Monday 26 September 2016

Altan woman out of the dark - Altan's Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh

She lost her first husband to cancer, and her second marriage ended in divorce, but Altan's Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is blissfully happy raising her daughter Nia

Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30

Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh
Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh
Mairead with Altan in their early days. Her first husband Frankie Kennedy is second left

If there was one lesson that singer Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh took away from the untimely death of her first husband, Frankie Kennedy, it's that life is for living and you just have to get out there and enjoy it. Frankie was 38 when he died in 1994, and while Mairead says that she doesn't think she has ever picked herself up properly, she continued on as best she could, as the last thing she wanted was to be looked after and pitied. She kept touring with Altan, the band that she and Frankie co-founded, which was hard, as he had such a vision for its future. "Frankie was the reason we kept going and we wanted to do well in his honour," she says. "If something good happens to the band even now, we think about Frankie straight away."

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They first met when Mairead was 14, and playing fiddle at a session with her dad Francie in Gaoth Dobhair. She fell in love with the 18-year-old student from Belfast as soon as she saw him, and he felt the same, but she was very young so an innocent friendship began. "He was so handsome and gentle and not at all big-headed," she laughs. "I don't know how we got talking because my dad was fairly strict, but we exchanged addresses and wrote to each other for months. When I was 15, I was allowed to go to dances under my brother Gearoid's watchful eye, and gradually Frankie and I became a couple. My parents were okay with it, and my mother, Kitty, adored Frankie, as he was very shy but also charming. We were married by the time I was 21 in 1981."

By then, Mairead and Frankie had moved to Dublin and were both teaching at St. Oliver Plunkett primary school in Malahide. They were also playing music in the folk clubs around Dublin, as Frankie started to learn the whistle after he met Mairead. People became interested in their repertoire of Donegal tunes and they were thrilled when the record company Gael Linn invited them to make an album, Ceol Aduaidh, produced by Enya's producer, Nicky Ryan. Once that was released, Mairead and Frankie were invited to play all over America, and quickly realised there was a market there. They took a career break from teaching, which ultimately became permanent, and released a second album, Altan. They then formed the band of the same name in 1987, featuring three additional members, Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, Mark Kelly on guitar, and Paul O'Shaughnessy on fiddle.

Altan became hugely successful worldwide, and Mairead and Frankie loved working together. "We were totally in love and just wanted to be together all the time," she says. "There weren't many people playing traditional Irish music professionally, especially not in America, so we got in at a really good time. The Island Angel album went to the top of the Billboard charts, and we got to play amazing places like The Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. Frankie and I were hoping to have a family one day, but at that stage, life was hectic and we thought we had all the time in the world."

They were touring abroad in 1992 when Frankie complained of a sore back and neck, and by the time the tour was over, he was in such pain that he would pace the room and couldn't lie down. Having been referred to a specialist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for tests, he and Mairead got a horrendous shock when they were given the terrible news that he had a form of bone cancer, Ewing's Sarcoma.

"I was 32 and I grew up in two seconds," the gentle Mairead recalls. "It was so scary and I just couldn't believe how dark the world had become. I admired Frankie's strength, as he was so amazingly courageous and positive. They did the surgery and got most of the tumour, and then did radiation and chemotherapy to make sure it was gone."

Frankie went into remission for 18 months, but sadly the cancer came back with a vengeance. They had an album launch the night he was told it had returned, so he declared that they would forget about the diagnosis and they ended up having a great night. He was delighted when The Rolling Stones arrived in as they were his heroes. After that, he tried everything, including alternative therapies, but Mairead recalls how it soon became clear that Frankie wasn't going to survive the illness.

"He said at one point, 'I am not going to drink any more bloody oil,'" she says, of one of the alternative therapies. "He was so brave and accepting, and the hardest part for me was knowing we wouldn't be together any more. We became very philosophical because we had to be, and all the life lessons you are supposed to learn become crystal clear at that point. I totally forgot about myself because things were so intense, and all I could think about was Frankie and if he was out of pain. The night he died, I wasn't wailing crying, because I knew that he wasn't suffering any more and I was relieved for him."

In the aftermath of Frankie's passing, fellow Altan band member and box player, Dermot Byrne, helped Mairead to grieve, as he could empathise as his fiancee and his brother had tragically died in a road traffic accident. After a while, Mairead and Dermot fell in love and were married in 1999. "I didn't feel that I was doing anything wrong, as while I still loved Frankie, I understood that I had to move on and live my life," says Mairead. "My mother said, 'Your first love must have been great if you want to love again.' Dermot was very supportive to me in my grief, and we had our daughter Nia, who is my pride and joy, in 2003. I was 45 when I had her, and I was just so delighted. I got pregnant and it was all natural and such a blessing. She is 11 and a happy-go-lucky little girl, a real homebird who sings and plays music. She is wonderful."

When Nia was four, Mairead's relationship with Dermot sadly came to an end. He is playing music now with his partner, Floriane Blancke. "We just grew apart to be honest," says Mairead. "You never think something like this will happen, but it can and you can't do anything about it. It is so hard to separate, and sometimes people stay together when they have children, but children pick up on negativity and I don't think that is good for them. When something doesn't work out, you have to make that difficult decision and not have children living in the middle of a bad relationship. Dermot is a fantastic musician and a good father to Nia. He is very good to her and they are in regular contact," Mairead says, adding, "she doesn't feel left out because there are so many single parent families around. Obviously, it wasn't something she wanted to happen. She knows she is loved by both of us and we are there for her, so I'm happy with that."

On the professional front, Altan continue to flourish, and recently released their latest album, The Widening Gyre, which explores the influence of Appalachian music on Irish music. Guests on the album include Eddi Reader and Mary Chapin Carpenter. "The album was in the Billboard charts for six weeks, so we were delighted with ourselves," says Mairead. "We have a few dates in the UK in May, and are doing a festival in Leixlip on May 30, and then we do all the festival scenes. After that we're in Germany and Japan."

Altan has many high-profile fans, including legendary singer Dolly Parton, and their relationship dates back many years to when Dolly wanted an Irish band to back her on an album. "She was lovely, and we had so much in common with her, which was mad," says Mairead. "We did her album and it was great, and she then came and sang on our album, The Blue Idol. She's a real musician, but as a person, she's gorgeous and very real. She makes very funny remarks all the time about herself and about being so curvaceous."

Touring is hectic so when she's at home, the talented traditional musician with the golden voice likes walking, drawing, going out for nice meals and reading books. Now 55, she looks amazing, but says that she can see herself getting older when she looks in the mirror. "Myself and my sister Anna are always saying we must go out and lose weight," she smiles, shaking her head in exasperation. "As women, we are always putting ourselves down, but we need to stop and just thank God that we have our health."

And what about romance, would the lovely Mairead be open to love again? "Ach, I need to put on my glasses," she laughs, "as I am really not looking at all. I'm very happy the way I am and am not seeking anything, so it would need to hit me in the face. If Frankie hadn't died, we would have been together forever, but these things happen and sometimes your dreams don't work out. Myself and Nia are as happy as Larry, living on the coast of Donegal with a fantastic family and neighbours, so really I have nothing to worry about. We have a quiet life, and if I am touring, my neighbour or sister will look after Nia, so it's great to have so much support. I had always been in a partnership throughout my life, but now I know I can actually do this on my own. Sometimes you have to find yourself, and it's a great learning experience to know you can live as a single parent and feel complete."

The Widening Gyre is out now on

Compass Records. www.altan.ie

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