THE term ‘living tradition’ might once have been a term synonymous with a famed music emporium on Cork’s MacCurtain St. But it could have been invented for the woman whose career will be celebrated in the city this weekend at the Gradam Ceoil TG4 ceremony.
When the great and the good of Irish traditional music converge on Cork on Sunday, they will celebrate the achievements of, among others, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, a musician and singer who embodies the continuum between the music’s past, present, and future.
As Ní Mhaonaigh accepts the Gradam Ceoil at Cork Opera House, the plaudits will be rightfully hers, a fitting tribute to a stellar 30-year career with Altan, as a solo artist, and more recently with family group Na Mooneys.
But to present trad’s top award to Ní Mhaonaigh is to acknowledge all that came before; the roots and influences that shaped her career as a musician and singer.
One of the most prominent exponents of Donegal’s exuberant fiddle style, Mairéad owes her early inspiration to her late father and teacher Francie (Proinsias) Mooney.
Female fiddle players were rare in her native Gaoth Dobhair, she recalls, so initial influences on her style were predominantly male.
“I know for a fact that older ladies were discouraged from playing,” she says. “The fiddle was ‘the devil’s instrument’. I would have heard male fiddle-playing and I play as tough as any man. Donegal fiddle playing has that energy and vibrancy.
“I love playing and singing. Both are very dear to my heart. I was singing since I was in the cradle, and I took up the fiddle at about 10.
“Singing brought out my feminine side but the fiddle brings out the masculine side.”
Any gender inequality in Donegal fiddle playing has been largely resolved, she notes, citing modern exponents Tara Connaghan and Bríd Harper. But in winning the Gradam Ceoil she does strike a blow for her sex as the first female fiddle player and third woman overall to earn the honour. “I hope it might encourage younger girls. When I was young there were no girls playing, and now when I look around, it could be an all-female session. We shouldn’t be worrying about gender, but I think it has changed for the better. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, as long as the music is good.”
Ní Mhaonaigh , as it happens, is not the only Donegal woman receiving a gradam this year, with Rita Gallagher named traditional singer of the year. The lifetime achievement award recipient is Dónal Lunny, who among myriad roles is Altan’s long-time producer. Michael Rooney is composer of the year, young musician is Liam O’Brien, with Mick O’Connor honoured for outstanding contribution.
For future keepers of the tradition, Ní Mhaonaigh needs look no further than her daughter Nia, who joins her on stage at the Opera House with Na Mooneys, the ensemble that includes Mairéad’s siblings Anna and Gearóid, and nephew Ciarán Ó Maonaigh.
Nia, 13, has become really interested in the fiddle music of Donegal. Her father is former Altan accordion player Dermot Byrne, awarded the Gradam Cheoil in 2013, and now “Nia feels very privileged that both her parents will have a gradam.”
When notified of the award herself, Mairéad says: “ It’s such an incredible honour, particularly because the standard is so high in traditional music. It’s never been higher, so this has really boosted my confidence. I would see it as an acknowledgement of my life’s work.”
A towering influence on that life’s work was her first husband, flute player Frankie Kennedy, with whom she founded Altan in 1987. Kennedy died of cancer aged 38, and Ní Mhaonaigh sees the gradam as a shared honour.
“As soon as I got the phone call, the first person I thought of was Frankie. I know he would be so delighted. Really, it’s his award too.”
Gradam Ceoil, TG4 live, Sunday, from the Cork Opera House