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Mick Moloney, champion of Irish music, dies at 77

As a multi-instrumentalist and professor of music and Irish studies, he took Irish music from the pubs to packed concert halls and even the halls of academia

Mick Moloney performs in 2009. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
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Mick Moloney, an Irish American musicologist and multi-instrumentalist who was a driving force in playing, recording, producing and teaching Irish folk music at concerts and arts and dance festivals across the United States, died July 27 at his apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. He was 77.

New York University, where he retired as global distinguished professor of music and Irish studies, announced his death, citing Mr. Moloney’s family. No cause was provided.

As a performer and lecturer, Mr. Moloney played a key role in elevating Irish music from the Guinness-fueled pubs and ceilidhs (sing-and-dance-and-storytelling evenings) of his childhood to a global audience. He recorded or produced more than 70 albums of Irish music and organized countless Irish festivals across the United States. He played in packed concert halls, often with the ensemble Green Fields of America, which he co-founded in 1977.

In 1999, he received “for his work in public folklore,” a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, handed to him by first lady Hillary Clinton.

His love was of traditional Irish music, some of it going back 200 years or more, much of it never recorded or even written down. He drew a sharp contrast between that trove of historical sound and the modern image of Irish music that often emerges among the diaspora every St. Patrick’s Day with nostalgic songs such as “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Much like the ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax did for American folk music and blues in the 20th century, Mr. Moloney revived centuries-old Irish songs and stories and reincarnated them through his own recordings or worked with record companies to convert them from scratchy old 78 rpm vinyl to CDs.

In his music, playing, writing and teaching, he explored the little-known historic links between Irish music and music from Appalachia, the Spanish region of Galicia, and Africa. He also investigated the diverse native versions of the fiddle, the banjo and the bagpipes. He researched the similarities, and artistic collaborations, between Irish immigrants to the United States in the mid-19th century and European Jews who arrived soon afterward, describing how artistically inclined members of both communities ended up as collaborative entertainers on Broadway.

One of Mr. Moloney’s best-known albums, “McNally’s Row of Flats” (2006), was based on 19th-century songs co-written in the United States by an Irish immigrant, Ed Harrigan, and his Jewish immigrant friend David Braham. The title track, dating to 1882, vividly describes immigrants from around the world living in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side: “And it’s Ireland and Italy/Jerusalem and Germany/Chinese and Africans and a paradise for rats/All jumbled up together in the snow and rainy weather/They constitute the tenants in McNally’s row of flats.”

One of Mr. Moloney’s more lighthearted vaudeville songs, “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews,” included a verse about immigrants as foundational to the country’s success: “What would this great Yankee nation really really ever do/If it wasn’t for a Levy, a Monahan or Donohue/Where would we get our policemen/Why Uncle Sam would have the Blues/Without the Pats and Isadores, there’d be no big department stores/If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.”

In addition to highlighting songs about mass immigration to the United States after Ireland’s potato famine in the mid-19th century, he also sang and wrote about what he considered significant parallels between the Irish and African American communities in the United States, both forced out of their homelands by colonialist force or neglect.

In 2002, Mr. Moloney released the book “Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song,” considered a seminal survey of Irish American music from the Civil War era forward and that was backed up by a separately released CD. He was working on a follow-up book when he died.

Michael Moloney was born in Limerick, southwestern Ireland, on Nov. 15, 1944. As a teenager, he listened to American folk singers, particularly the Weavers and Burl Ives, and started playing tenor banjo when he was 16, later adding guitar and mandolin. Because he found little traditional music around his home at the time, he would hitchhike or take a bus over the river Shannon, to County Clare, where he would tape-record local folk singers and musicians and copy them at home.

As a young man, he graduated from University College, Dublin, and played for five years in the contemporary folk band, the Johnstons, before immigrating to the United States in 1973. Although the group has long since disbanded, there is an annual Johnstons Folk Festival in Ireland; Mr. Moloney performed there, in Slane Castle, in May 2022 with the Green Fields of America, appearing with Athena Tergis, former lead fiddle player with the “Riverdance” theatrical show.

Having fallen in love with the United States while touring and singing in the 1960s, he first moved to Philadelphia to study folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate in 1992, although he did not take kindly to people addressing him as Dr. Moloney. Over the years, he taught ethnomusicology, folklore and Irish studies courses at Penn as well as Georgetown and Villanova universities. He became a U.S. citizen.

Both of his marriages, to Philomena Murray and Judy Sherman, ended in divorce. For the past few years, Mr. Moloney split his time between his Greenwich Village flat and the Thai capital, Bangkok, where he lived with his partner, Sangjan Chailungka. Other survivors include a son from his first marriage, Fintan Moloney of West Chester, Pa.; a brother; and three sisters.

When in Thailand, Mr. Moloney largely hung up his banjo and joined an old Irish friend of his, Father Joe, to raise funds for orphans at the Mercy Center in Bangkok.

One of Mr. Moloney’s colleagues at NYU, Michael Beckerman, chairman of the music department, recalled: “Once I was teaching a class on musical impressionism and was about to play some gossamer delicate Debussy. I had prepped the students to listen with the greatest subtlety. I put on the recording and suddenly there was a wild stomping on the ceiling. ... We thought it would come down. I went upstairs, and it was Mick’s Irish dancing demo ... and since it was impossible to teach underneath, my entire class came up and learned amazing things about Irish dancing.”

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