String Sister Mairead is in fiddle’s fast lane!
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh has been one of the biggest names in Irish trad for most of her life – and is showing no signs of slowing down.
She’s in An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny on Sunday with the fabulous String Sisters, who have just released a new album. She also has a busy touring schedule with Altan, whose latest album will be released in the US next month and in Ireland in March.
Then there’s the family band Na Mooneys, who’ve also lit up the trad scene recently. They played a stormer of a gig at the Winter School in Gaoth Dobhair on New Year’s Eve with another famous family, the Begleys from Kerry.
“You’d think I’d have a bit of sense at this stage, but bills have to be paid!” says Mairéad. “I’d probably prefer to be a bit quieter but I love playing music. If you can even make half a living from it then you have to be grateful for that.”
At this stage of her career, Mairéad has ‘been there and done that’. Yet she hasn’t lost the enthusiasm for the music that helped her to become one of Ireland’s finest traditional singers and a leading Donegal-style fiddler.
She’s looking forward to being re-united with the remarkable talents that are the String Sisters. And particularly to that gig in An Grianán, part of Trad Week. It’s their only Irish gig on a short tour that includes concerts at Celtic Connections in Glasgow and a visit to Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Mairéad says, “Our time together in the String Sisters is special, not least because it’s so hard to organise! Every member of the band has a busy life.”
The six members of String Sisters are drawn from Ireland, Shetland, Sweden, Norway and the US. And they have a backing band, sometimes known as ‘The Misters’ – four top trad/folk musicians from Scotland and Norway.
The fiddle-playing Sisters on stage with Mairead are the phenomenal trad player Liz Carroll from Chicago, the first Irish-American musician nominated for a Grammy; trad/classical cross-over violinist Liz Knowles, star of Riverdance and a member of the Martin Hayes Quartet; Annbjorg Lien (Norway); Emma Hardelin (Sweden); and Catriona Macdonald (Shetland).
“They’re all playing and touring around the world and it’s a privilege to have them here in Donegal,” says Mairead. “Everyone is bringing something different to the group, from Irish trad to classical music to Scandinavian tunes and songs. It’s very exciting and also very challenging!’
The String Sisters’ debut album ‘Live’ was released in 2007 and long-listed for a Grammy. The new album. ‘Between Wind and Water’ was recorded in Shetland last June. The official release date is 16th February.
‘Gap of Dreams’
Altan remains Mairead’s ‘main band’. They’re celebrating 30 years on the road. Their new album, ‘The Gap of Dreams’ was recorded in Tommy McLaughlin’s increasingly well-known Attica Studio in Termon.
A big change for the band is the departure of long-time fiddler Ciaran Tourish, originally from Buncrana.
Mairéad says, “We decided not to replace Ciaran. And on the CD we resisted the temptation to bring in guests. We’ve simplified everything and I think it has worked – I’m very pleased with the album.”
Two guests who did make it on to the CD are Mairéad’s daughter Nia, at 14 a fast-developing fiddler and singer, and Altan guitarist Mark Kelly’s son Sam on concertina. The album features a tune Nia composed, ‘Nia’s Jig’, and one from Sam, ‘The Beekeeper’.
Mairead’s delighted to see the next generation growing up in the music. And she says that Nia is benefitting from a vibrant trad scene in Gaoth Dobhair at the moment.
“The local trad music organisation An Crannóg is doing fantastic work with the young people in the area, and they’re really taking to the music – they’re so interested in picking up new songs and tunes. I think the Friday session probably has an average age of 17. When I was growing up it was more like 70!”
‘Cup of Tae’ honour
Mairéad’s home in Carrickfin overlooks the airport – no coincidence for someone who does so much travelling. She says the move back to Donegal has helped her to stay in touch with family and friends, and the musicians of the county.
She has just finished her year as TG4 ‘Traditional Musician of the Year’. In May she’ll be the honoured musician at the 2018 ‘Cup of Tae’ festival in Ardara. That should be some weekend.
“There’s still nothing I like better than a session in the pub with the likes of the Campbells,” says Mairead.
Still, when the day job brings you together with the String Sisters for what should be a very special concert at An Grianan, it’s not too bad!
Letterkenny Trad Week features four top-class concerts. As well as the String Sisters at An Grianan Theatre on Sunday night 21st (8pm), there’s a concert at Kinnegar Brewery in Ballyraine Industrial Park tomorrow (Sat) night featuring Niamh Parsons, Ciarán Tourish, Liam Kelly and John Doyle at 8pm; the outstanding Scottish folk trio Lau at Kinnegar Brewery on Monday night (22nd) at 8pm; and Sharon Shannon at An Grianán Theatre next Saturday night (27th) at 8pm. Tickets from An Grianán box offce 07491 20777 and www.angrianan.com
BREAK OUT BOX
Another string to her bow
An added treat at Sunday’s String Sisters concert at An Grianán will be the first performance of a piece called ‘Failte an Earraigh’, which Mairead has been commissioned to write by Paul Harrigan of the Letterkenny trad school Ceol na Coille.
The piece is made up of an air, a song, a march and a reel. It will be performed by the Ceoil na Coille’s group of talented young musicians, Coirm.
Mairead says, “I think it’s brilliant that Donegal has so many fine young musicians coming through. I worked with Coirm on this piece and I couldn’t get over their ability and maturity as musicians. I’m really looking forward to hearing them at the concert.”