Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh was born and raised in the Donegal Gaeltacht of Gaoth Dobhair. Her first language was Irish, and from her earliest years she was surrounded by music and song. Now one of the leading exponents of Donegal fiddle music, she received her start on the instrument from her father, Francie, a great fiddle teacher with a wealth of unusual local tunes, many learnt in turn from his mother, Roise. She also received training and inspiration from fiddler, Dinny McLaughlin, who was a frequent visitor to the home when she was young.
Mairead has always had an equal love of singing and again learned many songs from neighbors and friends in Gaoth Dobhair.
As well as her work with legendary Irish group Altan, Mairead over the years has presented traditional music programs on radio and television, including the classic radio show, “The Long Note” and the television series, “The Pure Drop”.
The String Sisters is a collaboration of the Celtic and Nordic music world’s top female fiddlers: Annbjørg Lien from Norway; Catriona Macdonald from Shetland; Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles from the United States of America; Mairead ni Mhaonaigh (Altan) from Ireland; and Emma Härdelin from Sweden.
The String Sisters began at Celtic Connections in January of 2001, when Catriona Macdonald saw one of her dreams become a reality by assembling some of the world’s top leading female fiddlers. Colin Hynd at Celtic Connections grabbed the chance to premiere the event at his festival, and the experience was nothing short of earth shattering for all who participated. The Glasgow concert was a great success and the project was rebooked for the following year. However, despite the repeated success, the Sisters were not since been able to reunite prior to undertaking a grand tour of Norway in 2005.
During the winter of 2005, the sisters went on tour in Norway, in cooperation with the Norwegian National Concerts, and Grappa Music Group. The tour was Annbjørg Lien’s initiative.
A live album and DVD recorded in Norway, titled Live, was released in 2007. The String Sisters were joined by David Milligan on piano, Conrad Ivitsky on double bass, Tore Bruvoll on guitar, and James Mackintosh on drums and percussion.
Irish traditional band Altan has had a tremendous effect on audiences and music lovers throughout the world. With their beautifully crafted award-winning recordings, ranging dynamically from the most tender old Irish songs all the way to vibrant reels and jigs, Altan have taken Irish music to some of the best concert halls and festivals throughout the world.
During all this time, there has been the resolute commitment of the band to delivering the beauty of traditional music, particularly that of the Donegal fiddlers and singers, to a wide-range of audiences.
Altan have always believed that Irish traditional music is modern-day music. “Ireland isn’t known for its opera or classical music. What we are known for is our traditional music, our language, our culture. That’s what we can give the world,” says acclaimed fiddler and lead vocalist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh.
The roots of the band begin with the music and fun of gatherings and sessions in kitchens and pubs in Donegal where masterful music was heard in an environment of appreciation and intimacy; this is the foundation of the band.
The real essence of the band was the music and personality of band founders, Belfast flute-player, Frankie Kennedy, and Gweedore singer and fiddler, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh.
As soon as anyone met them and heard their unique music in the early 1980s, whether in a large noisy festival session, or in the small traditional clubs of Dublin and Belfast, it was immediately clear there was synergy at work.
Mairead and Frankie played a mix of old Donegal fiddle music and rare Northern flute tunes. Steadily, the duo grew organically into a band in the mid-1980s. They chose the name Altan, which is a deep and mysterious lake behind Errigal Mountain in Donegal.
Altan was committed to musical excellence and good-natured fun. The band members were some of the best players in the contemporary folk music scene. Altan has always been a band featuring virtuoso musicians. One of the first was bouzouki-player, Ciaran Curran from Co. Fermanagh, a well-respected session and festival musician, nephew of fiddler, Ned Curran. Like all accompanists of the time, Ciaran had created his own style on the bouzouki, and his playing is an essential part of the Altan sound.
With the inclusion of guitarist Mark Kelly in the mid-1980s Altan truly became a band. Mark had played other musical styles, and from the very beginning he showed a talent for stylishly incorporating fresh rhythms and chordings to the band’s arrangements. Mark and Ciaran appeared on the 1987 album “Altan”, which, even though not officially a band album, unveiled the Altan’s studio sound.
