Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sisters in perfect harmony

Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill are best friends and are steeped in their family's musical heritage

Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill are performing at TradFest in Dublin this week. Image: Steve Humphreys
Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill are performing at TradFest in Dublin this week. Image: Steve Humphreys
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

As they pose for the picture you see here, musical sisters Triona and Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill are colourfully and elegantly dressed. "That's down to Maighread, because left to my own devices, I'd probably be still in the hippie gear of the '70s," says Triona. "She has an eye for beautiful things and is very tender, caring and loving. I don't know what I'd do without her and I love her to bits."

Triona (64) and Maighread (62) grew up in an Irish-speaking house steeped in music in Kells, Co Meath. Their dad Aodh was a teacher and was connected to the Folklore Commission in the 1930s and '40s. He played music, but sadly died of a coronary aged 63. Their mum Brid had a beautiful voice and lived to be almost 90. The softly-spoken sisters recall them being very loving.

"My first memory of Maighread was her singing her head off aged three," Triona recalls. "She was the best sister in the world and we shared the bed at home. We sang our way through our childhood and always harmonised together."

Maighread recalls how much she looked up to her sister, who is a great musician and was very academic at school. "Triona got away with blue murder, because she could play the piano and my mother would instantly melt," she laughs. "She'd say she had to do her practice, and I'd be left in the kitchen doing the dishes. I got the same opportunities, but one of the nuns said she might as well have been teaching the wood in the piano because all I wanted to do was sing."

Maighread recalls how Triona used to fight her battles if anyone outside was picking on her. They attended Eureka Secondary School in Kells, and really missed each other when Triona went to boarding school to focus on music. "I only stayed for a year because I missed home and herself," Triona says, nodding in Maighread's direction.

Their spiritual home is in the Gaeltacht village of Ranafast, Donegal, where their father was from, and they spent every holiday there. Ranafast was a completely different world back then, where water came from the well and there were outdoor toilets, and people called to the house and shared stories and music. They found it magical and a huge adventure, so much so that Maighread has a holiday home there now.

While in Ranafast, they hung out with children from all around the country who had been sent to learn Irish, and some important relationships were formed. Maighread met her husband, Cathal Goan, there when she was 16, and the sisters and their brother Micheal hooked up with musician Daithi Sproule there and formed the band, Skara Brae.

When they left school, Triona went to UCD to study French and archaeology, and she and her brother Micheal became part of The Bothy Band. At the end of 1979, Triona moved to the US and was back and forth for a few years, ultimately settling for 13 years in Portland, Oregon. Micheal lived there too and they were part of the bands, Touchstone, Nightnoise and Relativity, and had great musical friends around them.

Meanwhile, Maighread trained as a nurse at the Mater and married Cathal at 21. They have two children, Roise and Manus Goan, and Triona is the best auntie in the world to them, says Maighread. Roise made her career in theatre and is currently guest dramaturg at Vooruit Arts Centre in Ghent, while Manus is an animator, specialising in motion graphics. He's married to Annajoy.

Maighread worked as a theatre nurse until 1996, a job she adored, and also made solo albums for Gael Linn. The family moved to Galway for some years when Cathal headed up TG4 and he then became director-general of RTE. He is now chair of Druid Theatre and literary magazine Comhar, and has always been hugely encouraging around Maighread and Triona's musical career.

"Cathal is like a brother to me," says Triona, who was previously married in the US but is currently single. "We all shared a flat together before he and Maighread got married. As sisters, our lives have been centred around love, singing and music."

Triona and Micheal returned to Ireland in 1996, and the sisters were delighted to collaborate again musically. Micheal was playing with them and they had a great musical relationship, but he tragically passed away in 2006 aged 54 after a fall down stairs. Their eldest brother Eamonn died aged 53 in 2003, and the sisters were heartbroken at the two losses and miss them both very much. Their younger brother Conall is very precious to them, and is dad to their three nieces.

"Micheal was loved and admired in the music world," says Maighread. "After he died, we had to reinvent ourselves." The sisters perform as a duo with Triona on grand piano, keyboards, clavinet and vocals and Maighread on lead vocals.

They're looking forward to their gig in the Whale Theatre, Greystones, on February 23, and performing at St Patrick's Cathedral during TradFest on Thursday with Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny. They also formed T with the Maggies with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Moya Brennan.

Maighread says that Triona's best qualities are her generosity, kindness and always thinking of others. "Like many musicians, she stays up late and isn't an early-morning person though," she laughs. "You wouldn't dream of going to Triona before the crack of noon."

Temple Bar TradFest runs from Wednesday to Sunday.

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