Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, well known from Altan, spoke to us ahead of her supergroup T with the Maggies coming to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.
T with the Maggies is the supergroup made up of musicians from such world conquering bands as Altan, Clannad, Skara Brae and The Bothy Band.
Consisting of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Moya Brennan, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill and Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill, it boasts Altan’s leading vocalist and fiddle player, Clannad’s singer and harpist, two thirds of sibling band Skara Brae as well as the Bothy Band’s singer.
Although they originally came together for a one off show in memory of Maighréad and Tríona’s brother after the 2006 passing of Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, the quartet would record an album in 2010 and continue to get together for performances when their busy schedules allow.
Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh told The Irish World: “It is special when we get together because it’s very hard to get us together as we’re all so busy.
“But we were delighted when Gerry Logue invited us to go to the Irish Cultural Centre.
“We said, ‘Definitely’.
“We’re going to actually get together here in Donegal and do a few days rehearsal for it as we haven’t played in a long while so that’ll be fun. We always have a good laugh.”
Altan were the first Irish traditional band to be signed to a major label.
Clannad are Grammy Award winners.
The influential Skara Brae are considered a seminal band in Irish trad.
The Bothy Band are one of the most influential bands to have played Irish music.
The four ladies who make up T with the Maggies have been performing together in different combinations since the 70s but not as a foursome until 2007.
Their first concert under the moniker T with the Maggies would be in 2009 and they have continued to play together since, often for good causes.
“We came together for charity events and stuff like when people from Donegal needed help and then we enjoyed it so much, we decided to make an album.
“It’s lovely, myself and Moya do a lot of work together for different events to do with Donegal.
“For instance, next week, we’re doing a thing for Creeslough.
“And then Tríona and Maighréad are from a fantastic musical family and we always, even when we’re not doing anything formal, we always try and get together informally even just to catch up.
“We have so much in common.
“I don’t think I’d be playing or singing if it wasn’t for those girls as I’m just a little bit younger than them and they were my heroes growing up, or heroines I should say.
“They showed how you can sing your local songs on a world stage and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life now because of them.
“They encouraged me at the time and now I have the biggest pleasure of all, being part of their band.”
In addition to playing with Skara Brae, Tríona became singer with The Bothy Band, Relativity, Nightnoise and Touchstone.
Between the four members of T with the Maggies, there are not many stages or honours they have not achieved in Irish music.
“It kind of surprises all of us that we get to sing our Gaelic songs in every large hall from here to Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, to Dollywood that I did with Dolly Parton and then to anywhere at all, the Royal Albert Hall in London.
“It shows us that if you have integrity and you love what you do, people actually do pick up on that no matter what language you sing although we do sing in English as well, but Gaelic is still very much part of our upbringing.”
The four members of the supergroup come from the same corner of Donegal with Irish as their first language.
Mairéad is considered one of the foremost singers in the Irish language.
Have you noticed the resurgence in the Irish language with things like The Quiet Girl? “It’s amazing, the whole label that it had years and years ago especially with the Gaeltacht people emigrating.
“They looked upon it as being a language of the poor.
“Well, now it’s completely changed around where it becomes trendy and a lot of younger people, especially from cities, regard it as an identity and they think it’s a cool thing.
“And that’s what we want, we want to make it something that’s contemporary and that it means as much now as it did thousands of years ago.
“I saw An Cailín Ciúin, amazing. I’m so happy that got to the Oscars.
“It’s such a big deal for us because the language is dying out even though we’re all trying to keep the spirit of it alive.
“World culture comes into it and young people tend to disregard the language until they leave home maybe and then realise how special it is.
“It’s not even a language that we would lose, it is a way of thinking.
“It’s more than just a language, it’s our psyche and that’s a thing we cannot lose.
“Because we don’t just want to be like everyone else, we have to keep our identity.”
Mairéad mentions Creeslough. She and Moya recorded a charity single in the wake of the tragedy that killed ten people, including children, when a petrol station exploded in the Donegal village and have continued to lend their support and help.
“Donegal is a large county with a very small population and it affected all of us.
“That week Moya Brennan and I were invited to the Late Late.
“They asked us to sing a Beatles song, In my Life.
“We actually then issued that and sold it for the charity there, for the people of Creeslough and we were delighted to help in a little way where possible.
“We’re a very close county.”
Donegal and the group had more tragedy with the passing of Noel Duggan of Clannad last year.
“Noel passed away recently before Christmas.
“That was a shock and before that her brother died Leon that used to work with Clannad.
“So Moya has had her fair share of tragedy. We all have with different family members but such is life.
“We have to take the good and the bad and make the most of it.
“People are very, very good in a rural area when things like that happen. People rally around and make sure the family are kept and looked after for those mourning periods, which is one of the beautiful things about living in a place like Donegal, that old fashioned thing of looking after your neighbours is still very prevalent here. And I think that’s something very special nowadays.”
Mairéad has had her tragedy also with her husband Frankie Kennedy, who she set up Altan with, passing away in 1994 from cancer.
In January this year the traditional music world mourned the loss of Seamus Begley.
“He was such a special friend.
“I was in France when that happened and it devastated all of us.
“So full of life.
“I think Ireland has lost an amazing artist, and not only an artist but he had a great heart and great fun, but was also a very deep thinking man.
“He was like a family member to all of us musicians and was very encouraging.
“We cannot ever forget Seamus. He was just special in every way.
“He was more than a friend.”