The increasing amount of live performances in 1984 and 1985 led Frankie and Mairead to quit their teaching jobs and go professional. Especially influential were short trips to the United States in those years when Altan played concerts in New York, Minnesota, Madison, Portland and Seattle with Derry guitarist, Daithi Sproule, a Minnesota resident, and like Ciaran and Mark, an old friend.
Daithi was one of the first musicians to adapt the guitar to old Gaelic songs (many of which he learned in the Gaeltacht of Rannafast, just a few miles from Mairead’s home in Gweedore). These US concerts, played in clubs and sometimes in noisy Irish pubs, where people were expecting a very different sort of music, convinced Frankie and Mairead that no-compromise traditional music played with passion and vitality could win over any audience anywhere.
In subsequent years, Altan recorded albums for American independent record label Green Linnet, all of which won praises and awards and appeared in the Billboard charts. Alytan’s collaborators on these albums were first-rate: Donal Lunny, Brian Masterson and Steve Cooney in particular made oustanding contributions over the years.
Another friend played with Altan for several years, fiddle maestro Paul O’Shaughnessey, a stunning player with a deep knowledge of Donegal music. The two-fiddle sound became popular, so as Altan toured more and more widely, Paul had to leave due to pressure of work. His place was taken by another great young Donegal fiddler, Ciaran Tourish, a musician with a special love for the weaving of spontaneous harmony and counterpoint around the melodies of the other lead players.
A final element was added to Altan’s sound in the early 1990s. It was another old friend, accordion-player Dermot Byrne, another Donegal musician, who grew up listening to an older generation of Donegal fiddlers, the Doherty’s, the Byrne’s and the Cassidy’s.
Sadly, in the early 1990s Altan suffered a devastating blow, when band leader and manager, Frankie Kennedy, at the height of his career as a brilliant and innovative flute-player and just when his and Mairead’s musical dreams were being realized, was diagnosed with cancer.
Through a long illness, Altan, at Frankie’s insistence, continued to tour and perform with Frankie’s participation whenever possible. Frankie died on September 19, 1994. He continues to be a presence and inspiration in Altan’s life and music.
In 1996 Altan was signed to Virgin Records, the first Irish band of their kind to be signed by a major label. Altan achieved gold and platinum albums in Ireland and toured larger venues, throughout the globe, with tours in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe as well as regular successful U.S. tours.
In recent years Altan has experimented with traditional music, using orchestral arrangements of its most popular pieces. The arrangements have been scored by the highly respected arranger Fiachra Trench and performed with the Ulster Orchestra, The RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and the Royal Scottish Opera Orchestra.
In March of 2010 Altan released Altan: 25th Anniversary Celebration album with the RTE Concert Orchestra, and embarked on an international tour.
In 2012, Altan released Gleann Nimhe – The Poison Glen inspired by a region around Dún Lúiche, in County Donegal, made of deep glens and lakes. The album featured Martin Tourish who would later replace Dermot Byrne.
The Widening Gyre, released in 2015, was recorded in Nashville and explored the influence of Appalachian music on Irish music.
The Band in 2013-2016
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh – lead vocals, fiddle
Ciaran Tourish – fiddle, tin whistle, backing vocals
Mark Kelly – guitars, bouzouki, backing vocals
Ciaran Curran – bouzouki, mandolin
Dáithí Sproule – guitar, vocals
Martin Tourish – accordion
In 2018, Altan released The Gap of Dreams. The album was recorded at Attica Studios in the townland of Termon in northern County Donegal, produced by Michael Kenney and Tommy McLaughlin. The album title, The Gap of Dreams, is borrowed from a poem by Francis Carlin, “The Ballad of Douglas Bridge,” in which he writes: “The Gap of Dreams is never shut,” referring to the gap between this world and the Otherworld. The Otherworld has always wielded a large influence on the fiddling tradition of County Donegal and has served as inspiration for song, music, and folklore.