Legendary Donegal trad outfit set for Oz return

Altan – (from left) Mark Kelly, Ciarán Curran, Martin Tourish and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Absent from the photograph is guitarist Daíthí Sproule.

Altan – (from left) Mark Kelly, Ciarán Curran, Martin Tourish and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Absent from the photograph is guitarist Daíthí Sproule.

ONE of Ireland’s most prominent traditional bands, Altan have brought the music of Donegal around the world and are about to return to Australia on their 30th anniversary tour.

The first trad band to secure major label representation when they joined Virgin in the 1990s, Altan have paved the way for many bands who followed and have played with greats like Dolly Parton, Enya, The Chieftains, Bonnie Raitt and Alison Krauss. Altan will be at the National Celtic Festival in Portarlington, Victoria next month, playing tracks from The Gap of Dreams, their most recent and 12th studio album.

“We’ve been talking about going to Australia for a while and now that it’s all coming together, we’re delighted and it will be great to be part of the festival,” lead vocalist and fiddle player Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh told The Irish Echo from Ireland.

Last year marked three decades for the band, which was formed in 1987.

“I think all of us were kind of shocked. It just kind of flew by and now we’re 30 years on the road and enjoying the music still.”

There has been heartbreak along the way as Mairéad lost her husband as well as the band’s flute and tin whistle player Frankie Kennedy to cancer in 1994.

“I think of him all the time. We frequently mention him in funny stories on the road. We are always laughing at the memories, it’s always fun times that we think about and times when everything comes together musically. And where there’s a huge response to the band, we always think of him as well. He’s mentioned a lot.”

The album’s title comes from its other worldly inspiration as the songs explore mythical elements like mermaids and banshees.

“Well it’s an idea that all the older musicians used to talk about: Getting the tune from the other world, let it be the fairies or it came on the wind or something like that. The door is always open between this world and the other world. That’s exactly what the old fiddlers used to say, that there wasn’t a big difference between this world and the other world when the music came from the other world,” she said.

“We decided to use that phrase. All these kind of other worldly ideas came to our head, we decided to go with that.” The album also features the next generation of Irish music with Mairéad’s daughter Nia, who is only 14, making a contribution. Bandmate Mark Kelly’s son Sam also plays on it making this album a family affair.

“My daughter and Mark’s son Sam came in and they were the only guests we had really on the album and they were delighted, hopefully they’ll play more,” she said.

Altan play the National Celtic Festival in Portarlington 8-10 June. Altan will be joined at The National Celtic Festival by Scottish stars The Paul McKenna Band and Irish-Australian troubadours Hat Fitz and Cara. Altan play Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne on 12 June, The Old Museum in Brisbane on 13 June, Lizzottes in Newcastle on 14 June, Factory Theatre in Sydney on 15 June, Fly By Night in Perth on 16 June. For more information and tickets, go to