Program: Altan

Friday, October 21, Somerville Theatre

Mairéad Ní MhaonaighLead Vocals, Fiddle 
Ciarán CurranBouzouki 
Dáithí SprouleGuitar, Vocals 
Martin TourishAccordion 
Clare FrielSpecial Guest, Fiddle, Vocals 

Altan is delighted to welcome Clare to show the continuation of the rich tradition that County Donegal keeps producing. 

Joyce InSound Engineer 
Booking Agency/Tour DirectionSRO Artists, Inc. 

The spirit and sound of Altan comes from the deep and rich musical tradition of their native County Donegal. On one of his many visits to the Donegal Gaeltacht of Gaoth Dobhair, Belfast-born flute player Frankie Kennedy met fiddler and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, sparking a deep musical connection, marriage in 1981, and a journey that took them all over the world. Their vision was to bring the unique repertoire of Donegal music to the world, and that mission is still as strong as ever. 

In the mid-1980s, Mairéad and Frankie recruited, from Fermanagh, bouzouki player Ciarán Curran, whose intricate counterpoint is at the center of the Altan sound, and from Dublin, guitarist Mark Kelly, whose mastery of a wide palette of guitar styles and harmonic vocabulary add a breadth and depth of color. As a band, Altan played their first concert on June 1, 1985, in St. John’s Church in Listowel, County Kerry, at the famous Listowel Writers Week. 

The group’s first album, simply titled Altanwas released in 1987 and was quickly followed by Horse with a Heart, which saw the inclusion of Paul O'Shaughnessy on fiddle. Paul had joined the band on its first US tours, lending his stunning virtuosity and in-depth knowledge of the Donegal style. He performed on the subsequent three albums. In 1992, the album Harvest Storm brought with it Dáithí Sproule on guitar, himself one of the pioneers of guitar in Irish traditional and folk music, having played with the wonderful Skara Brae with the O’Domhnaill family and Buncrana native Ciaran Tourish, who excelled in fiery counterpoint fiddle. 

One of the band’s finest hours came with the release of Island Angel in 1993, which was recognized by Billboard World Music Charts as the second biggest selling world music album globally in 1994, and in the same year, Altan performed for Bill Clinton at the White House. The band would play for US presidents over the course of its career and would also accompany Irish Presidents on their state visits. Shortly after the release of Island Angel, the legendary accordionist Dermot Byrne joined the band. 

Sadly, on September 19,1994, the band and wider world of music was dealt a devastating blow with the death of founding member Frankie Kennedy. His vision, artistry, and sense of fun is still at the heart of Altan, and his legacy is carried and celebrated in every note. 

A record deal with Virgin Records followed in 1996, which catapulted the band on an extensive touring schedule over the subsequent decade. This period saw the group working with many great American performers such as Dolly Parton, recording on her album Heartsongs (1994) and its follow-up, Little Sparrow (2001); she returned the favor on the band’s record The Blue Idol in 2002 by dueting with Mairéad on the song The Pretty Young Girl. 

The band has traveled with Ireland's President Mary MacAleese and President Michael D. Higgins on state visits abroad to Japan, North Korea, and Italy. President Higgins invited them to join him in his residence, Aras an Uachtaraá, in 2018 to celebrate their 30 years as a band. The Donegal County Council held a civic reception in its offices to mark the occasion in May 2018. In 2006 the Irish Government also honored Altan by putting them on an official postal stamp to celebrate their contribution to the Irish culture, one of the highest honors to be bestowed on Irish citizens. 

Martin Tourish, a past TG4 Young Musician of the Year, took the accordion seat in late 2013, and the band recorded its album The Widening Gyre in Nashville with many of the great bluegrass and American performers, such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Brown. This album explored the connections between Irish and bluegrass music and led to particularly special momentperforming at the Grand Ole Opry with Ricky Skaggs in 2016. 

In 2017, the band released its first book, Altan: The Tunes, based on a collection of 222 melodies that the group collected and recorded over its 30-year history. Martin Tourish transcribed the dance music and meticulously interviewed all the band members for additional stories and background information. Containing a detailed commentary on each of the tunes, it is the only collection of Donegal music currently in print. 

In celebration of the band’s latest album, The Gap of Dreams, the band has brought its music all over Europe, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and even North Africa. The latest album celebrates the roots of the band’s music in Donegal folklore. It was recorded in the Attica Studios in the mountains of Donegal, which contributed to the wonderful atmosphere permeating the recording. The title refers to thgap, or door, between this world and the other world. The older fiddlers, from whom the group got its music, always associated the other world with the source of their music and inspiration. They would poetically describe encountering the fairy folk or listening to tunes on the wind or in the sound of the waves at the shore. 

In creativity, the gap of dreams is never shut. 


Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (the 2008 Donegal Person of the Year and the 2017 recipient of the TG4 Gradam Ceoil/Traditional Musician of the Year, one of Ireland’s highest musical honors) is a native of the Donegal Gaeltacht of Gaoth Dobhair. Her first language is Gaelic, and she has learned many of her songs from family and neighbors and has sourced older material from archive facilities. She is renowned as one of the leading exponents of Donegal fiddle music and likes to promote the music she has inherited from her late father, Francie, whenever possible. She is a founding member of Cairdeas Na BhFidléirí, which was set up 25 years ago to preserve and facilitate the development of the Donegal fiddling tradition for future generations. Mairéad’s musical inspiration initially came from her family and neighbors, her father being a great fiddle teacher with a wealth of unusual local tunes, many learned from his mother, Róise. She also received inspiration from Buncrana fiddle player Dinny McLaughlin, who was a frequent visitor to her home when she was growing up. Mairéad founded Altan along with her late husband, Frankie Kennedy; from humble beginnings they brought their music to the world arena without compromising the deep musical tradition they loved. Along with her work with Altan, Mairéad is always in demand for solo work or presenting traditional music programs on radio or television; past projects include the classic radio show The Long Note and the television series The Pure Drop and The Full Set on RTÉ1. Mairéad has recorded with other musicians, such as Enya, The Chieftains, Dolly Parton, The String Sisters, T with the Maggies, and many more. Mairéad’s first solo project, Imeall, was released in 2009. 

Ciarán Curran is a native of Kinawley, County Fermanagh, an area rich in music, song, and folklore, and brings his strong family musical tradition to bear on an instrument relatively new to Irish traditional musicthe bouzouki. Ciarán’s late uncle, Ned Curran, was a great fiddle player and gave the band many tunes from his unusual repertoire. Ciarán was introduced to a lot of traditional music and musicians by his friend Cathal McConnell (Boys of the Lough) from whom he learned many tunes. Ciarán has also played with County Leitrim fiddler Ben Lennon, to whom he attributes his strong backing rhythm and bounce. Ciarán has worked with County Antrim singer Len Graham, Enniskillen singer Gabriel McArdle, Derrygonnelly fiddler Seamus Quinn, and Belfast flute player Gary Hastings. With Ben Lennon, Seamus Quinn, and Gabriel McArdle, he recorded the classic Dog Big Dog Little album, named after two mountains on the borders of County Fermanagh and County Leitrim. Ciarán also produced the critically acclaimed Slán le Loch Éirne, a duet album from Gary Hastings and Seamus Quinn. Ciarán Curran has developed a unique, personal, and subtle style on the bouzouki using counter harmonies and melodies that let the music breathe and show its most melodic strengths without conflicting with the essence of the melody. 

Dáithí Sproule of Derry, whose first group was legendary Skara Brae, has lived for many years in Minnesota. Dáithí was one of the first guitarists to develop DADGAD guitar tuning for Irish music. As well as playing and singing with Altan, he has performed and recorded with two highly influential traditional music trios: Bowhand (with James Kelly and Paddy O’Brien) and Trian (with Liz Carroll and Billy McComiskey) and has played on recordings of Tommy Peoples, Seamus and Manus McGuire, Peter Ostroushko, and many others. In recent years he has been playing with another great trio, Fingal, and with Randal Bays and James Keane, and has been performing locally in Minnesota with friends such as Laura MacKenzie and Jode and Kate Dowling. Dáithí’s original compositions have been recorded by Skara Brae, the Bothy Band, Altan, Trian, Liz Carroll, Aoife Clancy, and others. In 1995 he released his first solo albumA Heart Made of Glass, with songs in English and Irish. In 2008 he released an instrumental guitar albumThe Crow in the Sun, featuring 13 original compositions. In addition to performing and recording, Dáithí is a teacher and lecturer in subjects ranging from guitar styles and traditional songs to Irish language and myth. 

Martin Tourish is an accordionist, composer, producer, and musicologist from County Donegal, now based in Dublin. His ancestors were collectors of dance music whose manuscripts date from 1896. Martin’s debut albumClan Ranald, with bouzouki player Luke Ward, was released in 2005 and listed by music critic Earle Hitchner of the Irish Echo and Wall Street Journal as being in the top 20 albums of 2005. From the success of the Clan Ranald album, Martin is listed in The Rough Guide to Ireland as a piano accordionist of note, while a track from the album appears in The Rough Guide to Irish Folk Vol. 2. In 2008, he became the first piano accordionist to win TG4′s prestigious Young Musician of the Year award, which a subsequent article in the Irish Times characterized as “the Irish Music equivalent of an Oscar.” In 2008 Martin was commissioned by TG4 to compose, produce, and perform the music for their brand television advertisement The More You Look, The More You See, which won many national and international awards and earned the piece of music national recognition. In 2010 he composed the theme music for a national marathon festival, Rith2010, to promote the Irish language, and in 2011 he composed the traditonal-style variation on a theme for the nationwide Love Live Music festival. A song he composed entitled An Gealóg appears on Altan’s album The Poison Glen, while a virtuosic piece entitled The Seventh Degree is being performed by Triona Marshal on harp during the 50th anniversary tour of The Chieftains. 

