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Altan – Irish Ensemble Makes for Thoroughly Modern Traditionalists 

Updated: Mar 11, 2020



Irish Ensemble Makes for Thoroughly Modern Traditionalists 

by Brad Balfour

When the Irish group Altan visited New York during St. Patrick’s week, it transformed the City Winery in lower Manhattan into a pastoral scene. It was rich with lilting melodies, harmonious voices and the engaging sonics of various traditional instruments such as violin, accordion, and bouzouki. The band packed the club and stirred an enthusiastic crowd throughout the nearly two-hour performance.

Helmed by singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the band’s 30-year aural history pinions between Celtic roots and modern production values. Ní Mhaonaigh’s musical journey really took shape when she co-founded the ensemble with the late Frankie Kennedy in 1987. Altan initially consisted of herself and Kennedy performing under another name, but it evolved into a formal group with various musicians and guests on its albums. Her partnership with Kennedy consolidated it into a band – as they left behind careers in education – with a rich sound and substantial musical heritage.

Then the tragic happened once Kennedy developed cancer. They had been together since she was 15, so it was such a devastating loss when died. As the blonde chanteuse explained, “I wouldn’t have gotten through [the impact of his loss] as well as I did if it wasn’t for the band and the music. Music has been a blessing to me as it has for anyone who has been struck emotionally by something like this. Words cannot prepare you and – though this might seem redundant – the impact of the music goes deeper than any words can.”

She added, “When he was in treatment, he insisted that we kept on playing even though he couldn’t always come along. He saw the growing public support for the band and was completely selfless – [he wanted me to carry on, so he would leave something behind for me]. Our music helped us through a very hard time; it helped the band as well because they lost more than a friend. It made us stronger people and better musicians. When something like this happens, it makes you realize that since we’re all going to die, you have to work harder at what you believe in.”

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh

That drive led her to produce a substantial body of work, so Ní Mhaonaigh became recognized as a leading proponent of the Donegal fiddle style and one of the finest singers in her native tongue, the Irish language. After more than 22 years with a band, she finally released Imeall, a debut solo album in 2009.

As she explained, “Because we’re from Donegal, the music we play is Donegal music; our style is situated there. But, the band puts a lot of work into the sound, so the interplay between the instruments, the bouzouki and the guitar, and our arrangements, that is where the band’s original sound comes in. Though many of the tunes we play are traditional, they’re enhanced by the embellishments we make, which [in turn] makes us different from other groups.”

After three decades of establishing a substantial global audience, and further successes – the Irish government, through The Irish Postal Body, honored them with a postage stamp featuring the band – Altan recently came home to Donegal to record their latest release, The Gap of Dreams. The title – borrowed from Francis Carlin’s poem, “The Ballad of Douglas Bridge,” in which the poet writes: “The Gap of Dreams is never shut” – really reflects their home turf.

Released here in the States on Compass Records in early March this year, Altan kicked off its international tour with a late February opening date in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Besides Ní Mhaonaigh, the current lineup includes Ciaran Tourish (on fiddle and whistles), bouzoukist Ciarán Curran, accordionist Martin Tourish, guitarist Dáíthí Sproule and Mark Kelly.

County Donegal has inspired much song, music, and folklore for both for the general Irish traditional scene and Altan in particular. So, the album features many sets of Donegal-inspired reels such as Néilidh Boyle’s composition “Seán sa Cheo” (“John in the Mist”), as well the ensemble’s own compositions including Martin Tourish’s two lively reels, “Tuar” (meaning omen or sign) and “Oíche Fheidhmuúil,” (which translates as “a spirited night”).

One of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s own compositions here is a slip jig, featured as the title track and is followed by two more, one by her own daughter Nia Byrne, “Nia’s Jig,” on which she plays fiddle. Guitarist Kelly’s son Sam penned the second, “The Beekeeper” (so named because it’s in the key of B) and plays concertina on the track. Four other songs are in Gaelic, which, as already noted, is not only Ní Mhaonaigh’s native language but also that of Donegal’s northwest.

Now in their 30th year, the group will return home this summer to celebrate at the 41st annual Ballyshannon Folk and Traditional Music Festival, which takes place on the August Bank Holiday Weekend (Thursday the 2nd to Sunday the 5th, 2018). They headline on Friday in their hometown, the oldest in Ireland.

With the band’s many benchmarks and ongoing international sales under their belt, how does Ní Mhaonaigh feel about the future? “My ambition is for the group to continue and be happy. When it stops being fun, then we’ll stop. I think we’re all very sensible and long enough in the tooth now to know when that would be. But, I can’t see it happening though, because we’ve been together so long now that the group is my family. [And you really never can leave your family].”

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: April 17, 2018.

Photos © 2018 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

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