Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh - It's In The Blood
If there is one person who has brought the traditional music of Donegal onto a world stage in recent years, it is Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Born and reared in the Gaeltacht area of Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore) in Donegal, she has travelled the world for over 30 years, bringing along with her a wealth of traditional tunes and songs from her native county, much of which she learned from her own family and neighbours, in particular from her father, the late Francie Ó Maonaigh.
Known to most as the fiery fiddler at the heart of Altan, Mairéad moved back to Donegal around 10 years ago, and is very closely connected to the place. Donegal is in her blood, in her soul, it is her passion – as can be evidenced in her music over the years. Altan, in particular, has been a platform for Donegal music all over the world. But there is more than one string to this particular lady’s bow, and as well as heading up Altan, Mairead has several other projects on the go. For several years now she has been in a group with fellow singers Moya Brennan and Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill – T With The Maggies – where they showcase the songs of Donegal. Though they don’t play too often as they are all so busy, they still do the odd gig when they can. More recently she has been working on a family project, Na Mooneys, which sees her focus again on the songs and tunes she learned from her father and others in Donegal. And with the String Sisters she combines tunes from Donegal with those from other fiddle traditions in the company of five other female fiddlers.
And to cap it all, Mairéad received the Gradam Ceoil award for Musician of the Year this February. These awards are the highest accolades to be bestowed on traditional musicians in Ireland, and Mairéad is only the third woman in 20 years to be given the main award. That says something about the recognition and respect she has earned amongst her peers and the wider traditional music world.
Talking to us in her beautiful home, overlooking Mount Errigal to one side and Carrickfinn beach at the other, the enthusiasm for her native Donegal, its music and language, and all she does to promote it, is incredibly obvious.
We begin by talking about Na Mooneys, a family group that consists of Mairéad, her sister Anna, her brother Gearóid, and his son, Mairéad’s nephew Ciarán. They released an album towards the end of last year and have been gigging together whenever their busy schedules allow. Ciarán is a fine fiddler and is no stranger to the stage, having played with Donegal band, Fidil, and in a duet with his concertina-playing wife, Caitlín Nic Gabhann. Gearóid (guitar) and Anna (whistle and vocals) have pursued different careers, but Na Mooneys was a project that was always going to happen.
“Doing something together as a family has always been on our minds,” said Mairéad, “even when my dad was alive more than 10 years ago. We always said we would need to make an album and have everyone on it. But when we actually decided to do it, it still took us about three years. We kept on meeting, putting tunes together, but then we would get busy with other things. Eventually we pinned down a time and went up to Manus Lunny’s studio (which is just along the beach from Mairéad’s house) and we are delighted that we did.”
It really is a family affair. “Ciarán does some work in recording and film production, and he was able to get some old recordings of my dad playing with us in Teelin (from Philip King at Hummingbird Productions), so that became the last track on the album. It starts with Francie explaining the tune – Green Grow The Rushes – a very common tune around here, so we thought it would be nice to finish the album with that. Also, on the album we have a few tunes that my father used to play; unusual tunes that are still not played out a lot, The Wee Pickle Tow being one example.”
To continue the family theme further, Na Mooneys are joined by various ‘guests’ on the album (and often in live performances). Mairéad and Dermot Byrne’s daughter, Nia, joins them on a few tracks on fiddle and vocals; Ciarán’s wife Caitlín joins on concertina and foot percussion; and ‘honorary Mooney’ Manus Lunny plays some bouzouki and keyboards. (Mairéad’s mother, Kitty Rua, who is also never too far from the action, laughs as we talk about this and says: “He is a great man that joins you crowd.”)
There are several songs on the CD, mostly featuring the two Mooney sisters, but on Dónal Na Gealaí, Mairéad, Anna and 13 year old Nia sing together. It’s something quite precious for Mairéad. “Nia has a lovely ‘transparent’ voice, and it is nice to capture this time of her life for her. She’ll always have this moment, and so will I. We all take turns singing a verse and it works nicely. It is actually a newly composed local song – it means Dónal Of The Moon – and it has a lovely story. Dónal was like the bogeyman and the threat of him kept the youngsters inside – Dónal na Gealaí will get you! The song was written by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, a great writer from around here and a great singer.” It sounds old and fits the album really well.
Mairéad and Anna sang together on a very early Altan album, and the songs on Na Mooneys are slightly reminiscent of that. “I think the sibling thing always works,” said Mairéad. “You kind of know when the other person is going to breathe, or how she is going to attack the word. Anna has a lovely broad, deep voice, whereas I have more of a soprano voice. They complement each other. Anna has loads of beautiful old songs in English as well, that our aunt used to collect. They are in a book, written in blackberry ink, and include lots of old songs that would be found in Scotland and east Donegal.”
Na Mooneys have been performing together since the CD came out and have several gigs in the pipeline. “I love it, Mairéad explains, “as it is a different repertoire to what Altan do. And your whole family is around you. Mind you, that can make it harder too – there is no diplomacy at all at times! It is brilliant though. It is great to have Gearóid and Anna on the road with us. And Nia too - she is playing the fiddle now, and she is great. Then we have Manus and Caitlín as well, when we are trying to be fancy! Manus covers up all sorts. We need them to hold the whole thing together, so there is no war.”
A different sort of relationship features in String Sisters, another project Mairéad is working on at the moment. Here six female fiddlers blend music from the Nordic and Celtic traditions into what they call “a glorious riot of all-encompassing sound”. Mairéad tells us more.
