Altan - Biography
Altan is a traditional Irish music group with deep roots in the fiddle music of the Northern Irish county of Donegal. Over the years, they have become one of Celtic music’s best known and biggest selling groups.
The origin of Altan is centered around its two founding members — Donegal native fiddler and vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (who came from a long line of Donegal fiddlers) and Belfast-born flute player Frankie Kennedy. Both Ní Mhaonaigh and Kennedy were teachers with an interest in Irish music. They met at an informal jam session and immediately realized that they had tremendous chemistry together, both personally and musically. The two played together whenever they could and eventually they became teacher trainees at St. Patrick’s College in Dublin. Through playing and meeting other musicians, the pair encountered Gaelic singer Albert Fry and were asked to play on his debut self-titled album in 1979.
In 1981, Kennedy and Ní Mhaonaigh were married and also graduated from college. The couple joined together with Ní Mhaonaigh’s brother, guitarist Gearóid Ó Maonaigh, and bouzouki player Donal O’Hanlan to form the band Ragaime. The group disbanded by the time Kennedy and Ní Mhaonaigh recorded their debut album, Ceol Aduaidh (1983 Gael-Linn, reissued 1994 Green Linnet Records), for the Gael-Linn label in 1983. The album was a duo affair, but featured a few guest musicians such as the keyboardist Eithne Ní Bhraonáin who would later find fame as Enya. The couple continued to play at late-night jam sessions and festivals, and slowly pulled in other musicians that shared their passion for traditional Donegal-styled fiddle music. Two regular collaborators were bouzouki player Ciarán Curran and guitarist Mark Kelly, who played everything from rock to classical. Not yet officially a band, the four recorded Ní Mhaonaigh and Kennedy’s next album together, Altan (Green Linnet), in 1987. The album, and subsequent band, were named after Lough Altan, a lake in the northern reaches of Donegal.
After Altan was completed, the four musicians decided to form a group using the album’s name as their new moniker. They began working on material for their debut album in 1988 and soon attracted a fifth member, fiddler Paul O’Shaughnessy. With O’Shaughnessy and Ní Mhaonaigh both on fiddle, the band now had the twin-fiddle sound of many traditional Donegal groups. Altan’s first album as a band proper, Horse with a Heart (Green Linnet), was released in 1989 and features a fuller, more dynamic sound than the 1987’s Altan. The album was received warmly by both Celtic music fans and critics, and led to the band touring outside of Ireland. Because O’Shaughnessy and Kelly both had day jobs that restricted the amount of touring they could do, their spots were filled by guitarist Dáithí Sproule and fiddler Ciarán Tourish. O’Shaughnessy and Kelly were on hand for the group’s next album, The Red Crow (Green Linnet), released in 1990. The Red Crow further established Altan’s unique sound and found the band growing tighter as a unit. The same lineup also went on to produce their next album, Harvest Storm (Green Linnet), in 1992. Both The Red Crow and Harvest Storm received accolades and both albums won the Best Celtic Traditional Album award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufactures (NAIRD).
All seemed to be full-speed ahead for the band, but big changes were on the way. In 1991, Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer. Though he was in and out of the hospital during the following three years, he contributed to Harvest Storm and the band’s follow-up, Island Angel (1993 Green Linnet). His cancer returned in 1994 and finally claimed him on September 19th of that year. Though the band (especially Ní Mhaonaigh) was devastated, the group decided to continue playing the music that Kennedy and their fans loved so much. Altan gained accordionist Dermot Byrne and guitarist Sproule as full-time members and signed a deal with major label Virgin Records. The group’s next album, 1996’s Blackwater (Virgin), includes a song dedicated to Kennedy called “A Tune for Frankie.” In 1997, they released Runaway Sunday (Virgin), which includes their usual mixture of traditional tunes mixed with originals penned by Ní Mhaonaigh that seemed to touch on the loss of her partner. Guests on the album include American bluegrass musicians Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss, highlighting the direct historical connection between bluegrass and Celtic music.
After completing two albums for Virgin, Altan signed to the Narada label and followed up Runaway Sunday with Another Sky (Narada), released in 2000. While the album is in line with the band’s sound, there are a few departures such as the traditional Scots song “Green Grow the Rushes,” a Bob Dylan tune, and the use of a string quartet. Guests include Jerry Douglas, Dónal Lunny, and American blues/rock guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt. The group kept up their healthy touring schedule, making regular trips to America and Canada, as well as tours to mainland Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2002, the group released Blue Idol (Narada), which continues in the vein of their previous album and includes guest vocals by Dolly Parton. The group returned to their traditional Donegal roots with 2005’s Local Ground (Narada), which reminded fans and critics of the Altan’s early albums and showed that there is still plenty of fire in the group’s belly.