The road less traveled 

Altan doesn't let Irish county Donegal's music get bogged down

The folk of County Donegal -- on the boggy, burly northwestern shoulder of Ireland -- are proud to protect the Gaelic (Irish) language and their historical connection to nearby Scotland. Both elements have been exported to the remaining Irish Republic in the form of the group Altan, named for a local loch (lake).

Because of Donegal's geographic isolation, its music didn't travel far. "From the perspective of the rest of Ireland, [Donegal] is out of the way," says Daithi Sproule (pronounced Dah-hee Sprole), a guitarist for Altan. "People tended to listen more to Sligo/Leitrim music and to a lesser extent, Clare music," referencing more southerly Irish counties.

Sproule, the eldest of Altan at 53, first encountered the group's co-founder Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (pronounced Muh-reed Ne-weeney) when a young man from Northern Ireland visiting a summer music festival in Donegal, just across the border in the Irish Republic. Ni Mhaonaigh was then a precocious preteen, bilingual in Gaelic and English, learning songs and fiddling from her father, Francie O'Maonaigh.

A decade later, they met again in Dublin, where Sproule was researching Irish history and mythology and Ni Mhaonaigh was in teachers college with her husband, Frankie Kennedy. The young couple performed in pub sessions and Sproule heard them making "really powerful music": reels, jigs, hornpipes, airs, mazurkas and highlands flavored with Scottish influence. Ni Mhaonaigh's dulcet girlish voice and sprightly fiddling were handsomely partnered by Kennedy's natural but delightfully ornamented sound on wooden flute.

Sproule, who'd relocated to the United States after a 1978 recording session, decided to produce a few gigs with Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh on the East Coast in 1986. Their success prompted the couple to leave their teaching jobs and form a band after returning to Dublin. Like Planxty and other bands in the new generation of Irish traditionalists, they incorporated stringed instruments from non-Irish sources to strengthen the dance beat. They recruited Ciarin Curran on Greek bouzouki and Mark Kelly on guitar, securing a contract with Connecticut-based Green Linnet Records, moving to Virgin Records a decade later. Virgin subsidiary Narada released The Best of Altan: The Songs last September.

Along the way, Altan has undergone personnel changes, including adding Sproule on guitar, fiddler Ciaran Tourish and accordionist Dermot Byrne. Shortly before Kennedy's 1994 death from throat cancer, the group got a call from country-western diva Dolly Parton, who was looking to collaborate with an ensemble steeped in the Celtic roots of country, roots planted by Irish and Scottish settlers in the Appalachians and American Southeast. Altan joined Parton for several concerts at Nashville and Dollywood, and appeared on her album, Heartsongs: Live from Home. Parton repaid in kind on Altan's 2002 The Blue Idol album, singing on "The Pretty Young Girl," one of the group's many numbers for which O'Maonaigh provided Gaelic to English translation.

The North American presence of Irish music has been bolstered by stadium pheonomena such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance; new waves of Irish immigration to cities such as Boston, New York and San Francisco; and American labels signing such crowd-pleasing groups as Altan and Danú. And while American country music is big in Ireland, as is American rock, the island nation's own traditions continue to thrive. "I think there have never been so many great young players," says Sproule.

Altan will take time between upcoming gigs to consider the group's next recording for the Wisconsin-based Narada label. "We're talking about a more thematic album, rather than just a collection of tunes," says Sproule. But Altan is intent on taking no U-turns, staying close to the sounds of the hills and bogs of Donegal, now more than ever not so far from the rest of the world.


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