Wednesday 14 November 2018

The sadness behind the smile of Ireland's true queen of trad...

Dealing with loss made this celebrity mum stronger, says Celine Naughton

Strong: Altan singer and fiddle player Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh carried on with the band after
the death of her husband, Frankie Kennedy, Photo by Tony Gavin
Strong: Altan singer and fiddle player Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh carried on with the band after the death of her husband, Frankie Kennedy, Photo by Tony Gavin

Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is a mother with a mission. Like generations of her family before her, she is determined to pass on her love of music and passion for the Irish language to her own child.

A native of Gweedore in Co Donegal, Mairead is the lead singer and fiddle player with Altan, a traditional Irish band that has become a giant in the world of international folk music. Her five-year-old daughter Nia already owns her own fiddle and sings like an angel.

"Music was such an integral part of our childhood, we took it for granted," says Mairead whose older brother Gearoid is a guitarist, and younger sister Anna, a singer. Their father Proinsias Ó Maonaigh taught his children a wealth of old tunes handed down to him by his mother Roise.

"Music, dancing and fun were part of our lives growing up," she says. "People would call round, telling stories and singing songs. There were always instruments lying around. We had very simple means, yet there was great security in our home life."

It was a far cry from today's X-box generation of indulgent parents and pampered children who may be in for a rude awakening in the face of certain recession. And, ever optimistic, Mairead sees a positive side to the current economic climate.

"It will make parents reflect on their quality of life," she says. "They have to think about how to entertain their children. If the money is not there for all kinds of classes, do something in the house. That's very important. As a former schoolteacher, I know how much children love spending time with their parents."

And that's exactly what Mairead herself is doing. She has swapped city living for the sort of upbringing she herself had back in Gweedore.

"When Nia was two I decided to come back here because I am passionate about my first language and wanted to raise her in a Gaeltacht area. I also wanted her to be able to run about in the fresh air."

It sounds like an idyllic existence and Mairead treasures every moment, perhaps all the more because she also knows the pain of loss. Her joys and heartaches are all entwined in the history of this group. Altan began in the early 1980s when Mairead and her then husband, Belfast flute player Frankie Kennedy, took leave of absence from their jobs to have a go at becoming professional musicians. They had both worked as teachers in the same north Dublin primary school when an opportunity arose that they couldn't resist.

"There were too many teachers in the early 1980s, so the State introduced a scheme whereby you could take leave for up to six years to venture out and try another career and your job would still be waiting for you," explained Mairead. "At the end of six years, the principal realised that we weren't coming back!"

Altan started off playing small venues around the country and gradually built up a loyal following that was to make the group an international success.

Adding new members to the line-up over the following years, they recorded albums, toured the US, Europe and Japan and built a reputation as one of Ireland's truly great traditional music bands.

However, in 1991, just as their dreams were being realised, Frankie was diagnosed with bone cancer. He died in 1994, aged 38.

"It was devastating, unbearable," says Mairead, "and yet what choice was there but to carry on. Life throws these things at you and you have to cope as best you can."

There was never a question of disbanding after Frankie's death. To honour his memory, the Frankie Kennedy Winter School is held every year in Gweedore, from December 27 to January 2.

"It's a fantastic time of the year because there's a lull after Christmas," says Mairead. "Lots of our friends come along to play and teach music. It keeps his memory alive and it keeps music alive and he would be proud of that."

He would also be proud of the global success achieved by the band whose current line-up includes, as well as Mairead, bouzouki player Ciaran Curran, fiddler Ciaran Tourish, guitarists Mark Kelly and Daithi Sproule and accordionist Dermot Byrne. To date Altan has sold over a million albums, played to two US Presidents -- Clinton and Bush -- and filled some of the world's biggest venues, including the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

Next month Irish audiences get a chance to see them play in the more intimate venue of Dublin's Button Factory.

Over three consecutive Sundays from November 9, each gig features special guests including Liam O Maonlai, Seamus Begley and a surprise guest on November 23, whom Mairead will reveal only as "a well-known singer/songwriter from Strabane".

Tickets priced at €25 are available at and outlets nationwide. An album of the band's live concerts from America, Japan and Europe is currently in progress and Mairead is also busy preparing for the launch of her first solo album titled Imeall, meaning 'verge' or 'threshold', due out on December 28

Style Newsletter

Stay on top of the latest fashion, beauty and celeb gossip in our Style newsletter.

Editors Choice

Also in this section