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Irish folk act pays homage to its roots

Repertoire includes ballads, jigs and reels

Altan plays Centennial Theatre Thursday, March 19 at 8 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets visit online at

As she delicately draws the bow across the strings of her fiddle, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh breathes in the distinct rich sound that reminds her of her homeland and reverberates right through to her soul.

"I just love the freedom of (the fiddle) - it encapsulates everything that I like about music," she describes.

Ní Mhaonaigh is the lead vocalist, fiddler and founding member of the celebrated Irish folk group Altan, whose music has attracted audiences at home and abroad for 35 years.

This week, when reached by the North Shore News, Altan was on the road in Annapolis, Md. Next Thursday, the band will bring their traditional Irish tunes to Centennial Theatre during St. Patrick's Day week. Altan have earned the distinction of being the longest-running act in Irish music history that features original group members. Helmed by Ní Mhaonaigh, Altan is comprised of Ciarán Tourish (fiddle, tin whistle, backing vocals), Martin Tourish (button accordion, melodeon), Dáithí Sproule (guitar/vocals) and Ciarán Curran (bouzouki guitar).

Over the years, the band has produced best-selling albums, performed in far reaches of the world, had an audience with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and collaborated with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss and fellow Irish compatriot, Enya.

Altan is identifiable by its rich collection of Celtic songs featuring fiddling and accordion melodies, and further complemented by the acoustic guitar and bouzouki - a pear-shaped, stringed instrument akin to the mandolin. Their repertoire ranges from sensitive and touching old Irish songs to stirring jigs and reels.

Last summer, in Nashville of all places, saw an opportunity for Altan to reinvent itself while still paying homage to their roots.

That is where the group recorded their latest album - The Widening Gyre - a harmonious blend of Appalachian bluegrass with traditional Irish music.

The Celtics that settled in this eastern U.S. region were a huge influence on Appalachian music contributing traditional fiddle music and hymns from their motherland. The Widening Gyre (No. 5 this week on Billboard's World Albums chart) is a music experiment of sorts that explores that connection and bridges the Atlantic.

"We realized a lot of the songs we were recording had tunes in common from both sides of the Atlantic," explains Ní Mhaonaigh.

Altan poured their soul into the project, laying down tracks with a diverse group of roots music greats including Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Todd Phillips, Bryan Sutton and Darol Anger.

"It was a great experience, and I think it came across like that on the album. It wasn't too rehearsed," says Ní ­ Mhaonaigh.

One song in particular, "White Birds," Altan's personal adaptation of the W.B. Yeats poem about being a bird on the sea, embodied the whole experience of them crossing the ocean to complete the album. For Ní ­ Mhaonaigh, the project was an opportunity to examine the lifecycle of Altan and for her to reflect on where she has been. Ní ­ Mhaonaigh's innate talent for fiddling can be attributed to growing up in an animated Irish household.

"My father was a great fiddler and enjoyed music and company - just being with people," she recalls. "The neighbours would come in (the house) and they would be singing and dancing, and I thought this was how everybody lived. I realized it was a special upbringing."

Ní ­ Mhaonaigh learned the fabled fiddle music from her father, who himself had been taught by his mother. In the Northern Ireland parish of Gweedore where Ní ­ Mhaonaigh grew up, the family was heavily involved in the theatre community: her dad would write dramas and musicals, and then cast locals to be in the productions.

The father-daughter duo, meanwhile, would routinely entertain at the local pub with their mesmerizing fiddle music. One evening Frankie Kennedy, a young man from Belfast, walked in and changed the trajectory of their lives.

While there was an instant attraction between Kennedy and Ní ­ Mhaonaigh, it wouldn't be enough to impress her at first. "He realized if he wanted to be part of this situation he needed to learn how to play (an instrument)," fondly recalls Ní ­ Mhaonaigh. So Kennedy taught himself the tin whistle, and would later become one of the top flute players in the country. The couple collaborated professionally and personally, marrying in 1981 and then co-founding Altan in 1987. Sadly, Kennedy passed away from cancer at the age of 39, in 1994. That tragic event has undoubtedly had a poignant influence on Ní ­ Mhaonaigh's performance as an artist. "Life's experiences bring different things to your music, especially if you play music from the heart," she says.

These days Ní ­ Mhaonaigh's daughter keeps her company on the road. "She plays fiddle, whistle, and she is a gorgeous singer," gushes Ní ­ Mhaonaigh of her daughter, who carries on the family tradition.