Clare Friel, TG4 Gradam Ceoil Ceoltóir Óg Young Musician of the Year in 2018, was born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland, with close family ties to Donegal. She is a highly regarded fiddle player and singer and performs as a member of The Friel Sisters. Clare is quickly making a name for herself and has played and toured with such acts as Altan, The Chieftains, Moya Brennan, Lúnasa, Sharon Shannon, Carlos Nuñez, Cherish the Ladies, and the Máirtín O’Connor Trio. “Clare’s fiddle is a joy: unhurried, throaty and conversational in style” according to the Irish Times. “She plays with a ferocious intensity” (Irish Echo, New York). “As good as you will get in Irish traditional music anywhere in the world” (WGBH, Boston). “This talented young woman has emerged as one of the most exciting young traditional musicians on the scene today” (2018 TG4 Gradam Ceoil Young Musician of the Year commendation).  

Set order may vary and will be announced from stage.

  1. Seán sa Cheo 
    Three reels from our 2018 album The Gap of Dreams. The first reel is an unusual version of a traditional reel, followed by two spirited reels composed by Martin Tourish. The names of the pieces are “Tuar,” meaning “prediction” and “Oíche Fheidhmiúil,” meaning “a wonderful, memorable night.”

  1. Andy de Jarvis 
    Three jigs from the vibrant Cape Breton tradition of Eastern Canada, which we got from the great Jerry Holland, who passed away a few years ago. 

  1. Month of January  
    A beautiful, sad song from the singing of the great Paddy Tunney, who was a frequent visitor to the Gaeltacht area of Gaoth Dobhair.  

  1. Piper in the Cave 
    An unusual march that we learned from the playing of the brothers Micky and Francie Byrne of Kilcar, County Donegal, also known as “The Deargs,” as the family was known for its red hair.  

  1. Templehouse Highland Selection 
    A selection of typical Donegal highlands and reels that shows the strong connection with Scotland, home of our Celtic neighbors.  

  1. Dáithí Sproule 
    We usually get Derry-born Dáithí Sproule to delight us nightly with various songs that he has collected over the years.   

  1. Dónal agus Mórag/The New-Rigged Ship  
    This is a popular song that Mairéad got from a neighbor about a wedding feast on Ratlin island, off the County Antrim coast. The neighbor could remember only two verses, and Mairéad asked her father, Francie, to write a few additional verses in the spirit of the original song. The reel that follows is an old reel from the Shetland Islands that was given to Mairéad by the great Tom Anderson, who told her that it was from County Donegal originally and was brought to the Shetland Islands by fishermen.  

  1. Gap of Dreams 
    Three newly composed jigs. The first jig Mairéad composed after hearing Dáithí mention the idea in a song entitled “The Ballad of Douglas Bridge.” The second jig was composed by Mairéad’s daughter, Nia, when she was 12 years old, and we simply call it “Nia’s Jig.”The third jig was composed by a young and accomplished musician, Sam Kelly, son of Irish guitarist Mark Kelly. He titled it "The Beekeeper.”   

  1. Bacach Shíl Andaí 
    A children’s song from the Irish uprising against the English in 1798. The French came to Kilalla to help, but the Irish were ill prepared and were defeated, and many of them were sent on the run. Like a lot of children’s rhymes, this has a serious, dark story behind it.  

  1. Dark-Haired Lass/Biddy from Muckross  
    A selection of three reels from the Donegal fiddle tradition. “Biddy from Muckross” was a great source of tunes for local musicians. It was said that the biddy learned her music from the fairies.  

  1. The Road Home  
    A slow and beautiful tune composed by Martin representing his emotions on a journey north along the Atlantic coast to County Donegal on his road home from the wonderful Willie Clancy Summer School, which takes place annually in Milltown Malbay, County Clare, in memory of the great piper of that name who once lived there.  

  1. Tullaghan Lasses  
    The first reel was a favorite of one of Donegal’s greatest fiddlers, John Seimi Doherty. The reels that follow are also from the Donegal fiddling tradition.  

  1. Gleanntáin Ghlas Ghaoth Dobhair 
    Translated as “The Green Fields of Gaoth Dobhair,” which Francie Mooney, Mairead’s father, composed in praise of their home area in Northwest Donegal.  

  1. Fermanagh/DonegalHighlands/Reels 
    These two highlands are firm favorites of the band and their audience as they depict the essence of the music of County Donegal.  |  |  

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