Earlier this year, Irish trad music legends Altan played The Duncairn in Belfast. We took the opportunity to catch up with fiddle player and vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. The conversation turned to the band's longevity and famous music style.
FT: You play music in a unique Donegal style. To the uninitiated, what is the Donegal tradition, and what sets it apart?
MM: Well, the thing with Donegal is you have to look at it geographically, so the style is based on our geography. We are the north-west corner of Ireland, kind of cut off in many ways. So you have a pastured, good farmland, in east Donegal, and then on the west coast, you have your acidic land, which is peat and bogland, so that’s where the music is, or most of it is. The language, the Gaeltacht area is there. Therefore, the language is a good basis to start with the songs.
The songs are quite unique to other Gaeltacht, because of our association with the western seaboard, from Scotland down, so you have songs like ‘Donal Oh’ which can be found in Scotland, so you have all these very ancient connections, and then in the dance music, you also have those connections with medieval Scottish music.
There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from the Irish and Scottish Chieftains in the past and people travelled to Scotland for work. Tunes were always being carried back and forth.
FT: Donegal is home to two of the biggest Irish bands in Altan and Clannad. Is there something about being from a relatively isolated part of the island or is there just something in the air?
MM: I think Derek Bell got right when he said, it rains a lot in Donegal and so they have nothing else to do! Maybe he’s right that we have nothing else to do, but learn tunes, make tunes up, and play songs
At this point band member Martin Kelly joins us.
FT: And was there any friendly rivalry between you and Clannad, as to who was the best band, in the country, or in the county?
MM: Well I think we always looked up to Clannad, because Clannad were there, long before us.
MK: They’re much older than us of course. (Laughs)
MM: I have to say I’ve always been a huge fan of Clannad, I always loved what they did with the songs, and the same for some other Donegal bands who were a real inspiration for us. I feel, personally, that they carved the road for us.
MK: And I suppose they dwelled more on the songs, whereas we doing more on the tunes than the songs.
MM: That’s true, the songs weren’t a huge part of ours. For example, I suppose 60% of our set would be on the tunes, and the other 40%, on songs, whereas they were always concentrating on songs. There is a huge well of songs still there!
FT: Altan are the foremost Irish traditional band in the world. What are the qualities in the band that gives you that edge?
MM: Ach I don’t know. My mother would agree with you (Laughs)
MK: Ach there’s lots of other people there you know! And a lot of young people coming through now too.
FT: Well there are, but if you ask people to name the three biggest Irish bands in the world, it will be, The Chieftains, Clannad and Altan!
MK: Well I suppose longevity helps, it has a bit to do with that.
MM: We’ve been around long enough!
FT: But it can’t just be down to how long you been around? There must be some other qualities you have?
MM: It’s other people that might say that. I remember being in Japan, doing a gig, and someone said, I feel what you doing here, and I asked what they meant. They said, “I can smell the turf”. That to me means integrity, you know. If we can bring the smell of turf to people living the other side of the world. So to me, this was the biggest compliment.
MK: You can’t look at it through someone else’s eyes. You say we are one of the best traditional bands in the world, and that’s lovely to hear, but all we can do, approaching a gig or preparing to record an album, is do the best we can, in terms of collecting, writing and selecting songs and tunes, and we put a lot of thought into where the emphasis should be. In terms of the arrangement, try not to impose into the energy that is naturally in the music, you know, we just try to do the best we can.
FT: Was there a point when Altan might have gone a different route and sought a more crossover audience? I’m thinking around the time of ‘The Blue Idol’ when Dolly Parton guested on a track and you had The Rolling Stones and Ricky Skaggs as fans.
MK: Well don’t rule it out! (Laughs)
MM: Well the thing with Dolly Parton, that happened in another way, where we were invited by her to go to, poor Frankie, God rest him, was still alive, Dollywood. It was kind of surreal, but that’s where we actually met a lot of fabulous bluegrass artists like Alison Krauss, and her band, and the Del McCrory band, and the Coxes. Dolly Parton herself was incredible.
Altan’s latest record ‘The Gap Of Dreams’ is available from all good stockists. For more news and upcoming tour dates, visit the Altan.ie.