retrospective Concert

    In 1987 Donal was at the heart of the band that did the final concert in the Sean O'Riada (composer, band leader and musical pioneer, who laid the basis for the Chieftains, and introduced a couple of innovative views on how Irish trad. music should be viewed) Retrospective. Donal is seen by many as following the path set out by O'Riada, since his work (especially his own compositions) is considered innovative, and extending the concept of Irish traditional music as it is today.

  • TV projects: Bringing It All Back Home / River of Sound

    Donal's activities as a producer, and of course his reputation as a musician and composer, have also resulted in his involvement in a couple of TV productions on the subject of Irish trad. music. For the 1991 Hummingbird (commissioned by BBC/RTE) production "Bringing It All Back Home", which follows the influences Irish trad. music had on American (folk ?) music, and vice versa, Donal wrote the opening tune, a piece called "April the 3rd" (the date it was composed), which (again) demonstrates Donal's fascination with complex rhythms. He also produced the double CD that was compiled of the recordings made for this project, released on Philip King's "Hummingbird" label. In 1995 another TV series was done, again by Philip King, this time showing recent developments in Irish music, as a result of all kinds of ethnic influences, under the name "A River Of Sound". Donal was commissioned to write the title piece, which brings together instruments from various cultures, such as fiddle, Irish harp, African kora, harpsichord, piano, saxophone, harmonica, keyboards and various percussion instruments. Donal and TV producer Philip King continue to work together, and other projects may result in the future.

  • Tour Germany 1993

    Donal (on bouzouki, bodhran and keyboards) forms the heart of a group of young musicians: Siobhan Peoples, Paul McGrattan, Sean Og Potts and Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill. This group, together with the duo Kevin Burke/Jackie Daly and Stockton's Wings, do a series of concerts in Germany as "The Irish Folk Festival on Tour '93". A CD was also compiled based on this tour, unfortunately using mostly material that appeared on previous records of the participating artists, and only some 25 - 30% live material. German public radio (WDR5) however did a full-length broadcast of one of the concerts, and the quality of that show was exceptional.

  • Irish Music CD-ROM

    At the time this is being written, Donal Lunny is just completing a project under the title "Common Ground", which is all about putting together the "First interactive CD-ROM compilation of Irish music"(quote Irish Times). The project was initiated by EMI, but (major PC software company) MicroSoft is also somehow involved in the project. Among the artists listed are Sinead O'Connor, Bono (of Irish rock band U2), Elvis Costello and Kate Bush, so it's a bit outside the trad. field where Donal usually operates. But still, once again he's breaking new ground for Irish music. At the moment it seems that the normal (sound-only) CD of the project will be available first, since there are some problems in getting everything sorted out for the new medium. But the release of the CD-ROM is soon to follow.

  • More TV: Sult - Spirit of the Music

    Donal was asked to do a series of music shows for the new Gealic-speaking TV station Telefi/s na Gaeilge (TnaG), for which he used a pretty impressive group of musicians as the house band, including fiddler Nollaig Casey, guitarist Steve Cooney and ace piper John McSherry, and occasionally complemented by Sharon Shannon on accordion. The series of 13 half-hour shows was an instant success, and has also been broadcast by regular Irish TV (RTE). A CD featuring many of the guest artists in the show was also released.

  • Coolfin - the new Donal Lunny Band

    Donal has found the time to put together a new band, mainly drawn from the group that worked with him during the making of the "Sult - Spirit of the Music" TV series he did for TnaG. The band, which also includes Sharon Shannon, Marta Sebestyen and Maighread Ni/ Dhomhnaill, recorded an album under the name "Coolfin", which was released in september 1998, and a review (kindly provided by Philippe Varlet of HMT) can be found here.

  • [Note: A recent interview with Donal Lunny can be found in Muse, a weekly Irish on-line music magazine. The other online articles on Donal have unfortunately expired.]