“This group came about in 1998. I had met Catriona Macdonald from Shetland at different festivals, and we always got on well. One day she rang me up and asked what I thought about a group of women getting together and playing fiddles at a gig at Celtic Connections - I thought it sounded wonderful. Liz Carroll was part of it – she is amazing. And there is Liz Knowles from North Carolina who has an incredible musical mind. She has a classical background but is completely at ease with traditional music as well, and she is an incredible composer. Then there is Annabjørg Lien from Norway, a very melodic hardanger player, and Emma Härdelin who is a beautiful hearty singer, and fiddler, from the gypsy tradition of Sweden. Then we have Dave Milligan on piano, Conrad Molleson on bass, James Mackintosh on drums, and Tore Bruvoll from Norway on guitar. We call them ‘the Misters’. They are amazing, so versatile, and great people to work with.”
With so many in the band, with other projects on the go, it must be hard to get everyone together. “It is. There are times when I just can’t do it, and I’ve had to send my sub, Liz Doherty, in my place a few times,” says Mairéad. “They had a big tour of Sweden a few years ago and I had just come back from another tour and I felt that I couldn’t leave Nia again so soon. A lot of them are mothers, so they understand. But now we are working on an album; it is being recorded in June in Shetland. We were going to be doing it last September, but Nia was starting secondary school and it just wouldn’t work for me then. So we delayed it until now. I’ve never been to Shetland and I am dying to go. We are playing in Mareel while we are there, to help with some of the costs. There is arts council sponsorship from the other various countries represented, but Ireland isn’t so forthcoming.”
“We play material from the different countries, and often it is things that people are composing. I have some compositions too, but a lot of the tunes I take to the band are Donegal fiddle music. I have to learn Norwegian, Swedish and Scottish tunes, which is fantastic for the head – a great challenge, especially when you don’t read music, which I don’t. Some of them are complicated tunes as well, so it gets you out of your comfort zone for a while. And it is good fun. There are no big egos; we are all on the same level.”
“And once that is done I will be doing a new album with Altan. We have been on the go now for over 30 years. We should have made an album last year to celebrate, but we were so busy, so we will try to make one by the end of this year so we have it out by our 31st birthday. We actually really don’t know exactly when we started as we were playing as session musicians for so long – so it might be even longer. We just took a roundabout date – the date of our first big concert during Listowel Writers Week.”
Mairéad and her husband, Frankie Kennedy (who sadly died of cancer in 1994), founded the band and were soon joined by Mark Kelly and Ciarán Curran. Their vision at the start was “to bring a store of unrecorded and unusual tunes and songs from our rich Donegal heritage to a wider world audience, undiluted and uncompromised.” They have certainly achieved that, and continue to do so, though it isn’t always easy. Mairéad explains. “At the start Frankie had a great vision for the band, while the rest of us were bluttering about; he had a great mind for where he could see us going. And if you are in a professional band, you have to have that vision. I suppose I had to take that role on. It is sometimes hard when you have been on the go for a while; people think they have heard it all before and would rather book a younger band (and I agree that it is important to get young blood in). So it is hard for us to get into certain circuits. It’s also hard to get gigs now as a professional five piece band in Ireland; there are just too many overheads. It makes more sense for duets or trios. But we are still making a living, and that is obviously important. America is our place to go, and Europe and Japan. That’s our market. And I usually try to keep the diary as blank as possible in between as I like being at home for a while.”
Altan has just released a book of all the tunes that the band has recorded over 12 albums – some 220 of them. They are laid out in sections for each album, and Mairéad and the others have extended the background notes to each tune, making it a very interesting, readable release, which really plays tribute to musicians, characters and stories from another time. In her foreword, Mairéad says: “We play music which came from people that we loved and respected and were proud to know as friends. As is the cycle of life, a lot of these wonderful musicians are no longer with us, but their music and memories and stories remain. Their legacy is what is here in this book and above all we try to carry their humanity in every note.”
She explains further how the history of the tunes and the people who carried them are so important. “We used to go down to Con Cassidy, James Byrne and John Doherty – to meet them and get to know them, which was more important. You can’t separate the music and the person. Just look at people like Jimmy Campbell. The tune is so part of him. That’s the way I want to be, and we need to instill that in youngsters – that people are so important as well. It’s not just about the tunes – it’s about where the tune came from, and the story behind it.” There are some great stories behind Altan’s tunes and many of them are carefully passed on in this tune book. It’s a fascinating read.
Mairéad’s part in passing on these important traditions hasn’t gone unnoticed, and perhaps this was partly why she was awarded this year’s Gradam Ceoil for Musician of the Year. In Ireland, these awards are a huge honour, and the ceremony in Cork Opera House is a huge night. Mairéad played at the ceremony in February with Na Mooneys, with daughter Nia by her side. “It was great for Nia,” she says. “Her dad got the award a few years previously, so I told her that she needs to continue the family tradition. And it is good that she saw a woman getting it. I’m only the third woman to get it in 20 years - Mary Bergin and Máire Ní Chathasaigh got there before me. It’s strange that there have only been three as there are so many amazing female musicians around. When I was younger there weren’t that many young women musicians, but there are now – its equal now and it is fantastic. I was delighted for Donegal fiddling, and for Donegal in general as Rita Gallagher, another Donegal woman, was given the Singer of the Year award, and Dónal Lunny, who has big Donegal connections, got a Hall of Fame award. We had a great night afterwards – we didn’t go to bed at all. Rita sang and we had brilliant tunes, and lots of older musicians appeared. I was in heaven, and it was lovely to have the family around.”
“You never play music expecting to get something like that – that’s not why I play music – and if I never got it I would still be playing music with all my heart. It is lovely, though, for someone to say ‘fair play to you’.”
If anyone deserves the recognition of an award, it is Mairéad. She devotes her life to passing on the tunes, songs and stories of previous generations, and honouring the tradition bearers who went before her, and she is a great role model for the next generation of traditional musicians and singers in Ireland. So, absolutely Mairéad - fair play to you!
By Fiona Heywood
Published in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition (June/Aug 2017)
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