Absent friends, never forgotten

Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh playing live
Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh playing live

By David Hennessy

Established since 1987, traditional band Altan have brought the music of Donegal around the world and remain one of the most prominent of Irish bands with over a million records sold. The first trad band to be signed to a major label when they joined Virgin in the 1990s, Altan have paved the way for the bands that have followed and played with such greats as Dolly Parton, Enya, The Chieftains, Bonnie Raitt and Allison Krauss.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, lead vocalist and fiddle player, and the band are currently working on an album that is due out next year. This collection will be the band’s eleventh studio album. Some of this material will be previewed during the band’s upcoming UK dates.

This month also sees a sad milestone for the band. It was in September 1994 that Frankie Kennedy, flute and tin whistle player and Mairéad’s husband, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 38.

Mairéad tells The Irish World: “It will be 20 years since he passed away on 19 September and actually we’re playing that night in Scotland. It’s poignant and it’s emotional and it’s kind of hard to believe that it’s 20 years since he passed away but I think the band are at the stage now that we feel we have evolved into something else and that we’re musically more mature, personally more mature, it’s like a new adventure, a new road.”

Frankie and Mairead were married in 1981 after meeting at traditional sessions in their native Donegal. After establishing Altan, Frankie was a driving force in getting the band signed by major label, Virgin. Frankie even continued to tour and record after being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a vicious form of cancer, in 1992.

Mairéad feels Frankie’s presence every time Altan perform: “He has never left us. Even when the joke is on us, we always realise it’s him. He had a great sense of humour and that always stays with us and we miss him for that. He had a great leadership, he was a great leader and he had a great vision for the band. Hopefully we’ll fulfil that somehow as well.”

Altan accept a Hot Press award in 1994. Frankie Kennedy is to Mairead's right
Altan accept a Hot Press award in 1994. Frankie Kennedy is to Mairead’s right

When Frankie passed away, the band continued in his honour knowing it was what he would have wanted: “It would have been easy for me to stop there and then and just wallow in my self pity but I think to carry on was a hard decision but it was a good decision long term for everyone involved. We’ve got lost and come back and what I mean by that is his vision was so clear and the rest of us weren’t as clear minded as him, but you do learn by a person’s absence what they really wanted you to do and that’s where we’re at.

“Virgin UK signed us, that was when major labels meant a lot, and initially that was through Frankie. Frankie had everything set up. By the time he passed away, it was bitter sweet in the way he had it all set up but then he couldn’t actually be part of it.”

Are the band proud of breaking that new ground, getting signed by a major label and paving the way for so many more to follow? “We are very proud of that because we were very traditional, we stuck to our guns, we stayed within the Donegal tradition and that was over 20 years ago.

“Since then, our music has changed as well. We’ve travelled a lot, we’ve met up with a lot of musicians, we’ve collaborated. This new album will reflect all of that maturity.

“Really, it (music) has no boundaries. I may have started playing fiddle here in Donegal but I can play with everyone from African fiddle players to Indian fiddle players to American fiddle players. It doesn’t really matter. If you can play a few notes together, that’s what really matters and it has that universality about it.”

Asked if the audience at Altan’s upcoming UK dates can expect to hear new material,  Mairéad answers: “Oh yes. We’ve been playing them and it’s just good for the band as well, good for our heads to try out new material. We’ll be trying out some of the new tracks and hopefully building on our new repertoire.

“We’ve always loved it (the UK), there’s always cousins or neighbours or somebody going to be in the audience and it’s always great, it’s kind of home from home and it’s only an hour away so that’s always a big plus. We have always had a great time there with fellow musicians and with friends and it’s a nice convenient place to tour instead of going hours away and you’re so far from home. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re 30 years on the road,” she laughs.

On that note, can Mairéad believe how long her career has stretched, with Altan alone going over 25 years? “Oh, I don’t even want to think about it but it’s like yesterday that we started. Music is such a great expression and we all had jobs prior to playing music but this was the way for us and it really has brought us to other places both musically and personally, it’s just been such a wonderful journey.”

Can Mairéad pick out one highlight from a long and illustrious career? “There’s a lot of highlights but I would say one of the biggest thrills was, and Frankie was there for the first initial one, when Dolly Parton asked us to join her on a live album with Alison Krauss and all the top musicians of Nashville and Dollywood. We had such a great time.

“Frank himself was ill at the time but he joined us and it was great excitement and great fun. It kind of opened that doorway of music really isn’t that different anywhere you go. Everyone feels the same about it and it has that connection and those people that we connected with then are still our friends now and some of them are on this new album so it has that circle of connection definitely. We have Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas and Kenny Malone and there’s a lot of the Nashville-based musicians that we met then that we will use on this album.”

For the full interview, see the September 6 Irish World. 

Altan play The Met in Bury on September 6, Tithe Barn in Bishop’s Cleeve on September 7, Colchester Arts Centre on September 10, Cecil Sharp House in London on September 11, South Devon Arts Centre on September 13, Nettlebed Folk Club on September 15, St Andrews in the Square Glasgow on September 19 and Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline on September 20.

The new album from Altan is expected early next year.

For more information, go to http://altan.ie/.


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