Moya Brennan... on the rock 'n' roll years, having an abortion and why she may need a double lung transplant
Ahead of a farewell tour which begins in Belfast at the end of this month, the Clannad star tells Claire O’Boyle of the highs and lows of her 50 years in showbusiness and how she is living with an incurable pulmonary disease
As she prepares to head off on a world tour to mark a phenomenal 50 years in the business, Clannad star Moya Brennan is getting reflective. The iconic singer - one of the biggest names to come out of Irish music in the 20th century - has experienced all the highs and lows of the rock 'n' roll years first hand.
From heavy drinking and dabbling with drugs, to all night parties, the deep-thinking mother-of-two has a lot to reflect on.
"Back then, everyone was doing it," recalls Moya (67). "It was the rock 'n' roll life for sure, drink and some drugs, all that stuff, because it was all around us and we didn't know any better at the time.
"I was out on the road before I was 20, touring right around Europe, the only woman in what was then a very male world.
"The fact we were just a folk band from Donegal didn't make a bit of a difference because everyone was doing it, the constant partying.
And when she met NME photographer Tim Jarvis in 1987, himself a devout Christian, she felt able to explore her faith even more. The pair married in 1991, and are still as in love as ever.
"We were able to have lots of discussions about it, and it just seemed to make sense to me," recalls Moya. "It was really amazing to have someone I could be open about with it all, and how I was feeling.
"Like don't get me wrong, I'm not some Holy Mary or anything, and it's not like everything was perfect all of a sudden, but in life it takes you a while to realise who you are and what you want.
"These days you have people talking about meditation, and of course that's cooler somehow. They'll say, 'Oh I'm a Buddhist and I meditate', and of course that's fine and very interesting. But in many ways - in a lot of ways, really - prayer is the same thing, it is a form of meditation. You hear so much about mental health and about people needing something to lean on when they're facing this black hole of emotion, depression or anxiety. I believe so much in prayer for having this healing power.
"It's my stronghold, it keeps me grounded and I believe you can be healed in such a way that you can be prolonged for years and years."
There's nothing perfect on earth, which is why strict religion doesn't suit me
Moya was brought up as a Catholic in rural Gweedore in Co Donegal, before forming Clannad with her brothers Ciaran and Pol Brennan and her uncles Noel and Padraig Brennan in 1970.
But despite her traditional upbringing, for many years her faith has not been focused on a particular church.
"If I'm on tour, I'll ask at the reception where the nearest church is, and off I'll go, whether it's Methodist, Presbyterian or whatever," she says. "It's all the same for me. I think we've complicated it too much, and if I'm in Donegal I'll go to the church I went to as a child, or to another Christian gathering.
"There's nothing perfect on earth, which is why strict religion doesn't suit me. But you have to keep your own faith. It's been a tremendous comfort to me."
One of Moya's greatest challenges has come from her decision to terminate a pregnancy aged just 19.
Without telling a single soul, the fledgling star went to England for an abortion - and tried her best to push the memory from her mind.
Something she later realised she wasn't able to do.
"I really had no one to talk to about that," she recalls. "At the time I'd hoped if I just did it and put it at the back of my head then I could move on, but in the end it was drowning me and you have to deal with these things."
When the time came to face her grief, once again Moya turned to her faith.
I wish at the time I would have had somebody to talk to, but I hope for girls these days that's not so difficult
"In the end I acknowledged what happened, and I prayed for forgiveness," she recalls. "I feel okay now. I think of her has a little angel. I say 'her', I'm not sure why, but if I acknowledge and think of her it sometimes helps when I'm trying to grieve.
"Someone once told me it would help if I gave her a name, which I did, although that's something I wouldn't share.
"I wish at the time I would have had somebody to talk to, but I hope for girls these days that's not so difficult."
Support from people in her church helped Moya cope with what had happened.
I was maybe drowning it with smoking dope and drinking too much
"It wasn't so much counselling," she recalls. "It's just I spoke to people at the church and they helped me understand that through prayer my faith could get me through it. It was very reassuring to know that you can be forgiven.
