New album from Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh a family affair

Best known as singer and musician with Altan for almost three decades, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh comes from a strong Donegal musical tradition and has teamed up with members of her family for a new album

The Mooneys – the family group's roots are to be found in the Donegal Gaeltacht and go back several generations
Robert McMillen

THERE have always been musical dynasties in Ireland, families who have gifted traditional music from generation to generation while letting each new successor make of it what they will. Now. finally, muintir Uí Mhaonaigh from Co Donegal have pooled their immense talents and released an eponymous album, Na Mooneys.

The group's roots are to be found in the rural Donegal Gaeltacht and go back several generations. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh doesn't remember Róise Bheag Róise Móire, her melodeon-playing grandmother who died very soon after her parents married in 1954, nor her grandfather Francie, but their musical DNA would have passed through to Mairéad's father, Francie Mooney, the man who wrote Gleanntáin Ghlas' Ghaoth Dobhair and much more.

"I have to laugh. It was always about my father and the musical background, but very recently my mother said "there was music in our house too," Mairéad tells me.

"That's the whole reason my father went over to her house. Her father played the melodeon and her uncles' house was the céilí house so that's why the likes of Jimí Dinny and Francie would travel to her house in Slíochán which is halfway between Derrybeg and Bloody Foreland, up in the mountains.

"It seemed to be an idyllic upbringing because every night all the young people would gather at these nights and would have long summers of dancing – it sounds like great fun to me."

You'd be forgiven for thinking that there must have been music all the time at the Mooney house but Mairéad says not.

"We'd see the fiddle and jump into the fiddle case and start messing. We'd ask him to play Báidín Fheilimidh for the rest of the night and he wouldn't get a chance to play his reels and jigs at all, or his Highlands," she laughs.

Gradually with the folk revival starting at the 60s and 70s, folk music was becoming the trend again.

"Out of that, there was a whole community musicians who started to come to Donegal – a lot of Belfast musicians like Dermy Diamond and Andy Dixon, Gerry Garvey and Proinnsias Mac a' Leagha who would play in Hiúdaí's [pub in Bunbeg] a lot. When I really got interested in the old songs. I learnt an awful lot of them collected by Proinnsias."

Then there was a young man from Belfast named Frankie Kennedy whom Mairéad met when he was just starting Queen's University. Rather than become teachers, Frankie and Mairéad took the brave step of going into music and of course founded Altan, which is still today, 29 years later, one of the most sought-after trad bands around. Sadly, Frankie died in 1994.

But what about Mairéad's siblings, Anna and Gearóid – did they want to become professional traditional musicians? Although their careers took a different path but music was always very central in their lives.

"That's what's lovely about Irish traditional musicians – you can be a brain surgeon and still play music," says Mairéad. "It's an integral part of your life no matter what and it's part of the joy of Irish culture. We're very lucky to have that culture because I don't think a lot of cultures could boast of the amount of musicians living in any community. It really helps to give a broader sense of the world to anyone and gives a great sense of comradery – being at one with others."

Gearóid and Anna took different careers; Gearóid as an executive in an office for long years and Anna was going from job to job, mostly in film and being PA to various TV projects.

"Both of them also worked very hard on the Frankie Kennedy Winter School. It was always out of the periphery when they were playing music."

Joining Mairéad (fiddle and vocals), Gearóid (fiddle) and Anna (whistle and vocals) is Gearóid's son, Ciarán, another great fiddler. The album was produced by Manus Lunny which was fitting as the Lunnys were always part of Mooney family gatherings, Manus, Dónal and their mother and father would be at the sessions as well.

It goes without saying that this is an album with a superb pedigree and the thing I liked about it most is that it sounds as if you were there in the Mooney household, either in Slíochán or in Cois Chlaidí. It is full of energy, the songs are really great and there's something different with the treatment of even the very well-known tunes.

"We took a few tunes that my father played a lot as well. It was very important to show the repertoire that we played regularly as a family in session. Some are well known, but we played them to honour the family sessions so we decided not to overproduce the album and most of the tunes are played live," Mairéad says.

Ciaran's wife Caitlín Nic Gabhann guests on the album but the youngest of the group is Nia, Mairéad's daughter who is now 13 and learning music at An Crannóg in north-west Donegal.

Whether she follows in her mother's footsteps remains to be seen but it shows the Mooney's musical lineage stretching from Róise Bheag Róise Móire (and probably earlier) to the latest generation of musicians taking the tradition into unforseen and exciting territories.

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