music of Donegal: Altan: The Poison Glen -Gleann Nimhe
As they have taken the music of Donegal across the globe for three decades now, Altan have collaborated with the artists ranging from Nashville’s country stars to Dublin’s classically trained musicians. Thinking about their latest project, they decided to focus on the energy and clarity that they bring to their live shows, just the six band members themselves, sparkling collaborations among fiddles, accordion, guitar, and bouzouki, deep energy of shared musical creativity, and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh’s thoughtful and thought provoking singing of songs in both English and Irish. These are what the band chose as the focus of how to present their music on The Poison Glen. “This is the core of our sound, what we do in our live shows, “ Ni Mhaonaigh says.
As they often do in performance, they open with a lively instrumental set, in this case pairing the traditional slip jig A Fig for a Kiss with the recently composed tune The Turf Cutter. This leads into the gentle song Seolta Geala,which invites you to seek the freedom of the ocean and forget the cares of with world,. Ni Mhaonaigh sings this in Irish. A set of reels which begins with The New Rigged Ship, a tune which traveled to Donegal from Shetland, well calls to mind that tunes in Irish music are most often made for dancers. “There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of life experience in these tunes. They're tunes for dances, but people pick up on the emotion in them,” Ni Mhaonaigh points out.
There is life experience in the songs, too, in both words and melody. Lily of the West is a tale involving love, jealousy, confrontation, murder, exile, and all sorts of other things, which has traveled back and forth across the ocean between the Americas and Ireland more than once. Ni Mhaonaigh and the band put their own stamp on the song, which Ni Mhaonaigh learned from a singer from Aranmore, who had a large store of songs in Irish -- this was one of the few songs in in English that she sang. There are thirteen tracks in all on the album, well balances between song and tune, between music from traditional sources and newly composed material.
A deep gift for finding and creating songs and tunes which honor and share the rugged landscape,strong community, and long legends of Donegal is what has marked Altan, since the early days in the 1980s when Ni Mhaonaigh and her late husband Frankie Kennedy began playing as the duo which evolved into the current band of six musicians. As they worked together on The Poison Glen, not only did they enjoy putting this project together, but “we saw there is a lot of creativity in the band, a lot of places for us to go. We all write, we all compose...an album of all original music might be something we’d look to do in future. We saw, too, how we could use the studio almost as another instrument in the band,” Ni Mhaonaigh says. “We’re very proud of this album, and we see there are more possibilities ahead for us to explore.”
Daithi Sproule, whose own compositions have been recorded by Liz Carroll, Aoife Clancy and others, on guitar, Ciaran Curran, whose subtle and original touch on bouzouki have brought him many chances to work with great traditional players, and Mark Kelly, who adds a rock and jazz as well as classical music knowledge to his work with the band on on guitar and backing vocals, Ciaran Tourish has added his talent on fiddle and whistles to the music of Paul Brady, Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Dé Danann and Tim O'Brien among others, while Dermot Byrne, who plays accordion, has worked with Manus McGuire, Sharon Shannon, Frankie Gavin, and the late jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, on fiddle and vocals, has recorded with Enya, the Chieftains, Dolly Parton, T With the Maggies and others, and she is also in demand as a teacher and as a presenter of programs for broadcast . On Poison Glen, they are joined by Jim Higgins on percussion and Harry Bradley on flute.
About the title:
“The Poison Glen is a very beautiful part of Donegal,” Ni Mhaonaigh says. There are many stories about how it got its name, from it being a map maker’s mistaken writing of the name to an event in a battle fought there to a legend involving a one eyed giant called Balor, his daughter who he locked in a tower, a man who came to free the daughter, and what happened next. “I like the story about Balor the best!” says Ni Mhaonaigh. “We had Poison Glen it as a working title for the album, and we thought it had bit of an edge to it, so we decided to keep it.”
photograph of members of Altan at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, made with permission of the artists and the festival, and is copyrighted. thank you for respecting this.
you may also wish to see
Music Road: Altan: 25th Anniversary Collection
Music Road: from Donegal: T with the Maggies
for another equally interesting version of Lily of the West, check out Lovers' Well: Matt & Shannon Heaton