Altan celebrated 25 years together in 2010. Over those years they have established themselves as one of the most important live acts to play traditional Irish music in Ireland and on the World stage. The Boston Globe has described them as “The hottest group in the Celtic realm!” Altan have toured all over the USA and Europe. They also enjoy popularity in Japan where they frequently tour and have hosted Altan festivals in the middle of Tokyo to thousands of enthusiastic fans.
Founding members, the late Frankie Kennedy and his partner Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, lead singer and fiddler with the band, began their musical career whilst teaching in a school in Malahide in North County Dublin, playing music for fun and enjoyment not knowing that it would end up as their main way of life and bring them all over the world! Frankie and Mairead started out by playing with and meeting older musicians from the Donegal tradition, like John Doherty, Con Cassidy, James Byrne, Dinny McLaughlin,Vincent Campbell and Mairéad’s own father Francie, who shared their music with them and most importantly, their friendship. The pair learned their music, tried to emulate their style and listened to their general philosophy of life, which, in retrospect was just as important as the music. Later it would be Francie who translated the beautiful Gaelic songs into English on all of the Altan recordings to date. Francie was also responsible for the translations of ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’ on two projects with the legendary Dolly Parton which Altan were involved with. Frankie and Mairead made their first forays into live shows in the USA in 1985, releasing two albums together as a duo; 1983’s “Ceol Aduaidh” (Music of the North) and the self-titled “Altan” in 1987.
Altan as a band began as a quartet with Frankie on flute, Mairéad on fiddle and songs, joined by Ciaran Curran on bouzouki and Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule sharing the role of guitar player, Mark touring with the band in Europe and Dáithí in the States. Later Paul O’Shaughnessy on fiddle joined, augmenting and driving the sound of the band to new levels on Green Linnet recordings “Horse with a Heart” (1989), “The Red Crow” (1990), “Harvest Storm” (1991) and “Island Angel” (1993). “The Red Crow” became the first of three Altan albums to win the prestigious “Celtic/British Isles Album of the Year” award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers (NAIRD).
Ciaran Tourish on fiddle and whistle joined the band for the “Harvest Storm“ recording, adding his innovative harmonies and counter melodies. The context of having three fiddles in the band helped drive Altan to newer heights and introduced the Donegal fiddle tunes, which the band became reknowned for, to a much wider audience. Q magazine described “Island Angel” as a “combination of head spinning drive and pure melancholy”, qualities that gave the band “a one-two punch that is unmatched in contemporary folk circles.” Altan are no stranger to the Billboard world music charts, “Island Angel” was the fourth-best-selling album in 1994.
In the meantime Frankie Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer, but continued to steer the band to international recognition and negotiating with Virgin Records UK, to sign the band before his death in September 1994. This was a significant signing, as up until this traditional music was not on any major label. Altan recorded three albums for Virgin records; “Blackwater” (1996), “Runaway Sunday” (1997) and “The Blue Idol” (2002). This merger with a major record label helped Altan bring their music, song and culture to a wider audience worldwide and paved the way for up and coming younger bands to tour extensively all over the world - crucially the band made no musical compromise to the traditional music they played and recorded.
Altan have proven to be important ambassadors of the music and culture of Ireland, so much so that they were invited to accompany the Irish President, Mary McAleese on several State visits, visiting Greece, Korea and Japan. Altan were asked to play at the White House twice by US President Bill Clinton, and played again for him when he visited Ireland. In 2006, the Irish government honoured the band by putting them on an official Irish postage stamp, one of the highest honours bestowed upon any living artist in Ireland (the only others honoured in this set of four stamps were The Chieftains, The Dubliners and Makem and Clancy). Altan have been invited to play by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives in 2007, and were granted the celebrated “Arkansas Traveller” award from state governor Mike Huckabee. “Tommy Bhetty’s Waltz” from the Red Crow album was featured in the oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting starring Robin Williams in 1997.
Altan have played their music in some of the most prestigious venues in the world; The Sydney Opera House, The Hollywood Bowl, The Royal Albert Hall, The Alte Opera Frankfurt, The Greek Theatre Los Angeles and many, many more. They have played music and recorded with The Chieftains, Dolly Parton Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs to name but a few. In 2003 they won the award for Best Group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. In 2005, they recorded their latest studio album “Local Ground” and like every other Altan offering it was met with positive and enthusiastic reviews. The band have gained gold and platinum status in Ireland with their record sales and have won numerous awards in the music business as one of the most popular bands playing traditional folk or world music in the world.
In recent years Altan have been exploring and experimenting with their music using orchestral arrangements of their most popular pieces. The arrangements have been scored by the highly respected arranger, Fiachra Trench and have been performed with the Ulster Orchestra, The RTÉ Concert Orchestra and with the Royal Scottish Opera Orchestra. In 2010 Altan released a 25th Anniversary Celebration album with the RTE Concert Orchestra, and embarked on an international tour with both orchestra and band line-up. Altan are also in pre-production on another studio album.