Seán Ó Riada (1931-71)


Life
[bapt. John Reidy;] b. 1 Aug. 1931, in Adare, Co. Limerick [vr. Cork City]; ed. CBS Adare and St. Finbar’s College (Farranferris), Co. Cork and later at Munchin’s College to 1948; grad. B.Mus. from UCC 1952, where he played piano and violin and studied under direction of Aloys Fleischmann; Auditor of UCC Philosophical Society; appt. asst. director of music for Radio Éireann, 1952; m. Ruth Coughlan, 1953; played piano with dance bands in evenings; involved with Gael Linn, fnd. 1953; left wife and newborn son for Italy and France, 1955; pursued by Ruth, who found him living in poverty in Paris and brought him home with money extracted from her parents; musical director of the Abbey Theatre; produced music for film Mise Eire (by George Morrison);
 
fnd. Ceoltóirí Chualann, his ‘band’ of traditional musicians, in 1960 - with Paddy Moloney (of the Cheiftains), and others - restoring life and nobility to traditional music and song; issued among other records Ceol na nUasal, which incls. “An Puc ar Buile The Mad Billy Goat]” performed by Séan Ó Sé to an arrangement by Ó Riada - making it a hit record; University College Cork Lect. in Music; moved to Cúil Aodha [Coolea] in West Cork Gaeltacht from 1964; required his wife to learn Irish in three months; estab. Cór Cuil Aodha, male choir, with an tAthair Donncha Ó Conchuir; scored the films Mise Éire and Saoirse, premiered 5 Feb. 1960; also wrote the music for film productions of An Tine Bheo[The Fire of Life]; Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, and Young Cassidy [on Sean O’Casey];
 
nurtured ambition to writing music for 40 masses, and concluded only two of which his “Aiffrean 2 (1979)” incls. “Ag Chríost an Síol”, an Irish liturgical favourite; Nomos No. 1, Hercules Dux Ferrariae (1957), published with a preface by John Montague; Nomos No. 2 for Choir and Orchestra (completed 1965); Nomos No. 4 for Piano Concertante and Orchestra (1958); also Triptyche pour orchestre symphonique (1960); Nomos No. 6 (1966); “Five Greek Epigrams”; “Holderlin Songs” (i.m. Aloys G. Fleischmann), and overtures; latterly fell into heavy drinking, occasioning several road accidents (to self only) in his preferred Jaguar; last public performance billed as “Ó Riada Sa Gaiety”; interviewed astringently by Charles Action (Eire/Ireland, 1970) - and conducted an exchange of letters with him in the Irish Times [1971], rebutting charges of retreat from the challenge of modern Irish music into ‘self-indulgence and silence’; he made his last record, “Ó Riada’s Farewell”, at the Claddagh Records founder Garech a Brún’s [Oranmore and Browne] home at Luggala, Co. Wicklow; succombed to sclerosis of the liver; flown to King’s Hospital, London, for treatment, Sept. 1971;
 
d. there 3rd Oct. 1971; bur. at St. Gobnait’s Church (Cuil Aodha), Ballyvourney, Co. Cork; there is a seated full-size memorial statue at the chapel; Ó Riada was a polyglot who learned Arabic, Urdu and Mandarin Chinese among other languages; his musical legacy has been perpetuated by musicians who knew him by especially by the The Chieftains as successors to Ceoltóirí Chualann; deeply influenced Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin and other contemporary Irish composers; poetic tributes incl. Seamus Heaney, “In Memoriam Sean Ó Riada”, Thomas Kinsella, “A Selected Life” and “Vertical Man”, and John Montague’s “Ó Riada’s Farewell”; he is also remembered in Montague’s memoir, The Pear is Ripe (2007); a festival celebrating his musical legacy was conducted under the name of “Féile na Laoch/Festival of Heroes” at Cúil Aohda, Co. Cork, in Nov. 2011; survive by his wife Ruth (who appears in Irish Independent photos at his funeral) and his son Peadar Ó Riada; his dg. his daughter Liadh Ní Riada elected to the European Parliament as Sinn Féin candidate, 2014.[2]. DIW DIB DIH BREF OCIL

Recorded works ...
  Mise Éire (Gael Linn)
Ó Riada sa Gaiety (Gael Linn)
Ceol an Aifreann 1 & Aifreann 2 (Gael Linn)
Vertical Man (Claddagh Records)
Seoda an Riadaigh: The Essential Collection (Gael Linn).
   
