MEMBERS OF ALTAN don’t tour as much as they did in the past. They don’t need to.
Altan has become one of Ireland’s biggest names in traditional music. The Boston Globe proclaimed them “the hottest group in the Celtic realm these days.”
“Ten years ago, I’d have said we tour eight to nine months out of the year,” says fiddler Ciaran Tourish. “Now I’d say three months. We’re all married now, and some have kids.”
Altan currently is on a tour of North America, and recently appeared in Hawaii. “We had a great time,” Tourish says.
On March 8, Altan will be in Savannah for the 17th Annual Tara Feis Irish Celebration, which will be held in Emmet Park at the east end of Bay Street. “We’ve been to Georgia, but not at Savannah,” Tourish says. “We’re looking forward to playing in Savannah.”
Altan was founded by flute player Frankie Kennedy and singer and fiddler Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh in Donegal. The duo became a band in the 1980s, and became so popular Kennedy and Mhaonaigh were able to give up their teaching careers to become full-time musicians.
Sadly, in the early nineties, Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer and died after a long illness. The group carried on, and say his presence is still very much a part of their music.
In addition to Mhaonaigh and Tourish, members of Altan are Dermot Byrne, Ciaran Curran, Mark Kelly and Daithi Sproule. Byrne, an accordion player, guested on two Altan albums before becoming a full-time member in 1994.
Curran plays the bouzouki, a Greek instrument that is relatively new to Irish traditional music. Kelly and Sproule are guitarists.
Tourish is from Buncrana, in east Donegal. “I started playing the whistle at six years of age,” he says. “Then I moved into fiddle.”
East Donegal is also the home of the legendary fiddler Dinny McLaughlin, and Tourish studied with him. In addition to his work with Altan, Tourish has collaborated with other musicians on projects, including non-Irish music.
Listeners in Savannah will hear musical magic when Altan performs. “We do slow songs in Irish, songs in Gaelic, and fast numbers and sets of reels,” Tourish says.
No one is more excited about Altan’s appearance than Bernadette Winters, chair of the annual feis, or festival. “They are one of the premiere Irish groups today,” she says. “We booked them a good while back in order to get them here.”
The festival has grown into a major highlight event for Savannah, Winters says. “I’m soliciting everyone I know to pray for good weather,” she says.
“Tara Feis is always such a nice day, outdoors in the park. People bring babies, they bring dogs,” Winters says.
“What it is really about is that we are celebrating our heritage, our roots, our part in the Savannah community. If we don’t convey them to the young people, as we move farther away from the people who actually came from Ireland, these traditions will die out.”
Winters works on Tara Feis virtually year-round. “I’ve been doing it for 17 years now. I feel it’s my contribution to the Irish community in Savannah.
“We’ve already got our artists booked for next year,” Winters says. “Next year we’re going to have Cherish the Ladies.”
Admission to Tara Feis, including the Altan concert, is free. “We keep this as cost-free as we can so people can come out and bring all their kids,” Winters says.
“We try to plan the whole thing as a family festival,” she says. “There is no alcohol permitted in the park that day. We provide a lot of entertainment.”
Altan will perform twice, at 1:15 p.m. and again at 4 p.m. Other performers will include the Savannah Choral Society, magician Debbie O’Carroll’s Irish Magic Show, the Conrad Hartz Puppet Show, Clover, the Savannah Irish Dancers, the Glo na h’Eireann Irish Dance School and a trio comprised of Tom O’Carroll, Harry O’Donoghue and Coleen Settle.
Harry O’Donoghue is the emcee and has been a part of Tara Feis from the beginning. “It’s grown into a great event,” O’Donoghue says.
“In the first year, we had a couple of hundred people. I don’t know how they gauge it, but I’m told 20,000 people came to the last one.”
Tara Feis is always held on a Saturday. “This is kind of an Irish family weekend,” Winters says. “It’s a really great day for families. We have everyone from great-grandmothers to newborn babies who come out for it.”
The 17th Annual Tara Feis Irish Celebration will be held March 8 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Emmet Park on the east end of Bay Street. It will feature live performances, food, art activities, crafts and games. Admission is free. For information, call 651-6417 or visit www.savannahga.gov/arts.
11 a.m. Opening Ceremony
11:30 a.m. Savannah Irish Dancers
Noon Harry O’Donoghue
12:30 p.m. Savannah Choral Society
1:15 p.m. Altan
2:30 p.m. Glor na h’Eireann Irish Dance School
3 p.m. Tom O’Carroll, Harry O’Donoghue and Coleen Settle
4 p.m. Altan
4:55 p.m. Closing remarks
11:30 a.m. Glor na h’Eireann Irish Dance School
12:15 p.m. Clover
12:30 p.m. Magician Debbie O’Carroll’s Irish Magic Show
1:15 p.m. Conrad Hartz Puppet Show
1:45 p.m. Clover
2 p.m. Savannah Irish Dancers
2:50 p.m. Magician Debbie O’Carroll’s Irish Magic Show
3:30 p.m. Clover
3:45 p.m. Conrad Hartz Puppet Show
4:15 p.m. “Last Fling” featuring tandem Irish dance performances