Interview with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh fiddler and founder of Celebrated Irish Group Altan: “I’m Very Proud That The Band Has Continued And Evolved.”

Altan, one of Ireland’s foremost traditional groups, will bring its combination of tunes and songs to the Abbey Bar, located above the Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg  on Thursday, February 20th. The evening begins at 7:30 pm.  The concert is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.  More information can be found on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website. Tickets are $30 General Admission, $25 for SFMS Members, and $10 for students (ages 3-22).  Tickets will be available at the door or online.

Earlier this week, fiddler, vocalist, and co-founder of Altan, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh chatted with SFMS staff writer Peter Winter via email about the musical tradition of Donegal where the band hails from, her work with the organizaion Cairdeas na bhFidléirí (Friendship of Fiddlers), and what keeps Altan exciting after 30 years!

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So much of your music is a celebration of the musical tradition of your home county of Donegal. What do you associate with the music of this region?

County Donegal is situated in the North West of Ireland. On the Western part it is dominated by the Derryveagh mountains, which divides the county between the bog land and the good farming land. This varied topography gives Donegal a distinctive style in the musical dialects of the area as a whole! It seems to lean towards Scotland in its music, where a lot of the people had to emigrate to make a living and in turn brought back songs and tunes! Today the fiddle is the main instrument in the county but all of the other instruments , flies, pipes, whistles and accordions are also in abundance.

You founded Altan in the late 80s. What about this band has kept it
exciting and fulfilling for you over the years?

Myself and my late husband Frankie Kennedy started the band together,
never planning to take it too seriously as we were both teaching at the
time. But after 30 something years of touring and life in general I’m very
proud that the band has continued and evolved. I am really excited about this latest combo and our latest album The Gap of Dreams, as I feel with Martin Tourish (accordion) and myself playing melody and Ciaran (bouzouki) and Dáithí (guitar) adding great color with their accompaniment, the music has a very special dynamic and depth.

What was behind the decision to return to Donegal for newest album
“The Gap of Dreams” (2018)?

We wanted to indulge in the atmosphere and source of our music.
It seemed that it was time to go to the hills of Donegal and play the
music of the area. It worked as when we would travel to the studio daily, we would stop and appreciate where we really were. As an artist would bring his easel and paints out to paint a picture, we would bring the images into
the studio while playing and singing! The Gap (of the title) being that space between this world and the other!

You are a founding member of Cairdeas na bhFidléirí. Could you explain a bit about what this group stands for and why it is important to you?

Cairdeas na bhFidléirí meaans the “Friendship of Fiddlers,” which was set
up in the early eighties (circa 1982) to promote and make sure that the
fiddle music and style of Donegal was preserved and passed on to future generations. Donegal fiddling is unique and very different to other Irish fiddling styles. It also has a very unusual repertoire which isn’t found anywhere else!

What do you hope audiences take away from an Altan show?

I hope everyone will enjoy the show! I also hope that listeners will take away an understanding of the deep tradition of songs, both in my native language Gaelic and English, and of course the unique fiddle music of the area.

Who are artists in traditional music that are inspiring and interesting to you right now?

I’m enjoying so many young musicians at the moment! I can’t get over the standard and integrity of the musicianship these young musicians have obtained. I love listening to a young Dublin fiddler by the name of Liam O’Connor, Another one to look out for is Iarla O’Donnell. There’s also a 12 year old Donegal fiddler by the name of Brandon Shovelin that blows me away. There are so many amazing musicians, Rebecca McCarthy Kent, Aoife Ní Bhrídín, Molly Wall….. I could go on! Recently while discussing this with one of Donegal’s veteran fiddlers Danny Meehan, he pointed out that long ago we looked to all the older musicians for inspiration; but that now its the opposite! We are looking at the younger generation for inspiration! He was so right!

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Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg where he writes, teaches music, plays in the Celtic group Seasons, DJs, runs half of the record label His & Hers Records and serves on the board of the SFMS. He is on instagram.

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