With a career at the pinnacle of Irish music that has spanned nearly 30 years ALTAN has achieved legendary status and venerable position in a genre that has been equally shaped by the band’s influence and genius. More extr...more
From the heart, to the heart: new tunes and tales from Ireland's legendary Donegal music makers, Altan.
They take their name from a mysterious lake in the heart of Donegal, in Ireland's far northwest. They take the name of their new album, Poison Glen, from a place of beauty and myth that’s deep in the heart of this land of legend, too. Their music? That’s drawn from the heart of fire and grace that brings these legends and spirits of Ireland alive. This is Altan.
The musicians of Altan have been taking the music of Ireland-specifically the fiery music of Donegal-to the world. Having performed and recorded with giants of American country and bluegrass music, top notch Celtic artists, and with classical musicians and orchestras, they have delighted audiences from Japan to Cape Breton to California, as well as from Belfast to Cork and Dublin to Derry in Ireland. As they discussed plans for their latest album, Poison Glen, the six artists of Altan decided to focus on what those audiences like best: “We wanted to go back to the core sound, to have the sort of energy and atmosphere that we have in our live shows, with the vocals upfront and not as much production,” says Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, founding member of Altan. Ní Mhaonaigh is internationally respected for her fiddle playing, composing, and singing, both for her work in Altan as well as in her work on other projects including T With the Maggies, String Sisters, her solo work, and her teaching.
Donegal, in the far northwestern part of the island of Ireland, is a rugged area where landscapes and lives are shaped by mountain and sea. It is a place of solitude and space, that also holds the warmth of family and community connection. These elements play out through the music on Poison Glen, from the set of lively slip jigs, “A Fig for a Kiss” and “The Turf Cutter,” to “The Lancer’s Jig” paired with “The Further in the Deeper,” to “The Wheels of the World,” an old reel which took on a new character as the band played it in the studio. “There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of life experience in these tunes. They're tunes for dances, but people pick up on the emotion in them,” Ní Mhaonaigh reflects.
There’s life experience in the songs on Poison Glen, too. “Seolta Geala,” which Ní Mhaonaigh sings in Irish, is a song celebrating the freedom of sailing on the sea. “The Blackest Crow,” both a love story and a lament, is a song that’s found in many versions across the English-speaking world. “It’s just such a good story that I always wanted to record it, “ Ní Mhaonaigh says. “Lily of the West” is another song that has traveled across the world, coming to Ní Mhaonaigh from America by way of Arranmore in Ireland.
Growing up in a musical family and community in Donegal, Ní Mhaonaigh has been choosing songs and seeking out tunes all her life. In 1981, she and her late husband, Belfast flute player Frankie Kennedy, began performing as the duo that would later become Altan. Over the years, the band evolved naturally. Current members are guitarist Dáithí Sproule, whose own compositions have been recorded by Liz Carroll, Aoife Clancy and others, Ciarán Curran, whose subtle and original touch on bouzouki have brought him many chances to work with great traditional players, and Mark Kelly, who adds a rock and jazz as well as classical music knowledge to his work with the band on guitar and backing vocals. Ciarán Tourish has added his talents on fiddle and whistles to the music of Paul Brady, Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Dé Danann and Tim O'Brien among others, while Dermot Byrne, who plays accordion, has worked with Manus McGuire, Sharon Shannon, Frankie Gavin, and the late jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, on fiddle and vocals, has recorded with Enya, the Chieftains, Dolly Parton, T With the Maggies and others, and she is also an in-demand teacher and broadcaster. On Poison Glen, they are joined by Jim Higgins on percussion and Harry Bradley on flute.
With this range of diverse interests and opportunities, still, it is Ireland’s northwest that is the heart of Altan’s music.
After spending some time in Dublin, Ní Mhaonaigh has returned to live again in Donegal. “Since I came back to Donegal, I’ve connected again to the roots, the sense of place, not alone to the landscape but to the spirits. I find it easier to connect and create here,” she says.
That connection to the mystery, depth, and legend of Donegal comes through in the artwork for Poison Glen, created by Edain O’Donnell, and in the title. Located in Donegal, a legend surrounds how Poison Glen earned its name. The legend involves a one-eyed giant named Balor, his daughter he locked away in a tower, a lover who came to rescue her, a fight between the giant and the lover, and a drop of poisonous blood. “There are other stories about how it came to be called Poison Glen, but I like the one about Balor the best!” says Ní Mhaonaigh with a laugh. “We had Poison Glen as a working title for the album, and we thought it had a bit of an edge to it, so we decided to keep it.”
After thirty years of bringing the music of Donegal to the world, Altan is a legend in its own right- and one that continues to grow. “As we were working on Poison Glen, we saw how we are developing more creativity in the band, using the studio almost as another instrument,” Ní Mhaonaigh says. “We are proud of that, we are proud of this album, and we see there are more possibilities ahead for us to explore.”