There are many artists out there who are sadly undervalued. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh may not come to mind immediately as one of them given that she is one of our most successful and well-known musicians. However, I feel her identity (and success) as the leader of Altan has dominated our sense of her to the point that we aren’t cognisant of how good she is as an artist-musician in her own right. The fact that she has not received a TG4 Gradam award (in any category, never mind all categories!) is perhaps one small symptom of that (among other things), but so also is the general lack of awareness of her as a soloist, as a composer and as an artist of great depth and profound knowledge of her art form. Something like membership of Aosdána would be fitting, I think.
Before my own deeper immersion in it, my traditional music listening was dominated by Altan’s albums, and because their songs connected most with my folk/rock background I suppose my focus was always primarily on Mairéad’s voice. As it is for so many, that was something very special to listen to for me, to the point where it hardly mattered what she sang, the voice simply carried with it a charge that reached the heart every time. Since then I’ve come to more fully appreciate the instrumental content (“tunes”) as well and so I’ve enjoyed listening back to the Altan albums and hearing as if for the first time (but in fact just from another perspective) pieces that are totally familiar to my ear. And they’re a joy, of course, and even more satisfying for knowing something about how they’re – as it were – put together, what they are made of, and what the group make of that raw material.
So successful has the Altan sound been, though, it could easily have been enough for all involved. But there was more.
Mairéad’s solo album, Imeall, from 2009 gave us all a chance to get a closer sense of her as an artist. It allowed her to try out a few different kinds of settings for her voice that may not have fitted with the Altan sound and to reveal on a recording her fiddle playing in a way the ensemble playing in the band didn’t. Two significant aspects of the artist emerge: her talent as a song writer/composer and as a player. Of course, many people always knew the latter from live performances when you can see better who is playing what and from knowing her playing in more private settings, but the studio – as it does – has laid out the playing for us in a different light and it’s to be very much welcomed.
From what I hear, once they reach a certain stage in their playing some traditional musicians are not that inclined towards daily practice. They view performances as more than enough practice for them. Of course, ahead of a gig they may well put in many hours practice on the sets they are going to play, but scales and suchlike wouldn’t be part of a rigorous daily routine for everyone, let’s just say. I suspect that this is not the case with Ní Mhaonaigh. She seems to me to be one of those musicians for whom playing is, if not like eating, at least like exercise would be to fitness freaks or prayer to someone cloistered. Her playing, particularly at a rhythmic level, I think, reflects a control that I imagine comes only with daily practice, as if the clicks of the metres have lined up with something physiological inside her.
Some of the songs on Imeall are slanted – in terms of production and arrangement (particularly the djembe led ones) – a little too much towards the bouncy-side for me. I think the opening song, ‘A Óganaigh Óig’, is a misleading one as an opener in terms of its mood, and it is at its best in the last round when the percussion is largely removed and the strings provide the texture; it alters the feel of the song considerably for me, making me wish the whole thing had been like that. Fundamentally, it’s a beautiful song written by Ní Mhaonaigh, as is ‘Mo Níon Ó’ – both of which hardly need anything by way of instrumentation to ‘work’. She knows songs so much better than most, it’s no wonder she can write to such a high standard.
Again, the second track, a traditional song ‘Gardaí ‘n Rí’, is for me over-arranged in places: it’s fun throughout (and I’d say a lot of fun was had recording it) but when Ní Mhaonaigh takes control of it with her voice, it finds its sublime self … for me.
Her rendition of the very demanding and a tricky version of ‘Is Fada Ó Bhaile’, against a plaintive, contrasting harmony played by Annbjørg Lien on hardanger, is profoundly stirring and moving. This should be heard more often on our airwaves, without a doubt; it has everything of a classic about it. As is most often the case in traditional love songs, this one is from the male’s perspective, but without altering the personal pronouns, Ní Mhaonaigh seems to me to make it an entirely female affair, not just in her voice being a woman’s voice but in a political sense too, as if to challenge: what male voice could do such justice to the emotions of this song?
The super-steady bouncing buzz of ‘Mazurkas’, for which Ní Mhaonaigh is joined on hardanger by Lien, is mesmerising.
As fas as my listening goes, there aren’t a whole lot of slow airs being written these days that fit aesthetically alongside their forebears (with the particular exception of Peadar Ó Riada’s, for instance). There are plenty of sentimental instrumental melodies being produced, but for me a lot of them lack the grittiness of older airs. ‘An Fidleoir’ starts off, on the guitar, sounding a little like that, but within a bar or two of the fiddle coming in you get a melody that to my ear has the depths of the best of the slow air tradition.
To hear Ní Mhaonaigh’s fiddle playing laid bare or almost bare: listen to how she comes out from behind Tim Edey’s guitar accompaniment (no easy thing) on tracks 6 and 13 and asserts the melody with such control and understanding and touch; then to the solo set of track 10, starting with the powerful slow air ‘Méillte Cheann Dubhráin’, going into the hardcore and off-centre ‘Twenty One Highland’, before finally on to the emotional roller-coaster ‘The Four Mile Stone’, on which she is joined by Jim Higgins on bodhrán, who seems to recognise that Ní Mhaonaigh’s playing hardly needs any percussive help.
‘Girseachaí an Phointe’ ‘Port Chití Rua’ are two tunes that, as Ní Mhaonaigh writes so casually in the notes, ‘I composed on the hardanger’. They are incredible, magnificent tunes, and the second one in particular has a special feel that makes me wonder why more people haven’t recorded it.
Apart from a handful of very positive reviews on its release, has this album had the recognition it deserves and been heard widely enough? Is Ní Mhaonaigh fully respected as the magnificent artist that she clearly is based on this album and the rest of her output. No, is the answer in both cases. I do hope that changes and that more Ní Mhaonaigh solo albums are the result. It’s up to us sometimes.