Written and recorded by the Irish folk group Clannad, this atmospheric Gaelic ballad was the theme song to the 1982 British miniseries Harry's Game. The group already had several albums under their belt, but "Harry's Game" brought them international acclaim and cemented their signature sound: ethereal vocal harmonies and haunting melodies backed by layers of synth and electronic instrumentation.
Clannad is a family band that formed in the '70s and started making waves in their homeland for their unorthodox approach to traditional music. Moya Brennan, who founded the group with her siblings and uncles, explained: "Gaelic songs were sung unaccompanied, so what we were doing was sacrilege. The only time you were really allowed to add instruments to singing in Gaelic way back, was the harp, and I wasn't playing the harp like that. So we were kind of regarded as being traitors."
While Gaelic purists hated them, contemporary artists didn't understand them. "People thought it was a bit mad that we were singing Gaelic songs," Moya recalled. "People used to say to us, 'Listen, you'll not get anywhere doing that.'"
When a folk revival took hold in Ireland, however, folks were more welcoming to their contemporary take on tradition. With another sibling added to the lineup, the soon-to-be-famous New Age singer Enya, Clannad got even bolder with their sound, trading traditional acoustic instruments for synthesizers, horns, and electric pianos. In 1982, sans Enya, they got a new record deal with RCA.
Just before they signed with RCA, Clannad caught the attention of novelist Gerald Seymour, whose best-selling book Harry's Game was being made into a British miniseries. The story centered on a British spy who went undercover in Northern Ireland during the violent conflict known as The Troubles.
Clannad was hesitant to get involved with anything political, but they liked the film's message about the futility of killing. Seymour initially wanted to use Clannad's Scottish-Gaelic tune "Mhorag's Na Horo Gheallaidh" as the theme, but the band thought Irish-language lyrics would be more appropriate for the story. They took inspiration from an Irish proverb that roughly translates as "Everything that is and was will cease to be."
Ciaran Brennan built a story around the proverb, Moya recalled in a 1993 interview: "He elaborated on it with the moon and the stars, the East and the West, a young man and his fame. It was a kind of lament. The 'Fol lol the doh' part was really mouth music, if you think of a fiddle playing; Fol de liddle, taddle do, diddley idle oh. Well we just slowed it down because of the sentiment of what we were singing, we sang it very slowly. We wrote it in a couple of hours and thought, great, it's a nice tune and everything, but we didn't realize the sound we created had developed over the six albums before with all the experimentations we did with words and voices and harmonies."
This was a big hit in the UK, where it peaked at #5 in 1982, but it took a decade to make an impression in the US. In 1992, it was used in the political thriller Patriot Games, starring Harrison Ford, in a scene where an IRA member watches the music video on television. But its most significant exposure came in the form of a TV commercial for the Volkswagen Passat. Viewers were less concerned with the vehicle and more interested in the unique song. They flooded Volkswagen's customer service line with inquiries about the record.
Jason Flom, a record executive who signed the band to RCA, told Forbes: "Sure enough, we started selling like crazy off this ad. So we actually flew out to Detroit and met with Volkswagen. It was lucky the lyrics were in Gaelic because it was actually a funeral dirge, and I don't think if I was Volkswagen, I would be playing a funeral dirge in my ad for cars. But, we never told them. There are very few people in America that speak Gaelic. So we made a deal with Volkswagen. It worked out great, I mean we sold as many records as you could sell on a Gaelic folk funeral song. I mean it went gold, which was sort of a miracle."
After the success of the single, RCA delayed the release of the group's next album, Magical Ring, so they could include the track on the album.
This earned Clannad an Ivor Novello Award for Best Television Soundtrack.
In 1993, this was used in an ad campaign for Ireland's Jameson Whiskey.
U2 performed this as their concert outro during their War Tour in 1982 and 1983, and can be heard on their live film U2 Live At Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky
. Bono also joined Clannad on their 1986 track "In A Lifetime