See & hear
  “Mise Eire” on Youtube (37.44”)- as attached [03.06.2015].

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Criticism
  • Bernard Harris & Grattan Freyer: Integrating Tradition: The Achievement of Seán O Riada, foreword by Sean Mac Reamoinn  (Terrybaun, Bofeenaun, Ballina [Ireland]: Irish Humanities Centre & Keohanes; Chester Springs, Penn.: Dufour Editions, 1981), 205pp.;
  • Our Musical Heritage (Radio Éireann Series), ed. Thomas Kinsella & Tomás Ó Canainn (1982);
  • Tomás Ó Canainn & Gearóid Mac an Bhua, Seán Ó Riada: a Shoal agus a Shaothar (Gartan 1993), 286pp.;
  • Tomás Ó Canainn, Sean Ó Riada: His Life and Work (Cork: Collins Press 2003), 320pp. [incls. correspondence with Charles Acton];
 
Interviews with Charles Acton
  • “Seán Ó Riada: The Next Phase”, in Éire-Ireland, 2/4 (1967), pp.113–22.
    “Interview with Seán Ó Riada”, in: Éire-Ireland 6/4 (1970), pp.106–15.

See also Siobhan Long, ‘Why SeŠn ” Riada is Irish music’s pop icon’, in The Irish Times (1 Oct. 2011), Weekend Review, pp.8-9 [see extract].

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Commentary
Thomas Kinsella
[on O’Riada] in “Vertical Man”: ‘That for all you have done, the next beginning / is as lonely, as random, as gauche and as unready / as presumptuous as the first, / when you stripped and advanced timidly / toward nothing in particular.’ (Quoted by Maurice Harmon, The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella, Dublin: Wolfhound 1974, p.84; cited in Eoin Bourke, ‘Poetic Outrage: Aspects of Social Criticism in Modern Irish Poetry’, in Donald E. Morse, et al., eds,. A Small Nation’s Contribution to the World, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1993, p.88.)

Thomas Kinsella, elegy for O’Riada in Peppercanister 10: ‘Pierrot limping forward in the sun / out of Merrion Square, long ago, / in black overcoat and beret, / pale as death from his soiled bed, // swallowed back: animus / brewed in clay, uttered in brief meat and brains, flattened / back under our flowers. // Gold and still he lay, on his secondlast bed. Dottore! A withered smile, / the wry hands lifted. / A little while and you may not ...’ (”A Selected Life”; cited by Hugh Kenner, ‘Thomas Kinsella: An Anecdote and Some Reflections’, in Ronald Schleifer, ed., The Genres of Irish Literary Revival (Oklahoma: Pilgrim; Dublin: Wolfhound 1980), p.186. See also Kinsella’s lines, ‘He clutched the shallow drum / and crouched forward, thin / as a beast of prey. The shirt / stretched at his waist. He stared / to one side, toward the others’ and struck the skin cruelly / with his nails. Sharp / as the answering arid bark / his head quivered, counting.’ (Q. source.)

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John Montague: [‘…] That point / where folk and art meets, murmurs / Herr Doktor as / the wail of tin / whistle climbs against fiddle, and / the bodrhran begins - / lost cry / of the yellow bittern!’ (”The Lure: for Seán Ó Riada”). ‘Instinct wrung and run / awry all day, powers idled / to self-defeat, the vacuum / behind the catalyst’s gift’; Further, ‘“I am in great danger, you whisper, / as much to the failing fire / as to your friend and listener; / though, you have great luck. // Our roles reversed, myself cast / as the light-fingered master, / the lucky dancer on thin ice, / rope walker on his precipice.” / “Instinct wrung and run / awry all day, powers idled to self-defeat, the vacuum behind the catalyst’s gift. / Beyond the flourish of personality, peacock / pride of music or language: / a constant piercing torment!”; “Around the house all night / dark music of the underworld, / hyena howl of the unsatisfied […] Released demons moan. / a voice / like an animal howling / to itself on a hillside / in the empty church of the world […]”; “I thought we had laid you to rest …”; “Would you care to share a queer vision I had? / By your gravestone… / It was moonlight. / And there was something crouching there - ape-shaped! / demented, howling out, / silent foulness, accursed silent screams / into the fragrant night …”; “A black bloody business, the whole thing . . .”’ (”O’Riada’s Farewell”; cited in Ó Suilleabháin, op. cit., 1994.) See also “Upstream”: ‘[…] The night Ó Riada dies / a friend wakes up in / the South of France, / feeling a great lightness / a bird taking off.’; on Montague, Coll. Poems, 1995, p.128. )

