“This isn’t a commercial venture,” Mairead admitted in an Irish television interview recently. Just 3,000 copies of this limited-edition solo recording were made on her own Moon imprint, and they are being sold strictly through her website (www.mairead.ie) and at her concerts. “I decided to keep this very personal,” she explains on her website, where she refers to the album as “a venture of love” for the people, geography, and music of Donegal.
The Gweedore-nurtured singing and fiddling of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh have earned global acclaim through the recordings of Altan, a top Irish traditional band for nearly a quarter century now, and her compositional skill has been evident since at least 1987, the year an album entitled “Altan” featured her reel “Loch Altan.”
In “Imeall” those facets of Mairead’s talent are brighter and more bountiful, as you would expect on a solo album. But there is something more here: a willingness to take chances not just with her music but with her heart. Behind the strength of Mairead’s performance, you can sense vulnerability, perhaps partly stemming from the death of her father, Proinsias O Maonaigh (her drawing of him playing the fiddle is on the back cover), and from the marital breakup she acknowledged in the Irish press. Pain attends loss, but in music it can lead to poignant, even joyful reflection on the best that endures from the past.
The buoyant swing of the hardanger fiddles played by Mairead and Norway’s Annbjorg Lien, her bandmate in the all-fiddle String Sisters sextet, on two mazurkas would doubtless bring a smile to Proinsias O Maonaigh, with whom she used to play them. And Mairead’s composition in memory of her father, “An Fidleoir,” conveys tender emotion through subtle ornamentation.
If ever a medley encapsulated a feeling of quiet contemplation transforming into renewed determination and rugged vigor, it is the air / highland / reel progression of “Meillte Cheann Dubhrain / The Twenty-One Highland / The Four-Mile Stone.” (That reel was learned by Mairead from a rare old recording of Roscommon-born fiddler and New York Ceili Band member Larry Redican, who lived from 1908 to 1975 and whose music deserves re-appreciation.) Mairead performs the medley solo until bodhran player Jim Higgins joins her about halfway through, and her fiddling displays silk and steel with equal confidence.
The medleys of “Highlands / Red Crow” (latter is Mairead’s own reel) and “Girseachai an Phointe / Port Chiti Rua” (both are Mairead’s compositions, backed by Lunny brothers Manus and Donal) shower their share of sparks as well. But for Donegal fiddling of turf-fired intensity, the medley of “The Pigeon on the Gate / The Convenience / The Highlandman Who Kissed His Granny” stands out. On those three traditional reels Mairead delivers a tour de force, further fueled by album co-producer Manus Lunny on bouzouki, Jim Higgins on bodhran, and Tim Edey on guitar.
Her singing of “Is Fada O Bhaile,” accompanied only by Annbjorg Lien on hardanger fiddle, is soulful and almost elegiac, as are her vocals on “Aige Bruach Dhun Reimhe,” featuring Michael McGoldrick on flute, and “Dobbin’s Flowery Vale,” the lone song in English, backed by Triona Ni Dhomhnaill on piano.
Two songs were written outright by Mairead: “A Oganaigh Oig” and “Mo Nion O,” the latter a lullaby for her daughter, Nia. Each testifies to her growing proficiency at songcraft. And on the album’s last track, “An Dro / Imeall,” Mairead’s musical edginess sharpens in the plaintive singing of her own lyrics in Irish laid over the undulating dance rhythm of a Breton an dro. She adds fiddle to that track, accompanied by Manus Lunny, Michael McGoldrick, Jim Higgins, and Graham Henderson.
The album’s two remaining songs are traditional: “Neilli Bhan” and “Gardai ‘n Ri,” which is infused with a Kila-like rhythm abetted by McGoldrick’s uilleann piping. Both are lively vocal treatments by Mairead.
“Music always brings out the best in people,” she told a reporter in Ireland. “Imeall” brings out the best in Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh.
The album is available at www.mairead.ie, and the e-mail address is [email protected]