Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s spirits have been lifted by the meitheal, that sense of community, she has witnessed in recent months.
The renowned Gaoth Dobhair artist and her world famous group Altan were three weeks into a US tour when news started filtering through to them regarding the danger of coronavirus and a possible lockdown.
“As we were going along we were reading a lot, The Irish Times and other Irish outlets, and realising that we weren’t being told the right thing by the networks in the States.
“We knew we were due to go to the west coast and while we were in Colorado and New Mexico we saw that things were getting serious in Italy, Europe, and Ireland was starting, so I rang my neighbour, Pearse Doherty (TD), who advised us to come home.
“Our next show would have been a sold-out show in Phoenix, Arizona and while everyone was up in arms, we had to say ‘look, we’ve been advised by a government official to come home. They weren’t being told how serious it was, and we were very aware of this.
“I went straight onto the Aer Lingus website and bought us tickets home and contacted other bands [touring in North America, Lúnasa, Dervish and Cherish the Ladies, people I always stay in contact with while on tour, and they weren’t aware how serious it was. There was real panic trying to get home as things were locking down pretty quickly.”
Altan had a further three weeks of touring left in the US and following that had tours scheduled for the UK, Germany, France and Ireland throughout 2020.
“That was at least 50 to 60 gigs we weren’t able to do. Some of them have been rescheduled to Spring 2021, in the States, but those still have a question mark over it. We also just realised last night that the visa prices will increase from October, so that’s another big blow that touring artists may not be aware of, yet.”
When Altan eventually made it back home to Irish soil, Mairéad admitted, she ‘could not play a note’. “It affected the deepest part of you where you get any hope or inspiration from. I could not play one note. I didn’t feel like it, I didn’t feel like singing and eventually the only thing that got me was somebody asking me to do a charity gig for women’s aid.
“I did a few for them which actually lifted me. You knew you had to do it. It was so joyous to play and know that you were making money for a charity. The old cliché, the way to happiness is to do something for somebody else, is so true.”
Mairéad didn’t stop then, working with her family group (Na Mooneys) on a commission for Earagail Arts Festival’s 2020 online programme, and a commission by RTÉ and the Irish Traditional Music Archive to compose a new piece which premiered on The Rolling Wave (RTÉ Radio 1) in June.
But one of the biggest projects she undertook was setting up online fiddle lessons. “Caitlín Nic Gabhann (Mairéad’s nephew Ciarán Ó Maonaigh’s wife) started online concertina sessions about a year and a half ago and she was always encouraging me to do a fiddle one, which a lot of friends and fans were asking me to do anyway. So this was my opportunity.”
Mairéad teamed up with her brother Gearóid, who runs the film-making company Reels & Jigs, and started the process. “He set up the recording and filming equipment in the house and I recorded about 20 lessons which I am gradually publishing.” Click HERE to check out a FREE fiddle lesson with Mairéad!
“I’ve been getting fiddle players from Donegal, all over Ireland, the UK, France, Germany, Asia, the USA and it’s just great for me to have some sort of income coming in gradually over this coming strange time where I don’t whether we will ever play again as a band, or a professional musician and I feel I have to plan ahead for the future.”
Mairéad said before the world locked down there was never any time to stop. “That’s how my life was. I’d be running all over the world and the case was never empty when you got home, because you just washed your clothes and off you went again. And that normality isn’t right.
“So the normality we go back to will hopefully be a more sane normality where people have a good quality of life where there is not as much emphasis on money and more emphasis on people.
“That’s one thing that happened during lockdown that I really loved, that feeling of meitheal where people help each other out, like the local GAA bringing messages to the elderly and vulnerable who couldn’t leave their houses. People were volunteering to help each other; All that spirit should continue, I think, it shouldn’t just stop.”
Mairéad has curated a wonderful RCC Sounds playlist featuring old favourites, songs and tunes by some of her musical peers and heroes, as well as a young talent from her native Gaoth Dobhair. Artists fesatured include Joni Mitchell, Julie Fowlis, John Doherty, Emma Ní Fhíoruisce, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, The Bothy Band, David Bowie, Prince and Bríd Harper.
The Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny is proudly funded by Donegal County Council and Arts Council Ireland.