    (Probably incomplete) Discography (last updated: Mar 19, 1997):

    With Christy Moore:

    "Prosperous", Christy Moore, Tara, TARA2008, 1972 (*)
    "Christy Moore", Christy Moore, Polydor, 2383 426, 1976 (p)
    "Whatever Tickles Your Fancy", Christy Moore, Polydor, ???, 1976
    "Live in Dublin", Christy Moore, Donal Lunny & Jimmy Faulkner, Tara, TARA2005,
    1978 (LP)
    "AntiNuclear",  Christy Moore, with tracks "People will Die", Barry Moore and
    "Trip to Cransore", Early Grave Band, Alternative Energy Records, ALT 001,
    1979 (12" single) (p)
    "Ninety Miles from Dublin, The Rights of Man, Repeal the Union", Christy Moore,
    Music for H-Block HB001, 1980 (Single) (p)
    "H-Block", Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Matt Molloy, Declan Sinnott, a.o.,
    Music for H-Block, HBLP001, 1980 (p, with Christy Moore)
    "Christy Moore and Friends", Christy Moore e.o., RTE, distributed by Tara, RTE
    59, 1981 (LP)
    "The Time Has Come", Christy Moore, WEA 24-0150-1, 1983 (LP) (p, with Christy)
    "Ride On", Christy Moore, WEA 240 407-1, 1984 (LP) (p)
    "The Spirit of Freedom", Christy Moore, WEA IR0840, 1985 (LP) (p)
    "Ordinary Man", Christy Moore, WEA 240 763-1, 1985 (LP) (p)
    "Unfinished Revolution", Christy Moore, WEA 242 134-1, 1987 (p)
    "Christy Moore", Christy Moore, Atlantic 7-81835-2, 1988 (p, with Christy)
    "Voyage", Christy Moore, WEA 2292-46156-2, 1989 (p)

    With Planxty:

    "Planxty", Planxty, Polydor, 2383 186, 1973 (LP)
    "The Well Below The Valley", Planxty, Shanachie, 79010, 1973
    "Cold Blow and the Rainy Night", Planxty, Polydor, 2383 301, 1974 (LP)**
    "After The Break", Planxty, Tara Records, CD3001, 1979/1992 (p)
    "The Woman I Loved So Well", Planxty, Tara, TARACD3005, 1980/1992 (p, with
    Brian Masterson)
    "Timedance" (12'' single), Planxty, WEA IR28207, 1981 (p, with Bill Whelan)
    "Words & Music", Planxty, WEA Ireland, 24-0101-1, 1983 (LP) (p)

    With the Bothy Band:

    "1975", The Bothy Band, Mulligan, LUNCD002, 1975
    "Old Hag You Have Killed Me", The Bothy Band, Mulligan, LUNCD007, 1976
    "Out of the Wind, Into the Sun", The Bothy Band, Green Linnet, GLCD3013,
    "Afterhours (Live in Paris)", The Bothy Band, Green Linnet, GLCD3016, 1978/1984
    "Live in Concert", The Bothy Band, Windsong, WINCD060, 1994

    With Moving Hearts:

    "Moving Hearts", Moving Hearts, WEA Ireland, IR 58387, 1982 (p)
    "The Dark End of the Street", Moving Hearts, WEA 58718, 1982 (p)
    "Live Hearts", Moving Hearts, WEA Ireland, IR 0230, 1984
    "The Storm", Moving Hearts, Tara 3014, 1985 (p)

    With various other artists:

