FolkWorld article by Marcus Metz

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh in Donegal

Snoring dogs, snoring Ciarán
and other stories from Ireland's North-West

Marcus Metz und Klaus Feketics got Maireád Ní Mhaonaigh (Altan) for a little chat at Ionad Cois Locha in Dún Lúiche (Co. Donegal, Ireland) on New Year's Eve 1997

Marcus: What is the difference between Donegal music in particular and the music that is played all over in Ireland?

Altan; Press Photo Mairéad: I always look at this in the way where we are situated. In Ireland we are northwest, we are at the very edge of Europe here. And we are situated in a very isolated spot compared to the rest of Ireland because we are politically cut off by the Six Counties. So that makes us very...a kind of 'our own' like an island within an island. And our music has distinctive island flavour as well because we kept an identity and a distinctive style that is stronger than a lot of styles all over the country.
Donegal always had a connection with Scotland and that connection is very clear in our fiddle music. And it makes a lot of sense because Scotland is a Celtic country and they also spoke Gaelic there like we do here and there was a huge connection going back centuries.
'Dún na nGall' - 'Donegal' means 'Fort of the Foreigner', which meant that mercenary soldiers came over to help the chieftains of Donegal to fight against invaders. So there has been a huge connection for years and up until the present day people use to go to Scotland for work. And they brought home songs and tunes, which are still to be found here. That gives a different flavour, I feel.

Klaus: Where do you get your songs from?

Mairéad: Well most of the songs round here - the common songs - you learn at school. I was in my fathers class at school and he taught me all the children's songs, the traditional songs from around here and some older songs as well, that older people would sing, because he is very interested in songs himself and he collected a lot of them.
Then when I got really interested I went to the archives in Dublin and to the Folklore Commission and asked if I could listen to old tapes of people that were dead. They had old tapes there, had them transformed unto real-to-real tapes, and so I was able to listen to older singers that I hadn't the opportunity to meet because they had already died years ago.
I got bits of songs from them and then I went looking for them in manuscripts and old books and put the songs, knitted them, together. I also got songs from neighbours and relatives. There's a rich store of songs around this area, so I was very lucky to be brought up here.

Klaus: How do they keep the songs?

Drawing by German artist Annegret Haensel; for more info on the artist, look at the editorial page Mairéad: Orally! Well, I would write them down and I'd say a lot of people would write them down just for help. But I remember an old singer telling me that she would go to a night and listen to people singing, and she said, maybe you'd only have the chance to hear the song maybe once or twice in your life, so they had a method of remembering them. They were very quick in picking up, you know. I suppose the rhyme would help and the meter of the song would help and that. So she said, she'd get part of the song the first night and then - as soon as she'd meet the person again - she'd get him to sing it again. And she'd remember the whole song, seven, eight verses.
They didn't even have tape recorders in those days. They had to learn them there. There was no other choice.

Klaus: How do you do the ornamentations? Have you got a certain example?

Mairéad: Well...let's see. One of the oldest songs from this area on the new album would be 'Cití Ní Eadhra'. It's a song on the new album 'Runaway Sunday', so that might be one to listen to. That's a lament I got from Neillí Ní Dhomhnaill. She died a few years ago. She would be Maighréad and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill's auntie and she lived about ten miles from here (i.e. Rannafast / Marcus). She was a lovely lady. And that particular song...I found a tape of her singing in..I think Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Dublin had it and I just loved it.
It's very, very sad. It's about a man who looses his wife after three months together and she dies and he's left brokenhearted. He's just in pain, total torture. And he'll never be the same. But the melody of the song in intriguing because it's so beautiful. You know that it's sad.
And then for the ornamentation: Neillí didn´t use too much ornamentation but she stressed words and vowels and stuff like that, so I try to do that. And also I try to put something that I want to put into it as well without taking away from the original song. So I try to do that as well. But I listened to a lot of uncles - a few of my uncles sang - and my aunts. They had different ways of ornamenting songs, so I've learned from them as well.
So you simulate this and you bring it our your own way.

Marcus: You recorded your recent album 'Runaway Sunday' in a wee cottage in Connemara...?

Altan; Press Photo Mairéad: Yeah! We recorded it in a place called Tonabrocky...Tóin a' bhrocaí (literally 'bottom of the pock-marked' / Marcus). I'll not translate it 'cause it might be rude (laughs). And it's a great area. It's just outside Galway City. It was like a clochan, it was an old village that people actually left during the Famine and it was falling apart. And these two women got together and they did it all up themselves. They actually plastered it themselves and build the whole three cottages up themselves.
And the landscaped it and they now using it as...if people want to go there to write or to play music or anything like that. So we went there and we spent five weeks doing pre-production - learning the tunes and trying to figure out what songs we do and writing tunes. And then we recorded most of it there as well in between three cottages and we had big wires going from one cottage to another and microphones. There was a microphone in Ciarán Tourish's bedroom, I think (laughs). We heard him snoring (bursts into laughter).
We had a huge, big desk in this beautiful cottage with an open fire and big mixing desk in the middle of it, yoo know. But it was a really lovely time and it was at the end of the summer, the beginning of autumn, up as far as November. It was a lovely time and a nice place rather than being in a huge, big studio that is so impersonal. It had a lovely atmosphere. It was a nice place.

