Review: Rousing Chicago Reunion for Irish Trad Legend Altan

Chicago played a crucial role in the survival of traditional Irish music. Our city in the 19th and early 20th centuries became home to a huge influx of Irish immigrants who brought their music with them. It was a good thing they did, because during this time, British rulers sought and largely succeeded at suppressing major elements of Irish culture, including its music and Irish Gaelic language.

But the Irish tradition had a champion in Francis O’Neill, himself an immigrant musician and Chicago’s police chief from 1901 to 1905 (Chief O’Neill’s restaurant and bar in the Avondale  neighborhood is named for him). O’Neill produced sheet music and catalogued hundreds of Irish tunes, a legacy that continues to impact the music world today.

It took well into the late 20th century, decades after independence from Britain, for traditional music to have a revival in its native homeland. And for nearly 40 years, the band Altan—which performed Sunday at the Old Town School of Folk Music before a packed and appreciative house—has been at the forefront of that movement.

Local Chicago fiddle legend Liz Carroll (third from left) joined the band for a set at Sunday’s Old Town School of Folk Music concert. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Throughout that time, fiddler Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (roughly pronounced Ma-REED Nee WIN-nee) has been the heartbeat of Altan. She created the band with husband Frankie Kennedy, informally at first and then officially with the release of the band’s first album in 1987. Kennedy died of cancer way too young in 1994, but Ni Mhaonaigh carried on to make Altan an enduring favorite among Irish trad bands.

While the musical theater of Riverdance made new Irish music fans out of millions, there has never been anything Broadway or Vegas about Altan. This is the pure drop of Irish music. Ni Mhaonaigh hails from Donegal, a rugged county in northwest Ireland whose isolation helped make it an outpost for the traditions of Gaeltacht (Irish language) and Irish music over the years (Gaelic is the native language for Ni Mhaonaigh, whose name Anglicizes to Mooney).

Claire Friel (left), one of the leading young Irish trad fiddlers, joined Ni Mhaonaigh for most of Altan’s set. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Chicago has been a regular stop for Altan on its U.S. tours, but Sunday’s concert was a bit of a homecoming: It was the group’s first concert at Old Town School since March 2018, mostly the result of the long COVID-19 pandemic. It was, nonetheless, a warm blanket of familiarity for the longtime Altan fans who made up most of the audience.

Ni Mhaonaigh remains a tone-perfect fiddler, and her crystalline soprano remains one of the most beautiful instruments in this genre of music. Longtime bandmates Daíthí Sproul on guitar, Cíaran Curran on bouzouki and Martin Tourish on accordion rounded out the band’s signature sound.

Yet Altan, which has played such a key role in the Irish trad renaissance, is looking toward the future as well. Claire Friel, a fiddler and member of the Donegal-influenced Friel Sisters band, is touring with Altan and paired off ably with the legendary Ni Mhaonaigh for most of the 90+ minute concert.

Altan’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Martin Tourish. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Like most folk traditions, Irish music is first and foremost dance music, and Altan entertained with a number of lively reels and jigs. The band frequently jokes, though, about the sad and often tragic lyrics of many Irish ballads that Ni Mhaonaigh has made a trademark, singing most of them in their original Gaelic. But no Altan concert would be complete without a rendition of Dúlamán, undoubtedly the cheeriest song about Irish seaweed ever. The performance was capped by a guest appearance by fiddler Liz Carroll, a local legend steeped in Chicago’s Irish music traditions.

I first saw Altan in concert more than 25 years ago and saw them many times over the years, and I’m happy to say it’s always a pleasure. This evening at Old Town School of Folk Music was another great show.

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Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.

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