He is the man with the longest CV in Irish music. Donal Lunny was born in 1947 into a large family in Tullamore before moving to Newbridge, Co Kildare. His mother came from Ranafast in the Donegal Gaeltacht, his father from Enniskillen. He shunned early attempts to teach him the piano and his introduction to music would have been via the classical, pop and jazz of the airways.
He volunteered as a drummer in a school band and this interest led him to the guitar. A natural ciotóg, he bought a left-handed guitar and began playing with a ballad group called The Liffeysiders in Dowling’s pub in Prosperous doing Clancy Brothers songs and the like.
In Dublin where he studied at the National College of Art, he teamed up with Mick Moloney and Brian Bolger in a group called The Emmet Folk. When Moloney left to join The Johnstons, Lunny and Bolger teamed up with the Byrne brothers from England to form the Emmet Spiceland. A boy folk group based on near-choral harmonies, The Emmet Spiceland won a ballad contest in Wexford in 1967 and in February of 1968 their Mary from Dungloe topped the Irish singles chart. They released an album The First in 1968.
After the break-up of The Emmet Spiceland, he teamed up for a while with Andy Irvine who had returned from a spell in the Balkans. It was from Irvine that he learned the bouzouki, which was to become his main instrument for the following 30 years.
In 1971 Donal and Andy teamed up with Liam Og O Floinn and Christy Moore who had been playing the Irish pubs and folk clubs in England for a couple of years. The result was the Prosperous album which was to mark a new era in Irish folk music. Encouraged by the success of that album, the four formed Planxty and their 1973 Planxty, or the black album, opened a new world for Irish music and singing.
Uncomfortable with the round-backed bouzouki, Donal Lunny came up with a flat-backed design which he restrung with unison as opposed to octave strings. He spoke to John Kelly in The Irish Times in 1999 about his bouzouki playing and development. “A lot of that originated from Andy Irvine building counterpoints to himself from his songs. Andy was, and still is, an original. I had played with Andy quite a bit before Planxty formed and I used to build something to go with what he did. So I would do a counter melody to Andy’s counter melody and found that this could be applied within the context of Planxty as well. So I suppose it was a mixture of spontaneity and having worked together already that brought it about. I didn’t become aware that what I was involved in could have any wider effect until well into Planxty. Prior to that it didn’t feel momentous or groundbreaking or anything. It was fun.”
In 1973 He left Planxty to be replaced by Johnny Moynihan and played for a while with Shaun Davey.
Most musicians would be content to belong to one top group. He joined a group made up of singers Micheal and Triona Ní Dhomhnaill, piper Paddy Keenan, fiddler Paddy Glackin, flute player Matt Molloy and accordeon player Tony MacMahon. They called themselves Seachtar. After some thinning out, the group was made up of Triona Ní Dhomhnaill, Keenan, Glackin (replaced by Tommy Peoples and then Kevin Burke), Molloy and Lunny. In 1975 The Bothy Band was launched and did for Irish dance music what Planxty had done for singing. Lunny had an influential role in creating The Bothies’ high-energy, high-speed sound which even startled rock n’ rollers and the band enjoyed a couple of years of lofty success before playing their last gig in 1979.
Next came Moving Hearts. In 1981 he teamed up once again with Christy Moore and a particularly impressive line-up of musicians playing pipes, drums, percussion, electric bass, guitar and saxophone, with Lunny on synth and introducing his short-lived electric bouzouki. Ireland’s best-known rock/jazz/trad fusion band, Moving Hearts undoubtedly introduced a new generation to Irish music. Their album Moving Hearts went to Number 1 in the Irish charts. The group operated as a co-op – an ideal which proved financially impractical – and disbanded with debts in 1984.
Donal Lunny’s talent and experience was by now in demand among musicians . He had already played bouzouki on the Clannad 2 album (1974) and the rock-folk Midnight Well (1977). Besides the bouzouki he plays bodhran, keyboards, mandolin and guitar. He also played back-up with individual musicians included Matt Molloy (1976), singer Maighread Ni Dhómhnaill and Christy Moore. In 1976 he helped set up Mulligan Records which recorded early Bothy Band and Midnight Well albums. This also involved him in studio production, a skill which has since been drawn on by dozens of bands and musicians. Also in 1976 he played on the highly regarded Andy Irvine – Paul Brady album.
In 1996 he hosted the successful Sult Irish music TV series for Teilifis na Gaeilge, introducing each act in Irish. English introductions were also recorded for overseas sales. Sult ran to a second series.
In 1997 he toured Australia with a new band, Wheels of the World, which included piper John McSharry, and Nollaig Casey and Maire Breatnach on fiddles.
In 1996 he recorded Common Ground, which included Sharon Shannon, Liam O Maonlai, Sinead O’Connor, Bono, Christy Moore and Maire Ni Bhraonain. With Sharon Shannon he also composed and played the music for Runaway, a two part BBC drama. His latest CD Journey the Best of Donal Lunny (Hummingbird) is a collaboration most of the musicians mentioned above.
In 1998 he formed Coolfin which includes Sharon Shannon (on occasions), Nollaig Casey, John McSharry on pipes, Graham Henderson on keyboards, Ray Fean on drums, Ronnie O’Flynn on bass and Lloyd Byrne on percussion. Also in 1998 they released an album Coolfin.
More recently he has teamed up again with Andy Irvine in Mozaik, which plays a mix of Irish, Balkan and American old timey. He even sings Sean Uí Dhuibhir on their 2007 album Changing Trains (he sang Bean Pháidin way back in the Seventies on Planxty’s The Well Below the Valley).
Lunny’s adopted home of Okinawa shares musical commonalities with home. Both Okinawan and Irish traditional music forms have flourished, partly because of their relative isolation, Lunny told the Irish Times in 2009. “There are definitely parallels,” he says. “Okinawa is an island about 400 miles off the coast of Japan. It has its own language, its own culture, and its music is in a very healthy state. At the same time, the approach to it is quite rigid, by and large, and people learn tunes and songs note for note, using the sanshin . It’s very beautiful but it’s very ‘set’, and there’s a reverence for old arrangements which are carried forward, and every note is kept in place, whereas Irish music is more flexible . . . I think the movement and evolution of Irish music is a very good thing, and should be fostered and encouraged, because that’s the thing that keeps it alive. It’s the paradox of change: some people want to keep things the way they were, and others want to change them, and there’s a tension there – and that’s how it should be.”
In the summer of 2009 he was appointed artist in residence at the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.
His daughter Cora Venus is a classical violinist who has been seen often on Irish television and his son Oisin is a skilled techno percussionist.
The First, Emmet Spiceland, 1968
Planxty, Planxty, 1973
The Well Below The Valley, Planxty, 1973
Cold Blow and the Rainy Night, Planxty, 1974
After The Break, Planxty, 1979
The Woman I Loved So Well, Planxty, 1980
The Bothy Band, 1975
Old Hag You Have Killed Me, The Bothy Band, 1976
Out of the Wind, Into the Sun, The Bothy Band, 1977
Afterhours (Live in Paris), The Bothy Band, 1978
Live in Concert, The Bothy Band, 1976
Moving Hearts, Moving Hearts, 1982
The Dark End of the Street, Moving Hearts, 1982
Live Hearts, Moving Hearts, 1984
The Storm, Moving Hearts, 1985
Common Ground, Donal Lunny and Friends, 1996
Coolfin, Donal Lunny Band, 1998
hanging Trains, (2007) Own Label
Live from the Powerhouse, Mozaik, (2004) Hummingbird