Profile: Altan

Altan are probably the most talked-about and lauded traditional group to come out of Ireland this past decade. Playing Donegal-based authentic traditional music, they have achieved great popularity without diluting or jazzing up the music. They play authentic traditional music of Donegal and the north of Ireland, tinged with the drive of Scottish traditional music. Mairead's acclaimed singing is the focal point of the group, backed by a trademark double fiddle and flute combination with guitar and bouzouki for rhythm. Recently they have added button accordionist Dermot Byrne, a past guest artist, to the lineup.

Altan grew out of the album by the same name, recorded by wife and husband duo, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy, at the time both primary school teachers in Dublin, on a leave of absence. The full sized Altan have recorded four more award-winning albums since then, and have played worldwide to steadily increasing audiences.

Altan plays a diet of authentic traditional music, and have been hailed for popularising it without toning down or modifying for the mass market.

Listen to a clip of Altan's Dúlamán from the Narada album Celtic Legacy.

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Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh    Vocals and fiddle
Ciaran Curran	        Bouzouki
Daithi Sproule       	Guitar
Ciaran Tourish	        Fiddle
Dermot Byrne         	Accordion


Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh has won widespread applause for her singing and fiddle playing for Altan. She grew up in the Gaelteacht (Irish speaking area) of Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair) in Donegal. Her father, Francie O'Maonaigh was a well-known fiddler in the area, and from him and others in the locality she learned a great store of traditional music. She plays fiddle in the regional Donegal style.

Ciaran Curran of Fermanagh started playing traditional music in college, plays the bouzouki for Altan. Originally a Greek traditional instrument, it was introduced to Irish music by Johnny Moynihan, of Sweeney's Men, and later popularised by Andy Irvine and others, until it has now become almost a standard Irish traditional instrument. Curran also plays the local Fermanagh-Leitrim style of music with a group called The Dogs, with Ben Lennon, Seamus Quinn and Gabriel McArdle.

Daithi Sproule's performing days go back to his membership of Skara Brae, with Micheal O' Domhnaill and his sisters Triona and Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill. He now lives in Minneapolis and plays solo as well as being a member of Trian, with Liz Carroll and Billy McComiskey.

Ciaran Tourish comes from Buncrana, also in Donegal. He learned tin whistle as a child and then fiddle, learning from Mairead's teacher, Dinny McLaughlin. He is involved in both session and solo work in addition to his role in Altan.

Dermot Byrne is yet another Donegal member who recently joined Altan after appearing as a guest on both tours and albums. He is currently recording a solo album.

Frankie Kennedy husband of Mairead, played flute and tin whistle with the band. He grew up in Belfast, but frequently visited the Gweedore area where he learned the Donegal style. He and Mairead founded the group and he was a driving force behind their music. In recent years he suffered a long bout of throat cancer, and passed away on September 19 1994. Ar dheis De a raibh a anam. It was his strong request that the band continue playing after his death and that indeed they have done. A winter school of music is now held in his honour in Donegal each year.


1987	Altan	              GL1079
1989	Horse with a Heart      GL1095
1990	The Red Crow	         GL1109
1991	Harvest Storm	         GL1117
1993	Island Angel	         GL1137               [review - Living Tradition]
1995 The First Ten Years     GL1153 (compilation) [review - Steve Edge]
1996	Blackwater              Virgin CDV 2796
1997 The Best of Altan       GL1177 (compilation, including live tracks)
1997 Runaway Sunday          ??
by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh & Frankie Kennedy
1983	Ceol Aduaigh          Gael-Linn CEF102
		                 GL 3090
1979? Albert Fry           Gael-Linn CEF082 

Other Altan pages

Recent News

Bodhran player Jimmy Higgins joined the band in 1996.

Ciaran Curran Interview

Reprinted from the August 1995 issue of Irish Music magazine, by permission of the publishers. This article is copyright, so please don't republish it.

What with their growing reputation worldwide and the tragic death of Frankie Kennedy last September, the past year has been a tumultuous one for top Irish traditional group Altan. But they are determined to continue their upward flight, Ciaran Curran of the group tells Paul Byrne.

For Altan, unarguably the most successful Irish traditional band to emerge in the last ten years, the last 12 months has been something of a tumultuous time. On the one hand, they saw their fifth and finest album, Island Angel, receive accolades worldwide of the highest order, the band's growing reputation as Ireland's leading traditional band being consolidated with numerous awards by the year's end. On the other hand, founding member - and husband to the band's fiddle player and vocalist, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh - Frankie Kennedy lost his battle against cancer in September of last year.

And now, with a story-so-far compilation album already out, and the band currently recording their sixth studio album, Altan are obviously approaching something of a new beginning.

