An Altan Experience
Many thousands of years ago a musicians life in Ireland was one of
bringing new melodies with the stories and ballads from village to
village . Before radio or television the only way for news to be
broadcast was via the travelling storyteller, bard, or musician .
This mission to spread the musical word across the countryside was seen
as inspirational and God given . The way of life for the troubadour was
often was hard . With no payment apart from the odd bowl of soup the
musician roamed the hills and valleys with no place to call home
Because of these talented individuals it wasn't long until Father and
mother passed on these airs and ballads to their children who in turn
handed them down from generation to generation . This tradition has
been a musical heritage in Ireland for centuries and today in the
twenty first century the tradition continues with bands like Altan who
are passing on these tunes to audiences all over the globe .
These days the road is a lot easier to travel and the musician has
technology at his or her fingertips . The resources of recording
studios , Internet computers with huge rewards for the successful few
It must be said that many of those tunes from the mists of time have
survived and because of bands like Altan they will continue to be heard
by people all over the world .
God has blessed Altan and their music with gentleness and their music
is without doubt timeless .Altan have cemented themselves into cities
and towns from Cork to New York , Peru to Timbuktu and back . They are
one of the most precious exports Ireland has produced . They bring the
Irish music and culture in great abundance to all walks of life .
Their music is as serious as traditional would ever want to get .
Their influence has crept into the soil and the seeds they have sewn
are bearing fruit with other bands being formed and assisting this long
and wonderful expression that translates the music and words from the
men and women ages past . History has recognises the suffering of the
Irish people and that is the reason why Irish music has survived the
passing of centuries . With life anything worth its salt has been
suffered for .
The music Altan play is a spiritual experience that explodes on stage
It was just before St Patricks Day when I first heard them live in
Canberra, Australia . This five piece traditional band from Donegal are
very gifted and possess the highest skill of musicianship I've heard
They are leaving a legacy for future generation to continue this
important role of music and story telling in their melodies and songs
Invisible to the touch yet present there is an Altan experience .
Between the audience and the band a sense of mysticism hung in the air
as the band played reels and jigs . A rare beauty was captured in the
lines of the songs and I wondered at the original inspiration where
these melodies and songs came from .
At times the performance was hauntingly ethereal then suddenly without
warning a spark would ignite in a flame of passion .
The flame became a wild fire on stage fuelled by driving fiddle and
Blazing bouzouki . The explosive vocals from Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh
co-founder of Altan propelled the entire sound into an experience that
left the crowd at the labour club totally mesmerised .
After each tune they clapped and yelled out various requests .
Altan in turn responded as best they could . I can remember shouting up
"What About The Snowy Path", Ciaran Curran the Bouzouki player replied
, "Its a bit slippy " to the laughter of the audience .
Most of the audience were made up of married couples .
I overheard and recognised many accents from the North of Ireland
After the gig I went back stage to meet the band and as I approach them
I had this vision of them being a loud and hard bunch of people.
I thought to myself now you better watch the banter here and don't Get
pushy with the questions . Anyway to my shock and surprise when I found
them they were the friendliest folk you would ever hope to meet in your
I mean like just minutes after playing the gig to a sell out crowd
there they all were just sitting down quietly with a glass of orange
juice in the hand . Altan is actually the name of Lock near Erical
Mountain in North West Donegal in Ireland . It is one of those rugged
and rough but uniquely beautiful places on this earth . If ever you
should see it you will never forget it .
Although Altan is a Gaelic name it is easy enough to say for most
I first spoke to the only female member of Altan .
Maairead spoke to me in Irish and was wearing a waist length white
woollen cardigan.over a black jump suit . Her very long silky blonde
hair cascaded over her shoulders like mist over a mountain I learned
that her late husband Frankie Kennedy who played the flute came from
Andersonstown in Belfast . It was Frankie who started the band and
before he died of cancer in 1994 his wish was for Altan to make it in
the business . Well his wish was certainly granted .
Frankie at 38 years old still very young died but his spirit definitely
with band . Mairead continued and over the years has seen a few changes
to the line up in the band .
Her younger sister Anna who was a member of Macalla sometimes lent her
talents to Altan .
Mairead talked of the gentle people she had known in her life and as he
spoke her eyes softly smiled as the crowd around us grew thicker
It became a little noisy as other people wanted to meet her and talk
I wished her well and said goodbye .
Next I met and spoke another member of Altan , Ciaran Tourish who comes
from Buncrana in Donegal .Not long married he was missing his wife
after spending a few months on tour with Altan . Even though he missed
his wife he told me that he loves to play Irish music to people all
over the world .
"We don't go to play to Irish audiences "
" We go to play Irish music to anyone who wants to listen. Our
audiences are young and old , black and white and all cultures. "
Thanking him for his time I said goodbye and moved on to meet Dermot
Byrne the accordion player .
Dermot was the business man in the band and in between words Dermot was
selling CD's to the people.
Rob Myles the tour manager was busy helping the roadies as wires plugs
and instruments were being rolled up and packed up .
It was obvious that the evening was coming to a close .
I spoke quickly with David Sproule who played guitar that evening
David was quiet and deeply focused when he spoke .
As the two cars were being called for I had a talk with Ciaran Curran
who played bouzouki . We spoke about the roots of Irish music and the
artists like the members of Altan who continue to bring it to the world
When I mentioned Christy Moore Ciaran brightened up.
Some one in the band shouted over ,
"Oh you've just made his day. "
Needless to say Ciaran likes Christy Moore , and who doesn't ?
The wealth of the musician can be seen in the people he or she plays
with and admires and also in the songs he or she plays .
In the trust of Altan is an endless list of ancient tunes and songs as
well as an huge amount of respect for it .
It lives in their heart and expresses itself with strength and courage
That evening they sung in both the Irish and English language to the
delight of all who had come and experienced Altan in Canberra .
For myself the Altan experience was a new dimensional look into Irish
traditional music .
Altan took the moment and transposed new direction into the word
traditional creating complexity from the simple and what was say step
music became a melody sprinting with an incredible pace .
Altan has gained the respect worldwide and without doubt they have
silenced all their critics .