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Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh - ‘I feel very honoured that making music is my living now’

'Donegal is a complete contrast to the busy lifestyle which I have to contend with on tour'

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh - ‘I feel very honoured that making music is my living now’

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is internationally known as one of the most important fiddle players that play in the unique Donegal style

International Women's Day is tomorrow, March 8. This week the Donegal Democrat published a number of interviews with women who have been influential in their particular fields to tie in with International Women's Day. 

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh was born and raised in the heartland of the Gaoth Dobhair Gaeltacht. She is a native speaker and learnt her songs and tunes from her family and neighbours.

Mairéad is internationally known as one of the most important fiddle players that play in the unique Donegal style.

This takes her to the world stage with her band Altan, who play the music of Donegal with pride throughout the world. Aside from playing with Altan, Mairéad is also renowned for her work on other projects. She can be seen presenting music programmes on both radio and television, like The Long Note, The Pure Drop, and lately, The Full Set.

Mairéad is also a founder member of Cairdeas na bhFidleirí, which began over twenty-five years ago to promote, develop and keep alive the richness of the county. She hopes to take time out to compose new music in the future.

Q. Can you describe what life is like as an artist and musician for you

today, and how that has changed since you started out?

I feel very honoured that making music is my living now. I was a primary school teacher for a few years after college but when the opportunity arose to play traditional music for a living it was like a dream come true.

I wanted to travel in my earlier years and music has brought me to nearly every continent in the world. But since having my daughter 17 years ago, I found it hard to leave her behind when I would have to tour with my band Altan, and that has been a struggle for me since. But now she plays music and has had the opportunity to travel with me on occasions which has made up for the years travelling without her.

Life as an artist is haphazard and unpredictable, not having the luxury of a regular routine that most people have.

Q. What are the best things about living in Donegal?

Donegal is a complete contrast to the busy lifestyle which I have to contend with on tour. So when I come home it’s like walking in silence and on-air for a few weeks as there is no hustle and bustle, no noisy airports or traffic and you can find yourself alone on an expansive beach all to yourself with only the call of seagulls to keep you company.

I feel that we need to leave home to realise how special this county is. It is really a haven of immense beauty and we should be proud of our lovely county.

Q. What does Donegal need to prosper as a tourism and arts

destination going forward?

The simple answer is that the arts here need more funding to develop the county as a place for people to visit to go to theatres, galleries, music venues.

We have a population of very talented artists in every discipline but need platforms to showcase this.

We have an amazing group of people that keep the arts alive as administrators but they deserve to have every resource and facility available to them and not to have to worry about how to pay their bills to survive.

So funding is essential for the arts and tourism to expand. During lockdown, all of us enjoyed online events like The Earagail International Arts Festival virtual platform Sruthan last July or the postings of Glór na Gaeltachta from Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair, or the online Ballyshannon Festival in August or more recently the virtual Letterkenny Trad Week in January 2021.

 Q. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of pursuing a life or career in the arts or music?

My advice to people pursuing a career as a musician and artist is to learn your trade well.

Be vigilant and careful in negotiations and always listen to your questioning mind. If it doesn’t feel right, it's not right.

Be respectful to your peers and your audience, as they are the people who sustain you.

I worry about younger musicians nowadays as the market is saturated with wonderful musicians but the sad thing is the best sometimes are not the most successful. It’s all to do with opportunities and luck at times. It’s a precarious business, it’s exciting but it can be disappointing if you expect a lot from it.

When Frankie Kennedy and I started Altan we just looked at it as an adventure, travelling and loving every little kudos that came along. We expected nothing.

 Q. What needs to happen in Donegal and  in Ireland for musicians

and the arts after Covid?

I think that the PUP payment has been a huge help to musicians like myself during lockdown. I feel that after Covid there should be a similar payment available to musicians and artists when work is scarce.

This is a resource for the arts in other European countries within the EU and I can’t see why it would be the same here.

Ireland is renowned for the arts; music, writers, actors, visual artists etc all over the world and the Government should acknowledge that by looking after us.

Q. What are opportunities like for musicians now compared to when

you were beginning your career?

When I started playing traditional Irish music over 35 years ago. It was prior to the Riverdance phenomena and there weren’t many bands in the market place as such. We were lucky and we worked very hard to get to where we are now, but as I said above it is all luck.

I feel that the marketplace for Irish traditional music is so saturated nowadays with amazing young musicians now that it is going to be more difficult to make a long career or career out of playing traditional music.

I wish the Irish radio stations, especially RTÉ 1 and 2 and Lyric FM, would give traditional music more airplay, as they seem to avoid it.

It’s ironic as when I’m in the States I hear more Irish music on the airwaves than here in Ireland. That is why a lot of bands playing traditional music have to leave this country in order to make a living. 

 Q. If you had a cash windfall of €100 million to allocate for infrastructure projects in your native Donegal, what would be your priority

areas of expenditure?

We really need to fix our roads for once and for all before attracting and inviting people here as tourists.

Good wifi everywhere is essential nowadays and should be a priority in every part of the county and not just in a few hotspots. Donegal should try and become the adventure centre of Ireland where people would visit here to trek, fish, climb, boat , kayak.etc - outdoor activity.

We need to keep our post offices and banks open and stop closing them. The Government seems to want people to live in urban centres and trying to discourage rural dwellings.

This would be the end of our native language, the largest Gaeltacht area in the country. It would take away our uniqueness. I also feel that in order to make the county more attractive and to entice visitors here, we should put the electrical lines underground so that people could really enjoy the natural topography of the place and not have their eyeline disrupted with ugly poles or big electrical power lines.

I also think that the big unattractive aquaculture sites should be in more remote unvisited seaside locations, out of sight and not defacing areas of natural beauty.

We should have a strong emphasis on clean roadsides and beaches and places of beauty where leaving rubbish would be an offence and to follow up on this. Maybe have school campaigns to educate the young and they would help the parents not to leave rubbish behind at beaches or parks.

But it should be falling on local government either, we as citizens should become less passive and more active and do what we can to keep our areas clean, and unspoiled.

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