Interview With Moya Brennan
Ahead of the forthcoming festival celebrating fifty years of Leo’s Tavern in Donegal We caught up the First Lady of Celtic Music Moya Brennan for a chat about her Father’s bar, the celebrations planned to mark this historic milestone in the ongoing story of the bar and hear news of a new live Clannad record that will be launched during the festival.
July 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Leo’s Tavern. Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that you’d be part of a festival celebrating such a remarkable milestone in the story of the bar?
It is rather incredible, isn’t it? Of course, when you’re setting out you hope that you’ll make a success of what you do but to be here 50 years later celebrating both a half-century for my dad’s pub and nearly as many years for Clannad was not what we immediately had in mind!
When your Father Leo founded the bar he was already successful touring musician in his own right. What made him set down roots and become a publican?
Well, yes he was successful and his family show band, Slieve Foy, had been in demand far and wide for many years. But things started changing in the sixties. Particularly the social life in the country. The dance halls were closing down, people had more access to music with records and radio and the pubs were becoming the hosts for live music. Leo continued for a while playing in hotels but in order to have a permanent, nightly stage for his music and songs he decided to buy his own pub close to our home and make a stage to entertain people. There was hardly a night when Leo could not be found serenading whoever wanted to listen and he would always be getting people up to sing their party-piece or play a tune or two.
The bar was family affair right from the beginning with your uncles helping with renovation works and your mother pulling pints, but can you remember the first time you sang and pulled a pint in the bar?
I was involved in serving right from the start! As a schoolgirl, the tips were a welcome addition to my pocket money. I had been occasionally singing with the show band from the age of seven so it wasn’t long before my dad had me on stage in Leo’s.
Do you think that growing up within the social environment of Leo’s had an impact on you and how you interact socially with other musicians and fans?
It certainly made me more outgoing but I quickly learned from my dad how important it is to interact with an audience, to tell them the story of the next song and to chat with them after a concert. It’s all part of the giving people enjoyment in the widest sense.
Leo’s has been instrumental in shaping the lives and careers of your entire family be it with Clannad, Enya or your own journey to become First Lady of Celtic Music. Do you think that would have happened without having Leo’s as a base and the encouragement of both of your parents?
Who knows? All I can say is that all of us in the family were mad about music and would have ended up playing and singing in one way or another. The fact that we shared the same musical taste and inspiration helped a lot but, yes, having a ‘ready-made’ stage to perform on from early on made a big difference. Our parents encouraged us to make the first significant step of entering (and then winning) the Letterkenny Folk Festival competition in 1970.
Clannad made an emotional return to Gweedore in 2017 for two theatre shows which were the first since the sad passing of your uncle Padraig and your father Leo. How were those shows and how did it feel onstage without such an integral member of the band?
It was very emotional. Although Padraig was my uncle he was only three years older than me so he felt more like a brother. The two shows in the Amharclann Gweedore also marked a return to our roots. We’re rediscovering a lot of our early material and, significantly, are about to release a double live album recorded in Germany in 1980. ‘Turas 1980’ will be launched and released the weekend of Leo’s Tavern 50th Anniversary Festival.
Today Leo’s is a thriving pub, restaurant and live music venue. You run a regular club night supporting local talent and recently you collected the IMRO Music Venue of the Year 2017 award on behalf of the bar at an awards ceremony in Dublin. That must have been a proud moment not only for yourself but your family and all the hardworking staff in the bar.
I couldn’t believe the award. It was such an honour, especially with the wealth of other music venues in the North West. Clubeo has been going five years now and, apart from being a monthly highlight in the area with a regular high standard of music, it has produced a number of talented singers who are going on to greater things, signing record deals, releasing EPs and albums and receiving a lot of media attention. We are very proud and I can’t help thinking of my dad and the joy it would have given him.
The anniversary festival has a line up that features some big names from Irish music and beyond. Donovan, Hazel O’Connor, Clannad and Donegal’s other legend Daniel O’Donnell. Were you involved in putting together the programme?
Yes, very much so. I have met Donovan a number of times over the years and have always wanted a reason to invite him to play at Leo’s. He is truly a legend… as is Hazel who has become a dear friend mine since she moved back to Ireland.
Hazel O’Connor would probably be best known for her punk days, but would I be right in saying your connection with her would be through her works with harpist Cormac De Barra?
I met Hazel before she started playing with Cormac but that connection has meant we’ve seen a lot more of each other – and recorded together. We really enjoyed sharing a stage at Glastonbury in 2015.
Is there any truth in the urban legend that a young Daniel O’Donnell made one of his first ever live performances in Leo’s and was tipped for bigger things by your father?
A young Daniel arrived at the pub one night with his sister and in the course of the evening Leo invited him up to sing. Whether it was his first live performance, I don’t know but Leo was certainly impressed and their mutual respect continued.
There’s a line very early on in your autobiography that you use to describe returning home after Clannad’s first appearance on Top of The Pops. “I would spend my life coming back to Donegal, but this was one special kind of homecoming“. Would you say that also applies to this 50th anniversary festival?
There is so much emotion tied up in the forthcoming 50th Festival so yes, it’s a very special homecoming. Although I’m spending more time in Donegal than for many years I always love that last bit of the drive coming off the mountains above Dunlewey Lough in the shadow of Mount Errigal and then seeing the small islands dotted around the coastline beyond. It will always be special.
Leo’s Tavern 50th Anniversary Festival runs from the 12th to the 16th of July with tickets available online and in person in the bar.