Seán Ó Riada – an influential figure in the revival of traditional Irish music

By John Scally

His name is carved on the collective consciousness of the nation. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Seán Ó Riada’s death, in 1971 at the young age of 40. A weak liver curtailed his life cruelly. His funeral was televised and public sympathy was that of the loss of a great chieftain. His legacy to Irish music and culture is immense and remains vibrant. John Reidy was born in Cork City in 1931.

His formative years were spent between Cork and Limerick; he was the son of a Garda from Clare while his mother was from the West Muskerry Gaeltacht. He began his studies in University College Cork on a scholarship in 1948, reading Classics and Irish, before moving to the music department.

He graduated as a bachelor of music from UCC in 1951. He was already Assistant Director of music in RTÉ when he graduated and moved to Dublin, but the work’s administrative nature frustrated him. His initial motivation was a hunger for success in classical music.

Leaving behind the marginal classical music scene in Ireland, as well as his wife and first-born child, Ó Riada attempted a music career in Europe in 1955. He moved to Italy and France where he adopted a more bohemian lifestyle and composed several Avant Garde compositions for orchestra called Nomos.

Just as he was on the verge of becoming Ireland’s first Avant Garde composer, he decided to return to Ireland, gradually reject modern ‘Classical’ music, as he started to devote his time to the study of all things Irish. Although he was inspired by Paris and gave some recitals and broadcasts of his work there his wife fetched him home and he settled back with his family in Dublin. He said to her:- “I’d rather be breaking stones in Ireland than be the richest man living in Europe.”

Homeward bound

At about this time he changed his name from John Reidy to Seán Ó Riada. He took over as the Musical Director in the famed Abbey Theatre in 1957 where he remained until 1962. In 1950s Ireland traditional music was often held in low regard by some elements of Irish society. O’Riada’s first attempt to combine Irish song with the classical tradition was in 1959, composed the score for the documentary Mise Éire and Saoirse? in 1960 and, most famously, the score for the film version of The Playboy of the Western World in 1963.

This last piece made him a household name in Ireland. He also composed Mná na h’Éireann (“The Women of Ireland”) which confirmed the musical eloquence of his writing. In this period, he sought to create a sort of Irish flavoured classical music, i.e. Irish folk tunes arranged for orchestra, as Vaughan Williams had done in England and other nationalist composers has done in Europe towards the end of the previous century. He studied and collected old Irish music and produced a series for RTÉ called Our Musical Heritage.

Seán Ó Riada was the founder of the modern school (the authentic ancient-style of playing) Irish folk music. Between 1961 and 1969 Ó Riada was leader of a Celtic Chamber Orchestra called Ceoltóirí Chualann. It included O’Riada, Martin Fay (fiddle), Paddy Moloney (pipes) Seán Keane (fiddle)  Michael Tubridy (flute) Seán Ó Sé (singer)and Seán Potts (whistle). Although they played in concert halls dressed in a black suits with white shirts and black bow ties, they played traditional songs and tunes which were arranged in a more interesting way than was usual in Irish music until then.

Ó Riada sat in the middle at front playing bodhrán, an instrument that had almost died out, being played only by small boys in street parades. He also wanted to use the wire-strung Harp for authenticity, but as these were as yet unavailable, he played the Harpsichord instead. Arrangements of tunes like Brian Boru’s March and much of the music of 17th Century Harper, O’Carolan went on to inspire the formation of The Chieftains.

Ó Riada also had an impact on popular culture through the song ‘An Poc ar Buile’. He was one of a trio with composer Dónall Ó Mulláin, tenor Seán Ó Sé, responsible for what has come to be regarded as the first pop record ‘hit’ in the Irish language. ‘An Poc ar Buile’ the tape, was made just for the fun of it by the three men, who took turns singing the verses and joined together for the rousing “ailliliú, puilliliú” chorus.

The song became an overnight success. Seán Ó Sé  has explained the background to its recording: “One evening Seán Ó Riada and myself went up to [Ó Mulláin’s] house in Screathan and on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder we recorded it, each of us taking verses, the three of us singing every third verse and we did the chorus together, just for the fun of it.

“Straight away he [Ó Riada] liked the voice and he decided there and then that we would go into a small studio at the corner of Stephen’s Green, up on the fifth floor – it was called Peter Hunt’s Studio – and we recorded a voice and piano version of ‘An Poc ar Buile’. The minute it came out it became a hit.

There was no official top 10 on any of the radio stations but it was certainly the first hit in the Irish language.’’ The lyrics, detailing the exploits of a puck goat, were written by Ó Mulláin in the 1940s, rejuvenating an older song relating to a man or ‘buck’ and called ‘An Boc ar Buile’. This concerned an incident involving a local landlord’s attempt to exercise the ‘right’ of ‘droit du seigneur’, which allowed feudal lords to have sexual relations with tenants’ brides on their wedding night.

An Poc ar Buile’, along with three further tracks by Ó Sé and Ceoltóirí Cualann – ‘Tórramh an Bhairille’, ‘An Spealadóir’, and ‘Amhráinín Síodraimín’ – became Gael Linn’s second extended play (EP) record. In 1964 Ó Riada moved to Cúil Aodha in West Cork, an Irish speaking area where he established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir. In his later years O’Riada composed Irish church music, including Aifreann 2, to be sung by untrained voices in his choir.

He died at the young age of 40 in 1971, but his enormous influence on others was only beginning. In 2008 a statue of him was unveiled at a ceremony opposite St Gobnait’s Church in Cúil Aodha. One of the organisers of the event, Eoin Ó Súilleabháin, said locals were pleased to finally be able to honour one of Irish music’s biggest ever influences.

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