Where were you when the Covid- 19 pandemic hit and how did you get through that time? “I was in America and I had my daughter with me. I was delighted she was with me because I’d be worried if she was anywhere else.
“But we had to cancel half the tour and we jumped on the next flight home.
“But I must say then when I actually got home, I loved being home. I loved it so much.
“That hasn’t happened in a long, long time. And I loved being with my daughter.
“I knew she was going off to college in a few years which she has done and I had all that time with her and I was able to be with my family. I found a lot of it a very positive thing.
“But then, of course, there was no money coming in.
“So I started up an online fiddle course which is still going, that helped me and I did a few concerts online.
“And then Catherine Martin, our Minister for Culture, Arts and Gaeltacht, set up a weekly payment for artists which really, really, really helped.
“It was only a little bit but it helped with being able to sustain yourself and keep the bills from mounting up.
“I thought she was very forward thinking in doing that.
“She’s just come across as one of the best ministers we’ve had for culture.
“She really does think of artists and musicians, writers, drama groups and all of that.
“She really does know what is needed there.
“I have to praise her to the hilt and back because she kept us all going during the hard times.
“And now we’re all back.”
Speaking about being back, Altan marked 35 years on the road last year. How does that feel? “I feel it was only last year that I started but I know it’s 35 years and more.
“It’s been amazing in one way because I feel very lucky that I was able to be doing music.
“I’ve made loads and loads of friends and gone into the depths of every type of music, playing every type of music as well and that’s always challenging but good.
“I’ve been to places that I never thought I’d be, playing music on stage with people that I never thought I’d meet, and enjoying it.
“And looking forward to 35 more years,” she laughs.
You have played with big names such as Dolly who you have mentioned and played on some of the world’s most revered stages, what stands out as a highlight of your 35+ years in music? “I was very honoured to get Donegal Person of the Year in 2009.
“And also I got TG4 Traditional Musician of the Year in 2017.
“I feel those two things stand out in my head, never thought I’d even be near anything like that.
“It’s very, very special to be thought of so highly and I still have to pinch myself that these things have happened.”
Just this year at Tradfest Mairéad presented a celebration of women in music that also featured Mary Chapin Carpenter, Caoimhe Hopkinson, Edwina Guckian, Brídín, SíFiddlers and her own T with the Maggies.
“That was amazing. I know Mary Chapin for years.
“That’s one of the honours I’ve had.
“She loves Irish music.
“She’s collaborated with Altan, with myself over 20 years now or more. And she’s always been so positive.
“And she’s just one of the best songwriters of her genre and as soon as I mentioned to her that I was doing a night of celebration of women in music, she was on the flight right away and there.
“It’s great to have those connections, especially when you’ve made them over the years to be able to ring somebody up and say, ‘Would you do this?’
“It was a totally sold out gig and there was a great vibe afterwards and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Tradfest has been a big part of the T with the Maggies story with the ladies coming together for a special concert for the festival all the way back in 2009.
“They got us together to play one of our very, very first concerts and we did it for Tradfest in The Button Factory.
“Great night, we had a fabulous time.
“I must say it’s great to have a traditional music festival in our capital city and that it is at a great time of the year when there’s a lull after Christmas.
“It kind of brings back a bit of energy into the music scene and they’re very good at encouraging young, upcoming artists, not just the older ones like ourselves.
“They’re very good at cultivating new artists and giving them platforms and I think that they should be commended for that because that’s so important when you’re starting off, to get that stage and a lot of people from all over the world congregate on Dublin that week and there’s a lot of people there checking out new artists for festivals in America, in Europe, in Asia.
“It has developed into one of the most important festivals in Europe.”
Mairéad and Altan came to Return to London Town in 2019.
“Karen Ryan is amazing, a ball of energy over there in London keeping all the music going.
“It’s always lovely to be part of Return to London Town.
“Fantastic. What a great festival.
“It brings the musicians there like Karen and Bryan Rooney and all these amazing London musicians and people like ourselves meeting and playing tunes.
“I love the informal side of it, where we get to sit down and chat to these people and see how our lives crossed and all of that.
“There’s an amazing array of music in London and fantastic standard of music thanks to people like Karen.”
T with the Maggies come to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this month.
“l have always loved The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. Always a great atmosphere.
“I love London. It’s great for us because we have loads of friends there.
“Obviously, London’s full of Irish people. People who have settled there now and we bring a bit of home to them, I suppose.
“I’m very aware of that specially when we’re far from home in places like America, Australia, Japan, China, always aware that the people, the diaspora there are longing to be home or maybe settled there and still look at Ireland as home and always trying to give them something a bit of special and bring a bit of the smell of turf back to their lives,” she laughs.
“Nostalgia is very good sometimes, there’s no harm in it.”
It was just last year that Altan played the big stage in Trafalgar Square for the Mayor’s St Patrick’s celebrations.
“It was fabulous,” Mairéad says remembering that.
“We did that with Damien Dempsey and it was fantastic.
“We had a great day and then we did two nights at the Irish Cultural Centre around the same time, the whole thing was a great experience meeting up with relatives and friends.
“And as well as that, the music scene is so vibrant there so it’s good to be a part of that vibrancy when you are there.”
Mairéad has a busy summer ahead playing festivals in Ireland and around Europe and reveals the band also have a new album on the way that is expected this year.
T with the Maggies play The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith Saturday 22 April and Sunday 23 April.
For more information and to book, click here.
For more information about T with the Maggies, search T with the Maggies on social media.
For more information on Altan, click here.