25 May 2022

Then & Now: Thanks for the music Séan

Then & Now: Thanks for the music Séan

Sean Ó Ríada legacy to music was enormous and it was said that he rescued Ireland from the Céilí Band era

GROWING UP in rural Ireland during the 1960s the radio was a great pastime, and we listened to all kinds of programmes be they sporting or musical. We got to hear all the personalities, and musicians and one name stood out musically Séan Ó Ríada.

He had two music programmes ‘’Fleadh Cheoil on Radio’’ and ‘’Reachtaireacht an Ríadaigh’’ on at the time. We received great enjoyment from both and looked forward to each new weekly offering. The contents of the programmes were discussed with neighbours, who rambled in at night for a chat, game of cards or rings, or a house dance.

We heard of local musicians who had come into contact with Séan and his fellow musicians at various functions, around the region. His death at the age of forty cast a gloom around the county and country for a long time afterwards.

Ceoltoiri Eireann was in its infancy during those years, and no one did more for its progress than Séan. It has grown from a very small beginning to a powerful organisation that has members and branches world-wide, and both were linked in this progress. Séan was known and honoured in nearly every house throughout the land for his powerful impact on the music scene in the fifties and sixties.

In his far too short career, he lavished his great gifts so that the people might come to know and enjoy the beauty of their heritage. Through his talks and lectures on Radio and Television his composing and research throughout his life was one of immense commitment, both to the revival of Irish music and to the attainment of artistic excellence.

Sean’s legacy to music was enormous and it was said that he rescued Ireland from the Céilí Band era. He had the gift to create a style to help individual musicians to express themselves. A new thing at the time was to take individuals and turn them into groups well able to gain recognition.

Pieces were composed and originals arranged so that they burst into new life to thrill his admirers. Séan was fondly recalled as the Taoiseach of their music, because he charted the waters that others followed to gain recognition in Europe and America.

Sean was born in Erinville, in Cork on October 1, and part of his youth was spent around Adare as his father was a member of the Gardai. He attended Adare CBS from 1935 to 1943 and he often recalled fond memories of his time spent around the Maigue Valley. Séan cycled to Limerick each Saturday to learn music from Granville Metcalfe and Van de Velde in piano, violin, and organ. He attended Farranferris College from 1943 and later Coláiste Ollscoil, Cork.

He was appointed Leas Stiúothoir Ceoil Radio Eireann from 1953 to 1955. Séan married Ruth Coughlan in 1953 and they raised seven in family. He studied music under Alloys Fleishmann at U.C.C. in Italy and in France. As well as traditional music he played with jazz bands in the fifties classic and Latin America Music.

In 1960 he was commissioned to compose the score for “Mise Eire’’ and (subsequently its sequel Saoirse) a film documentary directed by George Morrisson, which traced the story of the foundation of the Irish State. His brilliant use of both themes caught the imagination of the public at large.

In 1961 he returned to film music with the score for ‘’The Playboy of the Western World’’. Another film score for John Ford in Hollywood followed the next year entitled ‘’Young Cassidy’’ He received numerous letters and calls from Hollywood and could have become a very famous composer if he wished. But he was happy to stay in Ireland and stick to the traditional music.

To evening gatherings in his home Séan invited fellow musicians schooled in the traditional ethos. Paddy Moloney on pipes and whistles. Martin Fay, John Kelly, and Sean Keane on fiddles. Eamon De Buitléir and Sonny Brogan on accordion Ronny Mc Shane on bones and Séan himself on bodhran, and harpsichord.

The group became known as Ceoltóiri Cualann. As well as presenting his interpretation of Irish Music, Dance, and Airs, he set out to popularize the work of the 17, and 18, century Irish Harpist/Composers. Ceoltóiri Cualann made few live public appearances and became nationally known through the two Radio series ‘’Fleadh Cheoil on Radio’’ and ‘’Reachtaireacht an Ríadaigh’’. In 1969 the group performed at a spectacular concert in the Gaiety Theatre.

On being appointed to an academy position in U.C.C. Séan moved with his family to Cúil Aodha in the West Cork Gaeltacht. He was very much at home there amidst the Irish speaking and rural folk traditions. He wrote four Irish Masses for the people of Coolea and conducted the Choir in singing them in the Church there. Séan and the Choir brought the Masses to other locations including Croom, Dingle, and Listowel.

Sean was a tall looking figure who liked to dress in black clothes. He liked playing games with his work colleagues. During his early days in Dublin, he was very fond of playing with Model Aeroplanes.

Long days spent along the river banks with fishing rod were also great relaxing favourites of his. When away on trips he always looked forward to coming home to his own home and family. He used a room in the house in Coolea for his work in composing and arranging. A Red Bulb was hung outside the door and when he needed peace and quiet it was lit.

No real money was made from his royalties from his music, and he was happy with enough to live on, and he never chased stardom. He did not like paperwork and office work was not to his liking.

Cheques were often left not cashed and he was in debt with the Bank, but after his death many were found amongst his papers which more than cleared away this debt.

Séan was troubled by ill health from the early sixties and his health deteriorated further and he entered a London Hospital in the autumn of 1971. Hopes of a recovery never materialised and sadly he died on October 3, and his body was brought home to Cúil Aodha for burial.

We will conclude his story in next week's notes.

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