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Members include Dermot Byrne (born in County Donegal, Ireland; married Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, 1999), accordion; Ciaran Curran (born on June 14, 1955, in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland), bouzouki; Mark Kelly (joined group, mid-1980s), guitar, vocals; Frankie Kennedy (born on September 30, 1955, in Belfast, Northern Ireland; married Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, 1981; died of cancer, September 19, 1994), flute; Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (born on July 26, 1959, in County Donegal, Ireland, daughter of Francie O'Mhaonaigh, a fiddler; married to Frankie Kennedy, 1981-94; married Dermot Byrne, 1999), vocals, fiddle; Daithi Sproule (born on May 23, 1950, in County Derry, Northern Ireland), guitar, vocals; Ciaran Tourish (born on May 27, 1967, in Buncrana, County Donegal, Ireland), fiddle. Addresses: Record company--Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Management--Tom Sherlock, 71 Carysfort Ave., Blackrock, Ireland, e-mail: sherlock@altan.ie. Website--Altan Official Website: http://www.altan.ie.

Driven by many critically acclaimed albums and a relentless touring schedule, the band Altan emerged during the 1990s as one of Ireland's premiere traditional musical groups. Armed with both instrumental virtuosity and a healthy respect for the musical traditions upon which it draws, Altan's energetic vision came to be held in high regard by purists as well as those with more eclectic tastes. The band's progress was temporarily derailed in 1994, however, when flutist Frankie Kennedy--co-founder of the group with his wife, lead vocalist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh--died of cancer. Mhaonaigh and her bandmates struggled with that loss, but eventually recorded the highly regarded 1996 release Blackwater. "Nobody spoke about it, but it was understood that Frankie wasn't going to be replaced," said band member Mark Kelly. "He was missed in the studio, and the sound he produced on the flute was missed. But looking back on it, I think it's right that he should be missed, that we weren't just bashing ahead without him."

Band founders Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh launched their musical careers in Dublin, Ireland, where both worked as elementary school teachers in the early 1980s. The couple married in 1981 and began to play as a duo in local taverns and other venues. Even at that early juncture, Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh tapped into the rich and largely undiscovered musical tradition of Ni Mhaonaigh's home region.

Whereas Kennedy hailed from the strife-ridden city of Belfast, Ni Mhaonaigh grew up in northwest Donegal, Ireland, where Gaelic was still commonly spoken. The daughter of well-known fiddler Francie O'Mhaonaigh, Ni Mhaonaigh was exposed to the region's music from an early age. When she and her husband looked about for material to incorporate into their act, they naturally turned to the county of Donegal, home of many learned and private traditional musicians.

As Scott Alarik noted in the Boston Globe, "Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh spent years trekking the back roads and far places of Donegal, sitting in on sessions in village taverns, asking to be introduced to older players and singers." They were quickly accepted in the region's musical community, for as Ni Mhaonaigh told the Wall Street Journal's Earle Hitchner, "they know we're not taking advantage of them, and that we respect and cherish what they give us." With each passing month, the duo immersed themselves further in the region's unique musical tradition, which melds classic Irish music with the rhythms of Scotland.

In 1983 Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh released their first album, Ceol Aduaidh. A collection of Gaelic songs and Ulster jigs and reels highlighted by Ni Mhaonaigh's hauntingly pure soprano voice, the work caused an immediate stir. As Hitchner remarked, "The album's strikingly fresh material and aggressive fiddle and flute playing rippled through an entire generation of traditional performers in Ireland's South, awakening them to the rich musical repertoire and rhythms native to the north." Buoyed by the reaction to Ceol Aduaidh, Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh began work on a new group of ballads and jigs culled from Northern Ireland's rich musical landscape. The result was 1987's Altan, the album that marked the beginning of the band of the same name. Supported by bouzouki player Ciaran Curran, who later became a permanent member of the band, as well as guitarist Mark Kelly, Altan further cemented the reputation of Ni Mhaonaigh and Kennedy in Ireland's music community.

The couple subsequently decided to establish a band, Altan, named after a lake near Ni Mhaonaigh's childhood home. As its membership filled out over the ensuing months, the band recognized that they shared a common commitment to traditional Irish music. But as Ni Mhaonaigh recalled, her husband's vision was a key component of the band's early success. "Frankie wanted the band to bring traditional music to another level without having to compromise; to make it a popular music without having to be a pop or rock band to do it," she told Alarik. "He thought this music was as good as blues or reggae, and that we didn't have to fuse with any other type of music in order to succeed. Why do that when the music itself speaks so well for itself?"

In 1989 Altan released Horse With a Heart, a well-received album that featured the extraordinary fiddle playing of Dublin's Paul O'Shaughnessy in addition to Ni Mhaonaigh's own expert fiddle work. A year later the band released The Red Crow, the first of three Altan records to win the prestigious Celtic/British Isles Album of the Year Award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers (NAIRD). By this time the band, which was touring around the world to sold-out audiences, was enjoying both critical and commercial success.