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Seamus Heaney: ‘He conducted the Ulster Orchestra / like a drover with an ashplant / herding them south. / I watched him from behind // springy, formally suited, a black stiletto trembling in its mark, / a quill flourishing itself, a quickened, whitened head’; ‘As he stepped and stooped to the keyboard / he was our jacobite, / he was our young pretender / who marched along the deep // plumed in slow airs and grace notes! / Minnow of light. / Wader of assonance’; ‘He had the sprezzatura, / more falconer than fisherman, I’d say, / unhooding a sceptic eye / to greet the mackerel’s barred cold, / to pry whatever the cuckoo called.’ (Fieldwork, 1979).

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Micheál Ó Suilleabháin, ‘“All Our Central Fire”: Music, Mediation and the Irish Psyche’, in A. Halliday & K. Coyle, eds., The Irish Journal of Psychology, The Irish Psyche [Special Issue], 15, 2 & 3 (1994), pp.331-53, espec. pp.343ff.; ‘O Riada’s homeground is not traditional music. For all of his understanding of it - and we must not be taken in my the occasional naiveté of his viewpoint in the scripts of Our Musical Heritage, written in the first flush of his personal rediscovery of the native tradition - for all of that growing understanding, he came to it as a musical outsider. [...] he did not possess the developed performance technique on a traditional instrument which would have allowed him to explore traditional music from within. / I think that this is the reason why he felt, shortly after forming Ceoltoiri Chualann, that he had “taken traditional music as far as it would go” - at least in the group context. O Riada was dealing with the macrostructure of the music in his group arrangements - the eight-bar parts which were the building blocks of the genre. The entire individuality of the expression depends on wow the pitches and rhythms are manipulated on an intimate level … . ’ (p.343.) Articles includes extended citations from Irish poets’ elegies on Ó Riada (as copied infra); also cites Seán Ó Mordha, The Blue Note [RTE television film] (Dublin: Radio Telefis Éireann 1982): ‘Of the particular years 1950 to 1965, Sean O Riada will be taken in the future as the best hallmark of what was happening culturally, what hopes and also what despairs the country has is in his music its relationship to the world in general, its political dilemmas, its lack of identity, search for identity - all are encapsulated in those works .... he is the best landmark artistically of that particular period.’

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Patrick Crotty, ed., Modern Irish Poetry (Belfast: Blackstaff 1995), Introduction: ‘The Gaelic literary tradition, however, had petered out in misery and doggerel before the writers in the present anthology were born. Efforts to resuscitate it began to bear fruit only as hopes of reversing or even arresting the decline of the spoken language were being abandoned. The disappointing actuality of independence broke the link between lyric endeavour and aspirant nationalism, allowing for the emergence of a cautious, introspective, characteristically self-reflexive art. The modernity of Ó Riordáin and his Connacht contemporary Máirtín Ó Direain - a matter not only of psychology but of a rhythmic innovation necessary more fundamental than anything in the Anglophone poetry of Ireland - highlights the unbridgeable nature of the gap separating their work from that of Aodhagan Ó Rathaille and other poets of the eighteenth century.’ (p.6).

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Siobhán Long, ‘Why Seán Ó Riada is Irish music’s pop icon’, in The Irish Times (1 Oct. 2011), Weekend Review, pp.8-9: ‘[...] Seán’s son, Peadar Ó Riada, remembers his father as a man with a hunger, an inquisitiveness about the world, which extended to his attempts to teach Peadar, at various intervals, Arabic, Urdu and Mandarin. “It was his love of a nation, that emotion, that’s what meant most to him,” Peadar says. “There’s a word in Irish, ‘tír grá’, which is a translation of patriotism, but it’s different in Irish, because we’re of the land. In our culture, we didn’t own the land. It owned you. That was Seán’s guiding force, and the language that he used to express it was music, because it had no borders and no limits. What he wanted was for us to get our independence culturally. He saw that our culture was as good as anyone else’s.” Ó Riada’s real genius, according to Peadar, was that he didn’t get bogged down in the intellectualisation of music. [...; cont.]

