Anna Ní Mhaonaigh, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Gearóid Ó Maonaigh. Photo Colm Hogan
Members of the musical Mooney family of Gaoth Dobhair have played music together since childhood, and entertained audiences around the world with Altan and other performances.
But it was not until this year that they recorded their first CD together.
”We’ve been talking about it for years, and then when you’re a family it’s a wee bit like fresh air and water – you take everything for granted,” Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, co-founder of Altan, said. “And then you realise, wouldn’t it be nice if we did come together to make something.”
There is more for the Mooneys to celebrate these days, with the announcement last week that Mairéad has been named the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Traditional Musician of the Year.
“I’m just delighted and totally honoured,” Mairéad said. “I’d still be playing music if nobody ever listened to me – it’s my identity now – but it’s lovely to be given the recognition for your work.”
”Na Mooneys”, the family’s new CD, brings together Mairéad and her siblings, Anna Ní Mhaonaigh on whistle and vocals, and Gearóid Ó Maonaigh on guitar; Ciarán Ó Maohaigh, Gearóid’s son, on fiddle and octave fiddle; Caitlín Nic Gabhann, Ciarán’s wife, on concertina and foot percussion; and Nia Byrne, Mairéad’s 13-year-old daughter, on fiddle and vocals.
The CD was produced by Na Mooneys with Manus Lunny, who also plays bouzouki and keyboards on a number of tracks.
The distinctive Donegal fiddle playing of Francie Mooney also appears on the final track of the CD, from a 2003 recording made at Cúil a’ Dún in Teelin by Hummingbird Productions for the television series “The Raw Bar”.
Francie passed away in 2006, but his influence is across the recording: Mairéad said when they thought about the tunes and songs for the CD, they first went through songs they played with Francie, their father. Some of the tunes came from Francie’s mother, the well-known musician known locally as Róise Mhór.
”Róise played the concertina and he got a lot of tunes from her, so we’re going back a lot of generations here,” Mairéad said.
”Na Mooneys” is dedicated to Francie’s memory.
”We were always quite close-knit anyway, and I think that comes through in it,” Gearóid said.
Sitting around the table at Mairéad’s west Donegal Gaeltacht home, the Mooney siblings spoke about their latest project and how it came about. It was Mairéad and Ciarán who first went to Manus’ studio to put down some basic fiddle tracks.
“When we had the tracks down I got very excited about it, I really did,” Mairéad said. “Because I knew there was something unusual there.”
The family’s busy schedules made for some delays, though they were all committed to the project. It took about four years from that first trip to the studio to the CD’s release this year.
“Ciarán has a great drive about him and he kept pushing, pushing, pushing,” Mairéad said.
Some of the tracks are unusual versions of Donegal tunes that Mairéad recovered from archives – there is a new version of “The Morning Dew”, for example, and a little-heard John Doherty version of John Doherty’s reel. The Doherty tune is linked with Frankie Kennedy’s reel, a tune Mairéad’s late husband, Frankie, would play; and the Limerick Lasses, a tune master fiddle player Tommy Peoples turned into a session mainstay.
Belfast flute and tin whistle player Frankie Kennedy and Mairéad had married in 1981 and recorded together before founding Altan some years later. After Frankie’s death from cancer in 1994, the Mooneys organised and ran the Frankie Kennedy Winter School in his memory for 20 years, until it was succeeded by Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair in 2014.
As Gearóid said, the feeling of family runs deep in the recording. But this also made for interesting moments in the studio: Na Mooneys said that when you’re recording with family, diplomacy sometimes goes out the window.
“It’s like, ‘What note are you playing?’, you know,” Mairéad said. Gearóid added, “There were some compliments, though – ‘Gearóid, you’re doing that wrong.’” They all laughed.
And they all credited Manus for his work coordinating the production, and for his role at times, as Anna said, as “the UN peace process”. They laughed again.
The recording process was also a different experience for those family members who are more familiar with live playing.
”It’s not like sitting down playing a session in Hiudaí’s,” Gearóid said, referring to the Monday and Friday night sessions in Hiudaí Beag’s in Bunbeg, where he is a stalwart player, as was Francie, and where all of the Mooneys have played at times over the years.
It’s a different process. In a session, “you’re playing for the moment,” Mairéad explained. “It does sound great and it’s brilliant, but it’s different.
“On the record, the moment will last forever,” she said.
In recent weeks, Ciarán and Caitlín, who perform as a duo, had finished a sold-out tour of the western United States. Speaking later from Dublin, Ciarán said work on the CD was a pleasure, and he was delighted with the finished product.
“I really enjoyed it, being in the studio with family,” he said.
The Mooney siblings describe their music-filled Gaoth Dobhair youth in golden tones. They were encouraged and supported in their music by Francie and their mother, Kiti Rua Bn Uí Mhaonaigh, and they recalled summers of day-long trad sessions at Hiudaí’s, followed by parties into the morning hours where musicians would gather to keep the tunes going. One morning Kiti made 60 breakfasts, feeding musicians and Irish students who had landed at the house after one of those nights.
They learned many tunes during those sessions, and during family gatherings, where they played and sang with relatives. That is part of the legacy the CD celebrates.
“It’s passing on a legacy, a tradition,” Ann said. “It’s our particular viewpoint of it, but it’s very much passing it on.”
Na Mooneys are performing in Letterkenny Trad Week and the Temple Bar Trad Fest in Dublin, both in January. They will also play in Cork when Mairéad is presented with her award.
“As a family we are all very proud of her,” Mairéad’s nephew Ciarán said. “She followed her dream, just playing her music and taking her own culture with her and putting it on stages around the world.
”So we’re all very proud of her, but sometimes we don’t get a chance to say that,” he said.
“Na Mooneys” is available in shops and online at namooneys.bandcamp.com.