PRESENTED BY PAULINE FREEMAN Frankie Kennedy used to travel from Belfast to Donegal in his summer holidays, learning Irish and playing music. There he met Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. They married in 1981. Two years later they recorded their first album together, Ceol Aduaidh (Music of the North). Mairéad grew up in Irish-speaking Gweedore, learning to play fiddle from her father, himself a noted musician. At this time Donegal music was little known outside of the county. Frankie played obscure northern flute tunes. The combination attracted lots of attention, particularly since Mairéad had an outstanding voice as well a rare talent on the fiddle.
Donegal fiddle music has a drive in it, somewhat like Cape Breton Music, due to the push given on both the upstroke and the downstoke. Playing late-night sessions and festivals, they gradually gathered around themselves talents that complemented their own skills. The first to join them was Ciaran Curran from Fermanagh, playing bouzouki. A novelty in 1969, by 1987 it was an accepted instrument for Irish music. Mark Kelly on guitar, was experienced in rock, blues, jazz, country and classical music. The four of them appeared on the first album "Altan". The name comes from Loch Altan in north-western Donegal.
There then followed 6 albums recorded for Green Linnet, all of them selling well in the US Billboard charts as well as in Ireland. Another Donegal fiddler, Paul O'Shaughnessey was a member for several years. The sound of two fiddles, harmonising and counterpointing each other was too good to lose. When Paul departed, he was replaced by young Donegal fiddler Ciaran Tourish. Guitarist Daithi Sproule also joined in 1992. There was a secret tragedy behind this wave of acclaim. Frankie Kennedy, who had been the band leader and manager, was diagnosed with cancer in 1992. At his insistence the band continued, with Frankie taking part whenever possible. He died in 1994 in Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital.
In 1996 they signed to a major label, Virgin, a sign of success, but in their case it was without any commercial compromise. In the same year they added an accordian-player to the sound, Dermot Byrne, also from Donegal. There have been distinguished guests on Altan albums - song-writer and guitarist Steve Cooney, Donal Lunny from Planxty, and blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt.
A winter school of music is now held in Donegal each year in honour of Frankie Kennedy. Altan remain the most successful proponents of traditional Gaelic song and Donegal fiddle-playing.
In 2003 they won the award for Best Group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.