For a brief time on Thursday night at IU Southeast, Altan took us to County Donegal — and Sláinte to that.


The band Altan played a concert at IU Southeast last night.

Chancellor Ray Wallace, now a naturalized US citizen but a born and bred native of Northern Ireland, particularly seemed to be enjoying himself. Undoubtedly I join him in lamenting the absence of Guinness from the numerous jigs and reels. There’d have been more dancing in the aisles with Irish elixir than without it.

Most of us immediately recognize Altan’s music as Irish, although throughout the band’s 30-year career, its members always have reminded audiences that their aim is to play music from where they were born and raised, in County Donegal.

Let’s undertake a video digression to better understand what this specific reference means, but first, a map of Ireland.

County Donegal is shaded dark green in northwestern corner of the island, bordering Northern Ireland. Going all the way back to when I first visited Ireland in 1985, rugged Donegal was described with reverence as offering the Republic’s most spectacular natural setting, as well as being the region where Gaelic was spoken by the greatest number of inhabitants.

In the context of native Irish Catholic history, English-speaking Protestantism was a colonial enterprise on the part of the British. The process of assimilation began on the island’s eastern side, and over time, pushed “traditional” Ireland to more isolated western coastal areas.

This is why Declan Ganley makes a direct association between Irish poverty and emigration, and the situation in these regions. In many cases what’s beautiful to behold as a visitor tells us little about the difficulty of life there.

Ganley speaks standard British English, with little trace of an Irish accent. For a taste of Gaelic, there’s this.

The Gaelic tongue brings us full circle to Altan, the band from County Donegal. Group co-founder Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh plays fiddle and sings; sadly, her husband and bandmate Frankie Kennedy died in 1994.

The other fiddler is Ciarán Tourish, whose cousin Martin Tourish plays accordion. The guitarist is Dáithí Sproule, and Ciarán Curran plays bouzouki, which is a Greek instrument not usually found in Irish music. If there is such a thing as “rhythm bouzouki,” then that’s what Curran does.

In this clip from a few years back, Mark Kelly is the guitarist and former band member Dermot Byrne is on accordion. It seems that Kelly is the recording guitarist but doesn’t tour outside Ireland.

Finally, a short film details the depth of Altan’s commitment to the music scene in County Donegal.

As Chancellor Wallace noted, in 2017 there was a special St. Patrick’s Day in the state of Indiana. It was celebrated more authentically than most of the ones about to occur on the 17th, and in this authenticity is enough historic, linguistic and cultural nuance to engender much thinking between drinks of life-giving Stout … which I’m now craving at 11:00 a.m. on a Friday morning.