Hibernian Happenings

Irish super group Altan is a highlight of St. Patrick season

Irish season is upon us! There are plenty of ways to celebrate Erin go Bragh. Here are just a few.

Altan concert, March 14

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler and singer extraordinaire in the Irish traditional band Altan, grew up with tales of giants and fairies and evil-eyed villains.

"My father was a musician and schoolteacher, and well versed in mythology," she says by phone from freezing Schenectady, one of many stops on an Altan tour. Her father's fiddle-playing and storytelling gave her "a charming upbringing. I saw fairies and other creatures in every nook and cranny."

Now renowned and in demand—she's done guest gigs with artists from The Chieftains to Enya to Dolly Parton—she was born and raised in Gweedore, a remote Donegal village in the far northwest of Ireland.

Music abounded in Ní Mhaonaigh's childhood home. She learned fiddle from her father and the many musicians who came "to play music with us at home," including the masterly fiddler Dinny McLaughlin from nearby Inishowen. Her brother and sister grew up to be musicians too, and their mother, from a family of traditional dancers, is still, at 92, step-dancing with the best.

Gweedore is part of the Gaeltacht, the regios where the Irish language is still spoken. Ní Mhaonaigh—a Gaelic name that roughly translates as McMooney—poke Irish as her first language and speaks it still.

"We'll be singing in Gaelic and English," she says, in the Altan concert in Tucson, on Saturday, March 14. Ní Mhaonaigh, who doubles as the band's fiddler and lead singer, is blessed with a soprano voice that's powerful and delicate at the same time.

The lineup includes original member Ciarán Curran, a bouzouki player hailing from County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. Renowned guitarist Dáithí Sproule, resident in Minnesota, originally hails from Derry. The newest member, Martin Tourish, another Donegal native, plays the accordion.

And in keeping with family tradition, Ní Mhaonaigh's 16-year-old daughter, Nia Byrne, is singing on stage with the rest of the musicians.

"She has a beautiful clear soprano," her mother says.

Award-winning dancers from Celtic Steps in Tucson will perform as well.

Altan is known for rip-roaring jigs and reels, along with heartbreaking traditional songs. What sets it apart from other Irish bands is its unusual repertory in the songs and fiddle styles of Donegal.

The traditional tunes are different in isolated Donegal, Ní Mhaonaigh says. When she and her late husband, Frankie Kennedy, of Belfast, began playing in Dublin clubs in the early '80s, the unfamiliar music captured the city audiences.

"Northern music was unusual then," she says.

The two were working as teachers, but their duo act grew so popular that they took what they thought would be a temporary leave from teaching. But they never returned to their classrooms: instead they created Altan and became a powerhouse of Irish music. Kennedy died of cancer in 1994, but the band played on.

Named for a lake in Donegal, Altan is now celebrating some 32 years as a band; the musicians have recorded some 15 albums and they've toured around the world. (The current North American tour, just in time for St. Patrick's Day, is a grueling six weeks long.)

Donegal, with its unique tunes and legends, still shapes Altan's music.

Their latest album, Gap of Dreams, is inspired by the "otherworldly things among the Irish of the old days," Ní Mhaonaigh says. "They used to say they got the music from the fairies or the wind."

Altan plays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 14, at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. Reserved tickets $25 to $40. Available online at foxtucson.com for a $4 fee; available at box office for no fee. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and two hours before showtime. 547-3040. For more info, see inconcerttucson.com.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Rogue Theatre, through March 15

Playwright Martin McDonagh has won acclaim for a slew of projects—just last weekend he opened his play Hangman on Broadway, and a few years back he wrote, directed and produced the Oscar award-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But it's his early Irish plays that are staged again and again.

Born and raised in England by Irish immigrant parents, McDonagh was sent back to Ireland in the summers as a child, and his first six plays are all set in County Galway in the west of Ireland.

Last weekend, Rogue Theatre opened The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his first play. Written in 1996, it had a Broadway run of its own and won four Tony Awards. (I have not yet seen the Rogue production.) Set in Leenane, a real-life village in a picturesque rural corner of Galway, the play's a darker-than-dark comedy about last chances—and about families that try to squelch each other's happiness. No wonder the New York Times called it a "sharp, sinister jewel of a play."

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues at Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd., through March 15. Evening performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $42 regular; $15 student rush tickets 15 minutes before curtain, depending on availability. Tickets at theroguetheatre.org by phone at 551-2053.

St. Patrick's Parade and Festival, Sunday, March 15

Tucson's very own homegrown parade is a gas, with people of every ethnicity all dressed in green shirts and silly hats and cheering dancers in the streets. The parade starts at 11 a.m. at Stone Avenue and 17th Street, marches north on Stone to Ochoa, right on Ochoa, then east to 12th Street and Armory Park, where the free festival opens at 12:15 p.m.

You can eat Irish food (the beef stew is the best), buy Irish trinkets, drink Irish beer and listen to live Irish music all afternoon. Former Mollies band members Nancy McCallion and Catherine Zavala reunite (yay) and play their much-loved tunes staring at 12:30. Other acts include the busy Celtic Steps dancers and Maguire Academy of Irish Dance performers. The final performance, by STEAM, begins at 4:30 p.m. Be sure to cheer the Pima Area Labor Federation local unions raising money in a Best Bar competition.