"I don't know if you'd call it a new beginning really," muses the band's bouzouki player, Ciaran Curran. "It would be more of a definite continuation for us. A more determined continuation if anything. It was always Frankie's wish that we should continue on; in fact, I could nearly say he left orders for the band to do so. We haven't tried to replace Frankie in any way, and we haven't consciously taken any new direction. Altan is pretty much the same as it always was, even though there's obviously going to be a different sound when you take away Frankie's input. But we've been through a lot of changes over the last year - taking on a new agency abroad, stuff like that, simply because the band is getting bigger all the time - and naturally a band changes as they grow older anyway. But the core, the feeling, is still the same. A little more push from each of us has continued Altan on."

And now that push looks like flipping over into the big time, the band's increasing popularity resulting in many of the world's major record labels currently pushing and shoving to sign Altan now that their contract with Green Linnet records has been fulfilled.

"It's amazing how many major labels are chasing us at the moment," smiles Curran. "It's something I've never witnessed before; major labels interested in Irish music. It's not just us, of course, there's a major swing to Irish music in general over the last year or so, with people like Christy Moore and Davy Spillane signed to big labels. And you know when the major labels start catching on to it, there's definitely something there." Certainly the phenomenal success of Bill Whelan's Riverdance, as well as Irish artists such as Enya and even The Cranberries, has revealed a huge market for Irish music abroad, but one feels that with a band like Altan, it was always going to be purely a matter of time before the world cottoned on to their graceful charms.

"We've been compared to Clannad occassionally," offers Curran, "which is natural in some ways - Maire Brennan and Mairead grew up only three miles apart in Donegal, learning the same tunes, the same traditions and Gaelic - and I think they already proved that there was an audience for our type of music. If you look at the likes of Clannad's 'Harry's Game'. That's in Gaelic, so out of the millions of people who bought that record, very few would have had a clue what was being sung, all they knew was that they liked it. And it's the same for ourselves. People pick up on the emotion, the expression of that emotion, rather than the actual words. And that's a very universal thing."

If Ciaran readily admits similarities between Clannad and his own band, he's still quick to dismiss such comparisons being taken too far. "I think what Clannad are doing nowadays is very different to what we're doing," he argues. "I think people draw these comparisons more out of our sharing the same roots rather than our necessarily aping their sound. The similarities that are there are perfectly natural, given that we came from the same source basically."
And what of Clannad's latter-day lucrative forays into the world of ambient sounds?

"Musically, or any other way, I couldn't really say which way we're going to go. I mean, we do what we do, but at the same time there has to be room for growth. So who knows what's around the corner. We've just finished a song for the American ambient label Windham Hill actually. They're bringing out a compilation album next year, and the song we've contributed has words by Mairead's father and the music is by Mairead herself. So that's really a first for us; to compose a song of that nature. The album's going to be a big seller, as Windham Hill's samplers always are, and it's good to get involved in one-off projects like that."

Like the band's recent visit to Dollywood last year to record with country superstar Dolly Parton.

"The thought of it might be a bit strange," laughs Curran, "but the actuality was a lot closer to home for us than you might think. Dolly's better known for her commercial pop songs, but her music comes from the same roots as our music. She grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and a lot of the music that she grew up on was originally Irish music. And Dolly did sing that stuff on the road, way back in her early years, but she wasn't making any money from it. So now that she's made her money from writing and singing commercial songs, she's decided to make an album of the songs she grew up on. As she said herself, she no longer needs the money, so why not? It's a wonderful album, with this incredible 22-piece band, all the legends of Nashville on there. It's called Heart Songs; you should check it out." The band's American connection has been growing stonger with each passing year. But Altan made a conscious decision not to pigeon hole themselves by simply playing the Irish pubs and clubs, opting instead to take the far more cosmopolitan route of city theatres.

"Doing concerts over there, it's not just the ex-pats that are coming to our gigs. It's a very broad audience we're getting. People who are into what's referred to as World Music are checking us out. We get a lot of musicians from Nashville coming to the gigs, people from all walks of life. Irish people in Chicago, Boston, New York or wherever, they're looking for ballad bands, and so it would've been silly of us to market ourselves to that audience. It wouldn't have worked. The theatre set-up just suits our music far better anyway. Playing live is very important to us." Playing live in fact may have been the one thing that kept the band together last year.

"We were on the road fairly soon after Frankie died, and that was basically Mairead's choice. Looking back on it, she said it was the best thing she ever did. The point being that the longer she waited before going back on the road, the less likely she'd feel like doing so, the harder it would've been to face it again. There's a lot of anniversaries with this kind of work, venues you've played before, days that you've achieved a new goal, and I think going straight out there and facing them all was just great therapy for the band. It helped us all get over Frankie's passing. "Pretty soon, we'll be flying higher than ever. Just wait and see."

Copyright (c) 1994-1996 Ceolas.

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