Marcus: It was the first time I found songwriting on an 'Altan' album...?

Mairéad: Yes, me, too (laughs). I know.

Marcus: What about the song and the picture or the photograph of Johnny Doherty?

Mairéad: Yes! That was a photograph taken by Jill Freeman. If you ever have a chance to see it, it's gorgeous. A picture and John Doherty is playing. He after telling a story and Joe Burke is in the picture and Dermot Byrne's uncle, Paddy Kit, from Teelin. And they're laughing. John Doherty is after telling a story and it's just a split second and he's lifting the bow. He's so happy with himself.
And there's a ray of sunshine coming on his hobnail boots. And it's just a perfect picture. I just thought it brought everything together. I know the story behind it, I didn't meet the photographer and she said it was a magic moment as well. And we thought it would be a nice symbol for all the fiddlers that had given us music and songs.

Marcus: I found this album 'Runaway Sunday' more....let me say....
Mairéad: Better?!
Marcus: ...rough...
Mairéad: (laughs) Rough?!
Marcus: ...more original or something like that.
Mairéad: Yeah!

Marcus: You know, it's all in all like an hommage to Johnny Doherty, I think, so many reels of him you play. The 'Blackwater' one was more with fill-in sounds and mouth harp and things like that.

Mairéad: Yeah!

Marcus: So, there's a sort of development going backwards to your first albums, I think. Is that true or just a feeling?

Drawing by German artist Annegret Haensel; for more info on the artist, look at the editorial page Mairéad: Yes, maybe so we wanted it. We wanted good tunes, raw and rockiest tunes. We actually got a mixed feeling: Some people think it's very laid-back and we thought it was very up-front (laughs).
We know the tunes are great tunes because a lot of them we got from the great Johnny Doherty and Con Cassidy and we got some from Vincent Campbell and my father. And we know that they are good tunes because we didn't compose a lot of them. Most of them had been brought down over the generations and they are nice tunes to play. We were very, very pleased with the reels and the jigs and we wouldn't have mind it to put a few highlands on, but that didn't make the album in the end. We had a few highlands intended because we wanted to show the variety of tunes in this area.
But sometimes that happens, there are only so many tracks you can put down.
Then with the songs the same thing...we were lucky enough to be able to write a few songs which made the album in the end.
It's always very democratic what we do. Not one person says 'I want this' or 'I want that'. We always come together and try to choose the right material for the whole album.

Marcus: ..apart from some secret service operations in the bedroom of Ciarán Tourish.
Mairéad: He snores a lot (bursts into laughter).
Marcus: I remember one recording you're father did, I think in Glencolumbkill it was, when the dog was snoring on it...
Mairéad: Oh! The dog! The dog was snoring during it. He was delighted.

Klaus: Last night there was a concert with Tríona, Maighréad, Mícheál and Dáithí and I think it was a quite a family atmosphere...

Mairéad: Lovely!

Klaus: Could you explain what was happening there. What was the reason for this? Did they meet after a long time?

Mairéad: Yeah....Skara Brae! Let's see, Maighréad, Tríona and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, their father was from Rannafast originally. They were all brought up in County Meath, but they spent all there summers up here in the Gaeltacht learning Irish. Their auntie was a great singer, their father was a great singer. They loved songs and they sang all the time together. Then they met up with Dáithí Sproule from Derry and they started a band. They were influenced a lot by the Beatles, I think (laughs). That must have been back in the sixties and they used to take the old songs and just arrange them and put harmonies to them. And they were very, very well-known back in the seventies. They opened for Donovan, they opened for a lot of big artists when they came to Ireland. They were maybe the original group that put harmony to old songs and that was an original idea then.
And then they split up and they haven't played together in twenty years or twenty-five years.
Last night was the first time and it was like... maybe for you to put in context the Beatles coming together. It really was. You know, when I was growing up, I would hear them all the time. I just loved their singing, they were just amazing singers. All their people sing, so a lot of their neighbours from Rannafast were sitting in the audience. So we were all singing along with them, we knew the songs. It was just like get together once in a lifetime. I don't think it's going to ever happen again.
They actually issued one album and it was really beautiful.

Klaus: I think everybody was deeply moved.
Mairéad: They were just great, they are amazing singers.

Marcus: So, thanks very much!
Mairéad: Thank you! Go raibh maith agat!
Marcus: Go raibh maith agat féin!
Mairéad: Dankeschön!

Drawings by German artist Annegret Haensel; for more info on the artist, look at the editorial page

Latest published CD: Runaway Sunday (Virgin Records)

Further information you can find at: Altan's homepage

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