"The feel of the thing is certainly commemoration (that) our Holocaust took place," said Moloney, noting that the Irish have a national holiday to mark the 1916 rebellion for independence from British rule but nothing to commemorate the famine.
Musically, the symphony touches on the various bits that took place, from the arrival of coffin ships (so called because thousands of the emigrants died on the crossing) at Grosse Isle in Canada to Queen Victoria's visit to Dublin.
The queen, Moloney said with a sly chuckle, "came over for some reason to have a look-round."
The famine's impact, however, is not limited to the past, nor to that green island about the size of South Carolina.
To reflect what he sees as the universality of the famine experience, Moloney is incorporating Kodo drummers from Japan, an African American gospel choir, the Rankin Family folk group from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Native American musicians.
(Moloney points out that members of the Choctaw tribe collected and sent $700 to Ireland for relief when the famine was at its worst. Showing that the sympathetic feeling between the Choctaw and the Irish remains, on Friday, the Chieftains will be made honorary chiefs of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the first time any musical act has been so honored.)
The symphony will consist predominantly of original music, Moloney said, adding that he also plans to use some 19th-Century Irish music he has come across while researching the period at Dublin's Trinity College, the same institution that in 1988 awarded him a doctorate in music.
That, however, was an honorary degree recognizing the Chieftains' role in keeping traditional Irish music alive. Moloney has no formal schooling in composition, though he has had plenty of practice scoring and orchestrating the music that the Chieftains have provided for films, including "Barry Lyndon," "The Grey Fox, "Far and Away" and the forthcoming Irish film "Circle of Friends."
In any case, he doesn't feel daunted about tackling a symphony. In fact, while he originally planned to rely heavily on film composer, arranger and conductor Michael Kamen to do most of the orchestrating, Moloney said that so far, he's done it all himself.
He has enlisted one of his countrymen, actor Richard Harris, to narrate, and Kamen to lead the Quebec Symphony at the premiere. The work will be recorded by the Chieftains' label, RCA Victor, and is scheduled for release in October.
The various Canadian elements provide a reminder that Canada was one of the major entry points to North America for Irish emigrants. Moloney said he recently visited Grosse Isle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
"About 30,000 were buried in these mass graves," he recalled. "I visited it recently and was inspired to play a little tune as I walked across. To me, although it was a very peaceful resting place, with the wildflowers it reminded me of a little island off the west coast of Ireland," he said, his voice trailing off slightly, "and in a sense I suppose it was."
* The Chieftains play a sold-out show tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. (800) 300-4345.