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.
Bill Margeson A review of Works of O Riada