Clannad: The story of the 1982 classic "Theme From Harry's Game"

Saturday 15th December 2018

Tony Cummings reports on the Celtic classic which changed the lives of the Dublin-based band CLANNAD


Hardcore music buffs are prone to draw up lists of their all-time favourite songs and I am no exception. Amongst the recordings featured in The Spirit Of Rock And Soul syndicated radio series is the 1982 hit "Theme From Harry's Game" by Clannad. As Celtic music enthusiasts know, Clannad were essentially a Roman Catholic family group consisting of siblings Ciarán, Pól and Moya Brennan and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan. They were initially known as Clann as Dobhar but in 1973 they shortened their name to Clannad. By 1979 they had released three albums and completed a successful US tour. From 1980 to 1982 they recorded and toured as a six-piece group with Enya on additional keyboards and vocals, before she left the group to pursue a solo career. But in 1982 events were to elevate an Irish language folk group into internationally acclaimed pop icons.

The monumental change in Clannad's fortunes began when Yorkshire Television decided to make a drama series based on the 1970 spy novel Harry's Game by Gerald Seymour. That novel was set in and around Belfast at the time of The Troubles. The band's vocalist Moya Brennan spoke recently to RnR magazine about how they came to get involved with the series. She said, "On our sixth album we did a Scottish Gaelic song, with keyboards and voices. The guy who wrote Harry's Game heard it and got onto Yorkshire TV and said he wanted something really different; can we have this band? He wanted that particular track, but we said it wouldn't be appropriate, and my brothers and I worked up a demo. They loved it, and sent an engineer to work with us who had been used to layering voices."

"Theme From Harry's Game" was written by Pol and Cieran Brennan. The lyrics were written to depict the story of The Troubles among all sides in Northern Ireland and the future of the sides (Nationalist, Republican, Unionist and Loyalist). Moya Brennan, while explaining how Clannad was "about the music and never political," explained that the lyrics, derived from an ancient text from Galway, were about how in war and in violence, no side will win.

When released by RCA as a single, "Theme From Harry's Game" became a huge hit, reaching number five in the UK and number two in Ireland. The song is to date the only British hit single ever to be sung entirely in the Irish language.. The chorus, "Fol lol the doh fol the day, Fol the doh fol the day," is ancient Irish mouth-music which is common in traditional music. The song won an Ivor Novello award and launched Clannad's global career. It has since appeared in several Hollywood movies, most notably Patriot Games, in which an IRA member is seen watching the music video for the song on his television. Its use in a Volkswagen commercial introduced Clannad to an American audience.

The song continues to be sung at every Clannad concert. The 2005 album 'Óró - A Live Session' and the 2008 Moya Brennan solo album 'Heart Strings' contain "Theme From Harry's Game". The original has also been sampled various times by artists such as Kaleef and Elate. Moya Brennan recorded a solo version at Mothership Studio for dance musician Chicane, which he used on his UK top 10 hit "Saltwater".

Recently journalist Ian Croft described the original recording as "a song that still has the power to make hairs on the back of the neck stand to attention." Moya said in Croft's RnR interview, "No matter how or where I sing it, everybody responds. It's so beautiful, and it did change our lives. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we'd be singing a Gaelic song on Top Of The Pops; we wouldn't have written it in Irish if we'd been trying to make a hit!" The song went on to garner the Billboard Music Award for World Music Song Of The Year.

Moya continued, "I've never tired of singing 'Harry's Game'. It's one of those songs that's great to sing, and the same is true of the 'Robin Hood' songs - they are happy reminders of the good times. There are 17 or 18 albums we've made and people will be disappointed if we don't play some of their favourites." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Rory in Canada @ 21:58 on Nov 1 2019

An inspired and inspirational blend of film and music that could be rolled out again for a post-conflict script. Shame the BBC has not spent more time and money to edit a re-release.

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