BORN IN Phibsboro, Dublin, Johnny Moynihan dropped out of architectural college. Though a young when he became known in 1966 as a member of Sweeney’s Men, he was actually part of the pre-Dubliners sessions in O’Donoghues. While Luke Kelly was on a visit home from England around 1961, it was Johnny Moynihan who introduced him to O’Donoghues and encouraged him to go to the Fleadh in Miltown Malbay.
Moynihan introduced the bouzouki to Irish music in the mid 1960s. He told Nollaig O Fionghaoile in an interview: “Being aware of my interest in traditional music, Tony French brought a Greek bouzouki back from holidays and offered it to me … I was coming to the bouzouki as a mandolin player. I found the mandolin a tight little instrument that crucified your fingers, whereas the bouzouki was nice and loose and forgiving … in the context of Sweeney’s Men it was suitable to what we were doing.” Andy Irvine picked it up from Johnny Moynihan and also introduced Donal Lunny to the instrument.
He also plays the fiddle, tin whistle and melodeon. He has a soft nasal quality to his singing voice, reminiscent of another Dublin singer, Frank Harte.
In the summer of 1966 he was invited by Andy Irvine and Joe Dolan to join them in a new group to be called Sweeney’s Men. Moynihan knew Dolan through the O’Donoghues sessions in the early 1960s. In 1967 they released a single Old Maid in the Garrett which went into the Irish Top Ten as did the 1968 follow-up Waxies Dargle.
Sweeney’s Men is widely accepted as one of the most influential groups in Irish music to emerge after the Clancys and Dubliners.
After various personnel changes, the group was composed of just Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods who released Tracks of Sweeney in 1969.
In 1973 he again teamed up with Andy Irvine in Planxty after Donal Lunny left the group. He was also a member of De Danann. He has influenced Irish folk singing and arrangement. He has backed up many singers on recordings including Annie Briggs on several albums and Jane Tabor and Maddy Prior on The Silly Sisters. In 2007 he formed old-timey group Moonshine along with American fiddler Frank Hall and Swedish five-string banjo player and vocalist Lena Ullman.
He told Leagues O’Toole for the Irish Times: “I think one of the virtues of old-timey music, as opposed to bluegrass, is that the musicians don’t really seek to shine, they don’t claim a place where they’re gonna take a solo and exhibit their virtuosity. They all play the same tune over and over again and it becomes almost trance-like. It really is the tune that moves, as opposed to the players. The other thing is, bluegrass is God-fearing, and old-timey music tends to have a healthy interest in sinful pursuits.”
First Run, Secret Records/RMG
Cold Blow and the Rainy Night, 1974
With Sweeney’s Men
Sweeneys Men – The Legend Of Sweeneys Men. CMDDD932
Tracks of Sweeney, Moynihan/Woods, 1969
Sweeney’s Men, Moynihan/Irvine/Woods, 1968