"Now I look back at those days I think it was in the back of my mind and I was maybe drowning it with smoking dope and drinking too much. That's a path people take, and for a while, that's what I did."
And while Moya's own abortion has been a source of pain for her over the years, she says she would never insist a woman doesn't have a termination - simply that she has someone to talk to, and the power to make a decision that is right for her.
"Women have more choices now," she says. "And one thing I didn't have was that at least they can talk about it more openly beforehand, so they're a bit more sure one way or another that they can cope.
"That's the main thing, to make a decision they're definitely happy with because it's something you have to live with.
"For a long time I didn't realise I wasn't happy, until I went back and thought about it. I didn't talk to anybody, that was the reason, I thought I'll rub it out of my mind, but you can't do that. I didn't tell a soul for a long time and that was very lonely."
Now though, preparing to tour not only with her brothers and her uncle Noel - Padraig Brennan sadly passed away three years ago - Moya will be joined on the road by her children, Aisling and Paul, who are also accomplished musicians.
"They're both in their mid-20s and they're fantastic," says the singer. "They speak Irish and they're great musicians so none of it is any bother to them.
"Their harmonies are perfect and we're carrying on that lovely tonal feel with the same family sound in the voice.
"After all those years being away from them on tour at different points, it will be wonderful to experience it all with them.
"I was quite late to motherhood when I was 39 and I always threw them into the middle of it. It didn't stop me touring, and I really thought it was important to meet in the middle as much as I could between my work and being a mother.
"I thought, 'don't wrap them in cotton wool'. I brought them into my life as much as I could, and in return I was in theirs.
“They both went to university and did different things but in the end they prefer music, and they’re very talented, so they’re giving that a go. I’m really proud of them both.”
And two and a half years after being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis — a lung disease that occurs when lung tissue is scarred or damaged — the singer says the farewell tour, which kicks off in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall later this month, will have a slower pace than the tours of the early days.
“It’s really nice to mark the 50th anniversary in this way,” says Moya. “And we’re delighted to be starting off in Belfast because we have loads of friends there, and big connections of course with Derry.
“But this tour’s going to take a year or more because we’re trying to reach everywhere. We’ll have breaks this time between the stops in Europe because if you’re going non-stop for months at time, that’s just madness.
“It’s exhausting. It’s the two hours on stage you crave. You really enjoy that point, but the other parts, the travelling and trekking, the jetlag, the living out of a suitcase, it can be trying.
I was shocked of course when I got the diagnosis, but you have to carry on.
“When we were young we joined in the parties of course, but I’ve got to be more careful now. I’ve got to look after myself.”
And the singer, who lives in Dun Laoghaire with husband Tim, says she’s much more aware of her health and wellbeing since her diagnosis.
“It’s not a nice thing to have,” she says. “There’s no cure and that’s not great to know. The thing grows and gets worse, and the only real solution is a double lung transplant, but I’m actually very up about it in terms of my mood.
“I think because I’m a singer I’m actually at an advantage. I think singing is good physio for your lungs and that singing or playing a wind or brass instrument actually gives them a good workout so they’re very strong, in a way.
“I was shocked of course when I got the diagnosis, but you have to carry on. You can’t bury your head in the sand. I do all the right things. I do exercise, floor exercises and walking. The walking is good to get air into my lungs as well, and I’m very careful with my diet. I don’t eat anything like pulses or grains, and I’m now gluten and dairy-free because I think those things could exacerbate it.
“The consultants at St Vincent’s in Dublin are brilliant, although I think they’re a bit amazed I’m going on a world tour.”
And what about after the tour? Once Clannad has said ‘farewell’, will Moya herself be next to step back?
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” laughs Moya. “I’m always doing something. I can’t see myself retiring at all really. Between my own music and the open stage for young artists I run at my father’s pub up in Donegal, I’m always active. I took most of January off because I knew the tour was coming up. I did some pottering and planning, but I can’t stay at that for too long. I like to be at something.”
Clannad: In a Lifetime: 50th Anniversary Farewell Tour will be at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on February 29