Tuning up for St.Patrick’s Day: Music of Donegal

County Donegal is up in the far northwest of Ireland. Water is a force in the lives of the people here. There are rocky cliffs to the west, and summer filled beaches drawing surfers and families on holiday up north to the Inishowen peninsula, and deep lakes hidden among the mountains. Those mountains have their hold on the imagination, as well, creating landscapes of mind and language which make their way into the music of the people here. It is a music as fiery as it is gentle, influenced by the far northwestern winds, the close connections to Scotland, and love of home and love independence which are hallmarks of life in the far northwest.

There is a song at the end of of Altan’s 25th Anniversary Collection which is called Dun do Shuil, which means close your eyes in Irish. It’s a quiet, gentle piece, as befits a lullaby, and as befits the close of an album which finds the five member band traversing new recordings of tunes and songs from their two and half decades of work in joyous, lively, and thoughtful fashion. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s singing and fiddle playing form a strong center for much of the work, as they have since that band had it start as a duo with Ní Mhaonaigh and her husband flute player Frankie Kennedy playing small pubs and back rooms across the northern part of Ireland. Fiddles. bouzouki, guitar, whistles, accordion, and voice form the heart of the band’s take on the music of Donegal, ranging from the high steeping song in Irish Donal agus Morag to the quiet fiddle of A Tune for Frankie, a tune to honor Frankie Kennedy who passed on several years ago, to the classy interplay of fiddle and flute and accordion and guitar on The Sunset. In honor of their twenty fifth anniversary, Altan decided to invite along a not of an unsual backing band, too: they are accompanied her by the RTE Concert Orchestra conducted by David Brophy. It really works, with the orchestra adding notes of color and depth that enhance the traditional music rather than bending it to another direction.

donegal ireland mountains

Kathleen Boyle is based in Glasgow these days, and travels the world with the bands Dochas and Cherish the Ladies. Her parents are from Donegal, though, and it is that which forms the basis of her album Back Home to Donegal, which she recorded in collaboration with her father Hughie Boyle, who sings as well as playing accordion and piano. It is a melodic and relaxed trip, with the Boyles clearly in sync and enjoying good musical company. The song When It’s Moonlight in Mayo finds Hughie in a mellow mood singing a tale of a man thinking of his girl, while the Scots Reel set finds the two in lively collaboration. Guests including Theresa Kavanagh on fiddle, Joanie Madden on flutes and whistles, and Charlie Boyle on drums and backing vocals sit in now and again, but it is the father and daughter connection of two fine musicians and the connections of melody which anchor the album on an engaging musical journey.

It was a musical an personal journey for Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, and Moya Brennan to make the album T With the Maggies, as well. Each of the women spent time growing up in the same northwestern corner of Donegal, and knew each other in those days. They’ve each gone on their separate ways to top level careers as solo artists and to work with bands including Clannad, Altan, and Nightnoise. As they crossed paths over the years they’d think of doing a recording together, and they have. This music, both original and drawn from the traditions of Donegal, is done as well as you’d think. Among the songs and tunes are A stor a stor a ghra, Wedding Dress, and Mother Song. What’s especially nice about this project is that while each of these women has filled concert halls around the world, this music, and the music on the other albums here, as well, comes across as old friends sharing favorite songs — which is, in a way, exactly what it is. Really talented friends, really good songs.

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