Soft dulcet tones, warm crackling fire, elderberry echinachea tea, and the fragrance of peat, transports me to a small town in Donegal where Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh lives--one of my favorite vocalists, a dear friend, and role model in Irish music. I had the pleasure of interviewing her before a show a couple of months ago when she was touring state-side with Altan.
What made you choose to play the fiddle?
They say the fiddle is the closest thing to the human voice and I love singing. My father played fiddle and I remember being totally attracted to the sound of it. There weren’t a lot of women I knew playing traditional music at that time, so (choosing to play the fiddle) was a challenge.
Who were your mentors/musical influences growing up?
My father, Francie Mooney, first. He was always hoping my siblings and I would play an instrument. We didn’t become interested until we were a bit older. I was ten when I started only holding the fiddle, not playing. Around that time Denny McLoughlin would come to our house and play tunes with my dad. He sort of took me under his wing and started teaching me properly, just as my dad had tried to do for years. Now, in retrospect, I didn’t listen to their instruction as much as I should have because I hold the bow the wrong way. But, whenever I’m teaching, I always tell students to hold the bow properly because I don’t think my way makes any sense. But, Denny was a great educator because he would make you believe in yourself. As a teacher now, later in my life, I use the proper technique.
What was the music scene like when you were growing up in Donegal?
It was very sparse and all the musicians knew each other. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. It was a bit isolated, but I’m glad I kept playing because when I went to college it set me apart. Back then it was very rare to hear young people play, but, when I did meet someone my age who played I would get so excited because then we'd have something in common. But nowadays it is completely different, and all for the best.
Did you learn both the Irish and English language growing up?
I was brought up with Gaelic, it was always the language used in my home. My family would only speak English if visitors came into the house so they wouldn’t feel left out. I can’t even remember learning English. It was like a jewel language.
Why do you think it is important to preserve the Irish language?
The language is beautiful, but I think the most important thing with language is the mind and the way the brain works. The Gaelic language is full of poetic descriptions and you use a lot of adjectives. The English language, which I also love, is more direct. If the Gaelic language died, our identity as an Irish nation would die as well. There’s a saying, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. A country without a language is a country without a soul.”
How old were you when you recorded your first album?
I must’ve been in my twenties. I didn’t expect to record any other album after it either. It was an album Frankie Kennedy and I recorded called Ceol Aduaidh. A record company asked us to do it and we were so delighted. I think we were asked to record because we brought a new repertoire of tunes to Dublin and people liked the quirkiness of the tunes and the different time signatures. So, it gave us a new platform and that’s what Altan was based off of.
When did the idea for Altan come about?
We had Ciaran Curran play on Ceol Aduaidh. A few years later, in 1987, a company, Green Linnet, asked us to make the first Altan album. What they wanted was a duet album, but Frankie and I thought it would be nice to start a band. We named the CD Altan and decided it would be a great platform for forming a band. The group has now been together for nearly thirty years.
Why do you think Altan has been popular for so long?
I think it has to do with energy and luck. I’ve been very lucky. Talent is one thing, but if you’re very lucky and have people who follow you, that’s another. You have to respect your followers. I think that’s really important. Also, we love what we do, and if you love what you do, that’s contagious. If I see a musician playing and they love it, I get very excited. Integrity is part of it as well. You stick to what you know and bring it across as well as you can.
What have been some of your favorite experiences with the band so far?
I adore having people onstage with us. Traveling to different places is always great fun. When we first came to America we were so excited. We love coming here and making new friends each time. It was so fun being able to play with Dolly Parton and Ricky Scaggs. They would’ve been people we listened to quite a bit. Then, when you meet them and discover that they’re such serious musicians and they feel the same about music as we do, that makes it more enjoyable.
Have there been any other ensembles besides Altan that you’ve enjoyed taking part in?
At the moment I’m recording with my family, Na Mooneys. I’ve also recorded with Tea with The Maggies. I’ve played with the String Sisters, all of these fiddlers from all over the world and they’re all wonderful musicians. I just love playing with them.
What made you decide on music as a full-time job?
It decided on me somehow. I never looked at it as “that’s where I want to be”. I went to third level college and wanted to be a teacher like my father, teaching primary school. During the summer at home we have a very long holiday so I was able to go to festivals all summer long. I thought being a teacher would be a great lifestyle because you have Halloween and Christmas off. Then, all of a sudden, an opportunity arose and people started calling us, asking if we’d like to come to America, England, France, etc. So, we decided to take a chance and we’re really delighted. I can’t see myself being anywhere else.
What’s your favorite place to travel when playing music?
Definitely America. There’s so much diversity here. Everyone is super friendly, and there’s great music everywhere. All of the traditional music, old-time, bluegrass, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and Irish. I even went to see an Opera the other night. The eating experience here for us, coming from Ireland initially, was such a lovely, exiting experience trying out all of these ethnic foods.
What advice do you have for young female musicians who want to tour?
When I was growing up, female musicians were kind of secondary. Though, playing with the band I never felt like that. I always felt an equal. But especially in Ireland, there were two layers: the higher male dominated world, and the female world which is why there weren’t a lot of older female fiddle players when I was growing up. Nowadays I think the whole thing has changed. My advice is to keep yourself safe and to go with your gut instinct. When you’re being asked to play somewhere, check it out and make sure it’s safe. But I’m sure any female musician won’t be totally on their own when touring. I wasn’t confident and that was a very big problem. Musically it affected me for a long time but I had to gain that confidence and respect. Aim for what you want and go for it with all of your heart.
How do you balance touring life with being a mother?
That’s the hardest part. I love touring, I really do. But since I’ve had Nia, I find that I break my heart when I have to leave her. She’s on tour with me now but she’s come to the point where she doesn’t want to know me. (laughs) No, I don’t mean it like that! She’s a teenager, so her important people are more her friends than being with me. But, the last twelve years, I just kept yearning to go back to her while on tour. I’m sure she’s gotten used to me touring, but being without her is the hardest part as a mom.
What influenced the bluegrass vibe on your most recent album, The Widening Gyre?
The bluegrass and old-time music is just a step away from Irish music. I suppose we came across it the very first time we came to America. When we were asked by Dolly Parton to come to Dollywood, we realized we had a lot in common with these musicians. We had been on the road for 27 years when we made this album and people were asking if we were just going to make the same old album. But, that’s what we do, we play Irish music. Someone suggested having an angle incorporating all of these musicians we know who play this different style of music. So, we chose some things we liked to do, and some things we hadn’t even rehearsed or thought about that just happened right there in the studio. I learned Buffalo Gals, Gypsy Davie, and No Ash Will Burn over in Nashville.
Who made your fiddle and bow?
My fiddle is a Colin Mason, and the bow is made by Noel Burke. Since visiting Norway many years ago, I had always wanted a Hardanger fiddle as well, so I received one for Christmas about nine years ago and I love playing with that as well.
I always enjoy playing music with Mairéad, whether here in the states or on the other side of the pond. I can’t wait until my next trip to meet with her and have another lovely conversation.