In 1992 the band released Harvest Storm, another collection of reels, jigs, and ballads that garnered critical praise. Reviewers repeatedly cited Ni Mhaonaigh's beautiful voice, the musicians' expert playing, and the band's impeccable musical instincts.

In June of 1992 Kennedy learned that he had Ewing's sarcoma, a particularly vicious type of cancer that attacks bone structure. He subsequently endured surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy in an effort to rid his body of the cancer while simultaneously continuing his work with Altan. In 1993 the band released Island Angel, an album that Great Britain's Q magazine described as a "combination of headspinning drive and pure melancholy." The review went on to remark that these qualities give the band "a one-two punch that is unmatched in contemporary folk circles." Boosted by Island Angel, which was cited as the fourth-best-selling album of world music of 1994 by Billboard, Altan came to be regarded not only as a great touring act, but also as a headliner for music festivals from Europe to the United States.

Although his health continued to deteriorate, Kennedy took steps to ensure that Altan would continue long after he was gone. "All I wanted to do was be home with Frankie," Ni Mhaonaigh told Alarik, "but he insisted I continue with the band. The way he put it was that I should go so that when he'd be better the band wouldn't have faded away, there would be something for him to come back to.... It was the hardest part for me, but now I know he was very subtly preparing me, so that when he did pass away I would be used to being on the road with the lads."

Kennedy died in September of 1994. After a period of mourning, the band resumed their touring. "It was a choice for Mairead whether or not she wanted to do it," fiddler Ciaran Tourish told Hitchner, "but she felt the longer she would have left it, the more difficult it would be to get back into it. In retrospect, it was good therapy for all of us in trying to deal with his passing." Indeed, the band--composed at this point of Ni Mhaonaigh, Tourish, Curran, guitarist Daithi Sproule, and accordionist Dermot Byrne--repeatedly noted that Kennedy would have been disappointed if his death had caused Altan to disband.

In 1995 Altan released a greatest-hits package, and a year later they released Blackwater, an album that continued the band's unbroken string of critical and popular successes. People reviewer Lyndon Stambler summed up critical reaction to the album when he wrote that "the band's first album on a major label [Virgin] is a heartfelt collection of stirring jigs, reels and hornpipes and of soulful folk ballads. It is sure to strengthen its reputation as one of the finest traditional bands in Ireland and solidify its growing following in the U.S." Hitchner concurred, remarking that the album was "Irish musical tradition at its unadulterated best, spurred by dazzling instrumental playing, memorable singing, and deft arrangements." The group followed Blackwater with Runaway Sunday in 1997, an album Thom Owens of All Music Guide called "typically tasteful and pleasant," but without "much to distinguish the album from its predecessors." Following the album's release, in October of 1999, bandmates Ni Mhaonaigh and Byrne were married.

On the Narada label, the group released Another Sky in 2000 and The Blue Idol in 2002. World of Hibernia writer Kira L. Schlechter said that Another Sky achieved a mix of traditional and modern sounds, energetic dance songs and ballads, and two languages (Gaelic and English) that created "a blend that's consistently enchanting." The Blue Idol featured backing vocals by Dolly Parton, who became one of the group's collaborators after they were invited to play on the country music superstar's 2001 album Little Sparrow. Sing Out! writer R. Weir called the group's effort on the album "just what you'd expect from Altan's seasoned lineup: mature, sophisticated and qualitative." The group also released a greatest hits CD in 2003 called Best of Altan: The Songs.

Arguably one of the world's most popular traditional Irish groups, Ni Mhaonaigh told Bob Cannon of World of Hibernia that she believed the group's music would have staying power. "Music is an enjoyable thing, and if you are successful that's a plus. We've gained an audience that we never expected, and we find ourselves saying how fortunate we are. If we stopped playing as a band tomorrow, I think the music would live on."

by Kevin Hillstrom

Altan's Career

Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh were elementary school teachers in Dublin before forming band; first incarnation was husband-wife duo of Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh in early 1980s; eponymous debut Altan released on Green Linnet Records, 1987; first U.S. tour, 1988; released The Red Crow, 1990; performed at White House on St. Patrick's Day, 1994; released Blackwater, their first album on a major label (Virgin), 1996; released Runaway Sunday, 1997; on Narada, released Another Sky, 2000, and The Blue Idol, 2002.

Altan's Awards

National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers (NAIRD) Award for Best Celtic/British Isles Album for The Red Crow, 1990, Harvest Storm, 1992, and Island Angel, 1993; Q and Hot Press magazines, Best Traditional Album for Island Angel, 1993; British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio 2 Folk Awards, Best Group, 2003.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Altan Lyrics

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

We are looking for the Gaelic lyrics to the first two verses that Altan's Mairead sings with Dolly Parton on the song "Barbara Allen" from the album Heartsongs." thanks

almost 16 years ago

Hello, I am trying to find the Irish lyrics sung on Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" - In the Sweet By and By. Our church choir would like to use on All-Saints Day this year. Any help would be most appreciated. Thanks, Jan