Traditional Irish Folk Group Altan Talks Travel
Despite an ocean between them, the stormy landscapes of Ireland and the country roads of Nashville, Tennessee are more alike than one might initially assume. Friendly locals, iconic accents, and a shared musical heritage draw these two destinations together. In fact, it’s that last similarity that brought Altan, a traditional Irish group, to Music City to record its latest album.
T+L sat down with three of the band’s six members—Ciaran Tourish, Daithi Sproule, and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (“it rhymes with parade linguini”)—to talk about their new record, “The Widening Gyre,” plus the connection between Irish and bluegrass melodies, Dublin’s music scene, and their take on why Ireland produces so many artists.
T+L: Tell me a little about the new album.
Ciaran: It was done in Nashville, actually. We were there for 10 days, recording it.
Mairéad: The title comes from a W. B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” and we liked the energy of this circular idea that we started off playing our music in Ireland, in Donegal. We’re very rooted there, but since we started playing professionally, we’ve met a lot of musicians along the way, some of whom are part of Appalachian and Americana music. We thought it would be a nice idea to have them involved in this album.
How are Americana music and traditional Irish music similar?
Daithi: Americana is a very vague term, but the roots of traditional American music came from Ireland and Scotland, and to a certain extent northern England. The fiddle tunes and songs and old ballads—we have versions of the same things in Ireland. So the music we play is cousins with not only with American old-time music, but bluegrass and country.
So bluegrass would be a better genre to compare it to than Americana?
Daithi: Yeah! Bluegrass is a really specific type of music in America. The songs and tunes that American musicians find beautiful in their tradition, we find them beautiful as well. There’s a mutual admiration.
Mairéad: For instance, in 1994 Dolly Parton asked us to collaborate with her on an album. When we were recording with her in Dollywood, we’d be playing sessions with a lot of the musicians. They had the same tunes, just a little bit changed. That’s when we started thinking about the idea of this album.
What is it about Irish culture that leads to such a robust music tradition?
Mairéad: I think it goes back to the fact that we’ve had a very hard time historically, so we had to express ourselves somehow. And it doesn’t just come out in the music; it comes out in the writing as well. We’ve had a huge amount of writers and people in the arts because the one thing that you cannot suppress is people’s expression.
Daithi: Even in medieval times, people from England and the continent commented on Irish musicians in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries, on how extraordinary the music was. When we were conquered by the English and all the Gaelic order was destroyed, people couldn’t rise in the world. People were deprived of physical wealth, so they put all their energy into the things that didn’t require money or material things: music to cheer them up and express that loss.
Tell me a little about where you’re from in Ireland. Any travel tips for people who might want to visit?
Mairéad: I’m from northwest Ireland in Donegal, and last year was the first year of the Wild Atlantic Way, which [takes over] miles of shore and roads. I could see there were all these coffee shops opening and art galleries and people making the most of where we are. They’re trying to make Donegal the Colorado of Ireland.
The west coast of Ireland has always been beautiful, with amazing colors. You come to Ireland not for the weather, but it’s actually an advantage to come here when it’s stormy because you see how beautiful and wild it is. Every day is like four seasons in Donegal. It could start off beautiful and the next thing there are dark clouds overhead. And when it’s beautiful, it’s really dramatically gorgeous, but I have to admit that a little bit of storm definitely shows off the beauty of Ireland.
Daithi: The real wealth of Ireland is in the landscape and the people and their attitude for life and the music and the conversation. And, I suppose, the history and feeling of connection to the past, and connection to each other. There’s a closeness, which is wonderful. There’s a richness in that.
Any specific tips on the music scene in Dublin or elsewhere in Ireland?
Mairéad: In Dublin, there’s Hughes’ Bar and the Cobblestone Pub. Those two bars are where you go to hear real, traditional jam sessions. And then back in northwest Ireland there’s Huidi Beag’s and Leo’s Bar, where there’s music nearly nightly. There’s also Errigal Hostel—it’s a really modern and eco-friendly. The locals go there as well for cultural events.
Daithi: Just get in a taxi. Talk to the taxi drivers, and immediately you’ll hear the secret of everything that’s going on.
Mairéad: And Derry, which is where Dai is from—being in Northern Ireland—was really nearly destroyed by The Troubles, but now it’s come alive, and it has a peace bridge, which is a beautiful thing and boardwalks beside the River Foyle. They’ve taken the Derry walls—it used to be a walled city—and they’ve opened it up.
What is it like to travel with musical instruments?
Ciaran: The bigger the instrument, the more difficult it is to travel. Sometimes on smaller planes both Mairéad and I carry fiddles, and you do see a bit of resistance, but guitars are another story.
Daithi: A guitar is a bit more complicated. I had one wonderful guitar that was busted about five times by the airlines. So it can be difficult, and musicians are very concerned about it.
What happens with guitars is that the vibration is what breaks the guitar, and they vibrate themselves into brokenness. That’s why you loosen the strings because tight strings increase the vibration.
Mairéad: Another thing that happens is your fiddle gets colder—dryness and the cold and the pressure can really affect the tune.
Daithi: And changes in pressure--sudden changes in heat and humidity. All these things put stresses on instruments.
What are you listening to now?
Mairéad: At the moment my daughter’s in charge of the music in the house so Hozier and Ed Sheeran, and I get to listen to some of my things as well, so Joni Mitchell and the Freall Sisters, and the Henry Sisters.
Ciaran: Bob Dylan’s new album, and I believe Van Morrison has a new one coming out soon. But, again, I have three young sons and they control the music.
Caroline Hallemann is an assistant digital editor at Travel + Leisure. You can find her on Twitter at @challemann.