Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh: The ghosts of others come to you through the music

Acclaimed Irish fiddler and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is currently wowing audiences in Australia, where she and her group Altan are touring to showcase their latest album. She tells Joanne Sweeney how she's perfectly happy with her life today, with her music and her daughter Nia

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler and singer with Irish trad group Altan
Joanne Sweeney

MAIRÉAD Ní Mhaonaigh is a woman who doesn’t do anything by half when it comes to life and love. The world-acclaimed Donegal fiddler and singer from the Irish traditional music group Altan married her first love, Belfast flute player Frankie Kennedy, at the tender age of 21, the couple having fallen for each other when she was just 15.

After Kennedy’s tragic death from bone cancer in 1994, Ní Mhaonaigh had her first and only child Nia at the age of 45 with her second husband, the former Altan musician Dermot Byrne.

She and the group are currently touring Australia with 14-year-Nia being allowed to come along, as her school exams are over.

When she's not touring the world with Altan or with her other music groups, The String Sisters, Na Mooneys or T With The Maggies, it sounds like Ní Mhaonaigh and her daughter live an idyllic life in north-west Donegal. They live close to Gweedore where she was raised as a native Irish speaker in the Gaeltacht.

“I’m so happy now. Myself and Nia just do our own thing and play our own music,” says Ní Mhaonaigh, who has since parted ways with Byrne. “We have a very quiet life when I’m not on tour and play lots of music around home in north-west Donegal and play at any local sessions which are happening. It’s a lovely lifestyle and we happen to live close to one of the best beaches in the world.”

In 2017 she and the other group members – Ciarán Curran from Kinawley, Co Fermanagh, Dáithí Sproule from Derry, Dubliner Mark Kelly and Donegal man Mark Tourish – celebrated Altan’s 30th year in the business.

In March, the band released its first album in three years, and Ní Mhaonaigh’s 16th since she founded the band with Kennedy, The Gap Of Dreams. The 58-year-old also has plans to record her second solo album since Ismeall (2009) later this year and intends to release it next year.

It seems that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as a jig written by Nia and one written by Mark Kelly’s son Sam appears on the album. Both are going down a treat with musicians and audiences at home and abroad.

She explains: “I leave instruments – deliberately – lying all around house and about three years ago while I was making lunch, Nia came up with this jig and asked me what it was called. I told her I’d never heard that jig before.

“So we started playing it at sessions and people loved it so when we were making the album I suggested including it and the lads agreed. Then we found out that Mark Kelly’s son had composed one as well so we decided to put them both on the album.”

And would the singer want her daughter to find her career in traditional music, just like she did?

“She loves playing music but I’m just going to let her find her own space; that’s all you can do. You give them the colours of the picture and let them paint their own painting. She will be with me on tour and can join in the sessions whenever she wants.”

A qualified teacher, Ní Mhaonaigh was having the time of her life when she and Kennedy formed Altan when they worked and lived in Dublin. After his death due to the bone cancer Ewing’s Disease, she was faced with an agonising choice of whether or not to continue with the band.

“When you have a loss like that, your world collapses,” says Ní Mhaonaigh. “You have a choice to stop playing and stop doing everything but I decided to keep going as I knew in my heart that is what he wanted me to do.”

As she sings mostly as Gaeilge, she says her appreciation of traditional music, particularly that from her home county, was heightened by that experience.

“I realised then that [after Kennedy’s death] there’s an understanding or a depth to the songs that wasn’t there before and without sounding too high-faluting, somehow the ghosts of other people come to you through the music.

“You can sense the depths of emotions of the people who have written and played the music have experienced over the generations, and that’s why Irish music speaks to so many people.”

Ní Mhaonaigh is delighted that Altan are still riding the crest of the Irish music wave throughout the world. Apart from legions of fans who love live acoustic music and regard Altan as leaders in world music, they can call fellow musicians such as The Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs and the late French jazz violinist Didier Lockwood among their devotees.

“It’s fantastic that the demand is still there,” agrees Ní Mhaonaigh. “Irish music is a wonderful thing as it still speaks to people even though they might have no Irish connections at all. If you present your music with integrity and with honesty and tell people the background to the songs to people, then they will get it.

“We sing mostly in Gaeilge. Some people might see that as an obstacle but we don’t. Our Irish-language songs are so different to the English ballads. The stories in the songs have such poetry in them even if you don’t understand the language, you can appreciate the music of the poetry.”

There’s still a sense of sadness about Ní Mhaonaigh over the death of her first love.

“Marrying Frankie at the age of 21 was the best idea of my life and I was as happy as Larry,” she says. “I knew when I met Frankie he was going to be the man for me and he felt the same. We were very, very close and it was so sad when he passed away.

“Sometimes it feels like a whirlwind as life just passes so quickly. You become very philosophical in order to survive. Sure we’re all going that way and will end up six foot under.”

:: The Gap Of Dreams is out now. For tour updates see Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh performs with The Female Fiddlers in Letterkenny next month as part of the Earagail Arts Festival – for details see

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