Siobhán Long, ‘Why Seán Ó Riada is Irish music’s pop icon’, in The Irish Times (1 Oct. 2011) - cont.: ‘Antoine Ó Coileáin of Gael Linn, on whose label most of Ó Riada’s traditional-music recordings were released, is unequivocal in his belief that his legacy is secure. “I really think he saw into the soul of what the Irish psyche is,” says Ó Coileáin. “His concept of the Irish nation is one that I can relate to, very much. In particular, the historical film scores, Mise Éire  and Saoirse, are deeply moving, and capture the quintessential spirit of Ireland. / “And I think that’s why he left an enduring legacy. He also had a kinetic energy that set something in motion that has rolled on through the generations. We can follow the thread through so many groups from the 1970s onwards: from The Bothy Band and Horslips to Relativity. I believe that he was the guiding force, the unseen hand on the shoulder for a lot of those people, so that in a way what we witness today as the thriving state of Irish music is due in very large part to the influence of Ó Riada. He dug deep into the roots of what makes us Irish and inspired tremendous confidence in ourselves. He achieved so much in his short life. He was very much ahead of his time.”’ (See full text in RICORSO Library > Criticism > Reviews - via index or direct.

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Quotations
Two nations: ‘We must learn until we die; we must learn or die. What have I learned? Very broadly that there are in this small island two nations: the Irish (or Gaelic) nation and the Pale. The Irish nation, tiny as it is at the moment, has a long professional literary and musical tradition. The Pale, on the other hand, has a tradition of amateurishness. Nevertheless, I suppose we should at least be grateful for the existence of the Pale; it pays much of our taxes and occasionally pats us on the head.’ (Ó Riada, letter to The Irish Times, Summer 1970, responding to music critic Charles Acton; cited in Ó Suilleabháin, 1994, p.349.)

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Notes
Literary portraits and tributes from Seán Ó Ríordáin, Thomas Kinsella, Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Brendan Kennelly, Seán Lucy, and others; there is a commemorative headstone by Seamus Murphy at his grave in St Gobnait’s, Cúil Aodha (St. Gobnat’s, West Cork); polyglot and philosopher, he was expert in science-fiction and shrimp-fishing; drank heavily; memorialised at Baggot St. by Thomas Kinsella in an ambitious elegy, ‘Vertical Man’, and ‘A Selected Life’, and in 15pp. of prose; also a poems by John Montague (‘And a nation mourns’, O’Riada’s Farewell) and Seamus Heaney (In Memoriam Seán Ó Riada, in Field World 1979), and Sean Lucy (Unfinished Sequences for Seán Ó Riada, Wolfhound 1979).

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Brian de Breffni (Cult. Encyclopaedia of Ireland), no Abbey date either; ‘Nomos No. 1, Hercules’ is for strings. ‘Nomos No. 20’ [sic; err. for 2] (1963), his most important work, has a text drawn for Sophocles’ Theban Cycle; it is an hour-long dramatic work for baritone, choir, and orchestra, which reflects on Fate, Life and Death and simultaneously attempts to gloss the history of Western Musical evolution with its references to plainchant, organum and classical music.

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Bright vision: “Aisling Gheal (A Bright Vision)”. Irish, Air (4/4 time). D Major. Standard. One part. The song was recovered from the Martin Freeman collection by Seán Ó Riada, according to Tomás Ó Canainn (in A Lifetime of Notes, 1996), originally collected in the west Cork gaeltacht from the singing of a woman in the late 19th century. See Cranitch, Irish Fiddle Book (1996), 104; Tomás Ó Canainn, Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland, (1995), No. 60, p.54. (See Ceolas > The Fiddler’s Companion - online; accessed 23.12.2011.)

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Danny Morrison, West Belfast (Cork & Dublin: Mercier 1992), writes, ‘Played Seán Ó Riada records and found part of me in his music.’ (p.223.)

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