Irish Traditional Music and Séan Ó Riada

Séan ó Riada

Séan ó Riada.

Each day, on my way to and from work, I drive through the beautiful Limerick village of Adare. Set into the wall outside the school is a limestone plaque  commemorating  Séan Ó Riada, a former pupil of this school who went on to redefine Irish traditional music and inspire a new interest in it both at home and abroad.

Born in Cork on August 1st, 1931, John Reidy and his family lived in Adare for some years. He later studied music at University College Cork. He joined the national radio station in 1953  and married in that year. Two years later he went to live in Paris, where he reputedly ‘burned the candle at both ends’ and drank heavily. He was continuing to write  classical music, but none of it was performed regularly.

Returning to Dublin, he joined the  Abbey Theatre as Musical Director in 1957. At some time in this period he also began to use the Irish form of his name, Séan Ó Riada. It was at this time he began  scoring films, and in 1959 he was asked to compose music for a film entitled ‘Mise Éire’ (pronounced ‘Mish-a Air -a’ and translates as  ‘I am Ireland’) about the changes in Ireland from 1890 to 1918. The music was based on traditional Irish airs with heavy classical orchestration and captured the imagination of those who heard it at the release of the film in 1960. This music has become an iconic part of Irish Heritage, and made  Séan Ó Riada a household name. The opening 1 minute 50 seconds of  Mise Éire is particularly moving and can be heard by clicking here.

As Musical Director of the Abbey Theatre he sought traditional musicians to perform incidental music in a stage production. He had little time for the Irish music as performed across the country by ceili bands – basically groups of musicians who did their ‘own thing’ and belted out well-known dance tunes.  He gathered together a group of musicians who were interested in trying new ideas and the  musical ‘sessions’  held at his house in Galloping Green have become legendary. He added a new dimension to the way Irish music was played, by creating a type of  ‘folk orchestra’.  Such was the positive response to their performances at the Abbey, Ceoltóirí Chualann  was born. Ceoltóirí  (pronounced  almost! as ‘ Coal -Tory’ ) is the Irish  word for musicians, and Cualann (pronounced ‘Cool- Ann’) is the name of an area just outside Dublin where Ó Riada lived. The band had a harpsichord (which Ó Riada felt closely replicated the sound of the old steel stringed Irish Harp), bodhran, (pronounced ‘bow -ran’) – a hand-held drum, that was not a very popular instrument at that time –  plus a  piano, fiddle, accordions, flute, pipes and whistles.

Ó Riada returned to Cork as a lecturer in the music department of University College Cork in 1963 and eventually took up residence with his wife and seven children in an Irish speaking area called Cul Aodha, (pronounced Cool- Ay ) near Ballyvourney in  west Cork, where he continued to compose. His works include a very well-known and loved mass in Irish known as the ”O Riada Mass”.

There is little doubt that the performance of his life that changed Irish music forever was heard in April 1969, when Ireland was reintroduced to its musical heritage on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. As stated on the sleeve notes of the CD :”So much of what we take for granted in Irish traditional music has not, in fact, been passed down through the centuries, but was rather brought to the world stage on a Dublin April evening in 1969”. The recording of  Ó Riada sa Gaiety (Ó Riada in the Gaiety) is available at Amazon and other outlets.

Séan Ó Riada fell ill  in the summer of 1971 and died in October of that year, just 2 months after his 40th birthday. He is remembered today on what would have been his  80th birthday.  His legacy lives on.


Rambling House by Ronan Nolan 

Bill Margeson A review of Works of O Riada


Filed under Ireland, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Irish Traditional Music

9 responses to “Irish Traditional Music and Séan Ó Riada

  1. Crissouli

    Another interesting story, and what beautiful music, thank you…

  2. Thanks for such an interesting story. Pauleen

  3. I have a memory maybe around 1970 of O’Riada bringing the choir from Cul Aodha to UCC they were playing in the hall of the La Retriare I think he drove a brown jaguar. I was young at the time but his death and the days leading up to it was a kind of national event. I think he gave a great spark to the music which is still being felt. I think his mother may have been from the gaeltacht outside Macroom


    • That is a lovely memory to have! I was out of the country at that time and had no knowledge of the impact he had on Irish music until many decades later. I do believe that I heard his sister recently saying that their parents were Irish speakers.

      • Hi,

        It never ceases to amaze me that when you think you have a fair knowledge on a subject and have exhausted sources something new comes on. So I notices on your blog a reference to Irish place names and town lands and looked up some town lands I was interested in. I was very surprised to be able to link into the detail used by I think the compilers of the Ordnance Survey in the early 19th century to the sources of their information on the town lands. In the case of the Durrus district some of there town lands featured in fiats going back to the resign of Elizabeth 1 and patent rolls of Charles 1. I also came across the Grand Jury map done by Neville Bath in the 179s and published in 1811 for Co Cork, now on line Cork County Council. Many thanks for all that. On the archives issue I suspect there is much information relating to Ireland in the Vatican and other Continental archives which awaits digitalization.

        Going back to Sean O Riada, there was an article done on him by the old Sunday Press sometime before he died and included was a iconic photograph of him in hunting gear with a double barreled shotgun. The Press group is long gone so I don’t know whether their photographic archive as accessible.

        I think his wife’s family owned the Lido cinema in Blackpool in Cork, it was used some ago by O’Mearas the camping people. My mother told me that on Saturday afternoon the kids could pay for admission by giving in jam jars, don’t know if it is an urban legend. There is a very good book on O Riada by Tomas O Cannain. He lectured in UCC on engineering and also later on music, and on Sunday mornings played the accordion at the Irish Mass in St Peter and Pauls church.


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