    "Brian Byrne", Brian Byrne, Hawk, HALP 105, 1973 (p)
    "Celtic Folkweave", Mick Hanly & Michael O'Domnhaill, Polydor 2908 013, 1974 (p)
    "Ever The Winds", Tommy Makem, Polydor 2383 328, 1975 (p)
    "Aileach", Aileach, EMI/Leaf 7009, 1975 (p)
    "Pumpkinhead", Pumpkinhead, Mulligan, LUN 001, 1976 (p)
    "A Kiss in the Morning Early", Mick Hanly, Mulligan, LUN 005, 1976 (p)
    "Andy Irvine & Paul Brady", Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, Mulligan, LUNCD008, 1976*
    "Midnight Well", Midnight Well, Mulligan, LUN011, 1977 (LP)
    "If The Cap Fits", Kevin Burke, Rockburgh, ROC105, 1978 (LP) (p)
    "Welcome Here Kind Stranger", Paul Brady, Mulligan, LUNCD024, 1978 (p, with
    Paul Brady)
    "Molloy - Brady - Peoples", Matt Molloy, Paul Brady, Tommy Peoples, Mulligan,
    LUNCD017, 1978 (p, except tr. 11 p. Paul Brady)
    "And Listen to my Song", Franke Harte, RMLP 1013, 1978 (p)
    "The Singer's House", David Hammond with Donal Lunny, Struthan/Mulligan,
    LUNA 336, 1978 (p)
    "The Connachtman's Rambles", Martin O'Connor, Mulligan, LUN027, 1979 (LP) (p)
    "Promenade", Kevin Burke & Micheal O Domhnaill, Mulligan, LUN 028, 1979
    "Rainy Sundays Windy Dreams", Andy Irvine, Tara, TARA3002, 1980 (LP) (p)
    "As I went over Blackwater", Mick Hanly, Mulligan, LUN 040, 1980 (p)
    "High Kings of Tara", Christy Moore, Planxty, a.o., Tara 3003, 1980 (p)
    "Green Autumn", Diane Hamilton, Greenhays, 1982
    "Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor", Jimmy Crowley, 198?
    "Mary Black", Mary Black, Dara, DARACD 002, 1983
    "Matt Molloy", Matt Molloy, Green Linnet, GLCD3008, 1984 (p, with Michael
    O'Domhnaill, Matt Molloy)
    "Heathery Breeze", Matt Molloy, Shanachie, 79064, 1993 (p)
    "Granuaile", Shaun Davey, Liam O'Flynn, Rita Connolly e.o., Tara, TARA3017,
    1985 (LP)
    "Stony Steps", Matt Molloy, Claddagh Records, CCF18CD, 1987 (p)
    "Patrick Street", Andy Irvine, Jackie Daly, Kevin Burke, Arty McGlynn, Green
    Linnet, SIF 1071, 1987 (LP) (p)
    "Donal Lunny", Gael-Linn, CEFCD133, 1987
    "Altan", Frankie Kennedy & Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Green Linnet, GLCD 1078, 1987
    (p, e)
    "Liam O'Flynn 1", Liam O'Flynn, 1988 (p)
    "Lead The Knave", Arty McGlynn & Nollaig Casey, Ringsend Road, MCG CD1, 1989
    (p, m)
    "Horse With A Heart", Altan, Green Linnet, GLCD 1095, 1989
    "The Red Crow", Altan, Green Linnet, GLCD 1109, 1990
    "Sharon Shannon", Sharon Shannon, Solid Records, ROCD 8, 1991
    "Maire", Maire Brennan, Atlantic, 7 82421-2, 1992 (p, with Calum Malcolm)
    "Gan Dha Phingin Spre (No Dowry)", Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, Gael Linn,
    CEFCD 152, 1991 (p)
    "Rabharta Ceoil/In Full Spate", Paddy Glackin, Gael Linn, CEFCD 153, 1991 (p)
    "The Mask & Mirror", Loreena McKennitt, WEA, CD95296, 198?
    "Bringing It All Back Home", various artists, Hummingbird/BBC, BBC CD 844, 1991
    "The Seville Suite", Bill Whelan, Davy Spillane, Mairtin O'Connor, contains
    "Timedance '92" and "Dun Briste" with Donal Lunny, Tara, TaraCD 3030, 1992
    ("Timedance '92" p, with Bill Whelan)
    "No Frontiers", Mary Black, Grapevine, GPS 4, 1992
    "Island Angel", Altan, Green Linnet, GLCD 1137, 1993
    "Harvest Storm", D. Lunny, K. Burke, J.Daly, Stockton's Wing, a.o., Wundertute,
    ????, 1993
    "Misty Eyed Adventures", Maire Brennan, WEA/Atlantic, 7567 82701 4, 1995
    (p, with Calum Malcolm)
    "A River of Sound", Micheal O'Suilleabhain a.o., Hummingbird/Virgin, CDU 2776,
    "Irishtown - A Hummingbird Collection, vol. 1", various artists, compiled by
    D. Lunny, Hummingbird Records, HBCD00?, 1995
    "Dermot Byrne", Dermot Byrne, Hummingbird Records, HBCD 0007, 1995
    "Common Ground", (subtitle: Voices of Modern Irish Music), EMI/Premier,
    7243 8 37691 2 4, 1996
    "Blackwater", Altan, Virgin, TCV/CDV 2796, 1996
    "Sult - Spirit of the Music", various artists, Hummingbird, HBCD 0009, 1996
    "Each Little Thing", Sharon Shannon, Solid/Grapevine, GRACD 226, 1997 (p, e)
    "1798 - The First Year of Liberty", Frank Harte & Donal Lunny, Hummingbird,
    HBCD0014, 1998
    "Coolfin", Donal Lunny Band, Hummingbird/RTE, CDHBRTE 221, 1998
    *) has Andy on mandolin and vocals, but Donal on bouzouki.
    **) has both Johnny Moynihan and Donal on bouzouki.
    (p, e, m) = produced/engineered/mixed by Donal Lunny

    Thanks to Joan McKenty, Peter Grant, Graham McDonald, Pete Wray, Peter Laban, Ted McGraw, Rolf Wagels, Susan McKeown, Aaron Newman, Philippe Varlet, ...

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