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Beatha / Life : Seán Ó Riada

  • In the News
  • 6 min read

Seán Ó Riada was the greatest Irish Composer of the 20th Century. His work encompassed both Classical and native Irish music.

His influence was and is profound. His pioneering work included:

The formation of the groundbreaking traditional Irish group, Ceoltóirí Chualainn.
The composition of Irish Musical Film Scores.
The weaving of Irish and classical European idioms for the Concert Theatre.
The development of Irish Liturgical Music.
Work for Irish Literature.
Unstinting support and promotion of the Irish Language.
Contributions to film, writing and community development.

Rugadh Seán Ó Riada sa bhliain 1931. Is i gCorcaigh a saolaíodh é ach chaith sé a óige in Ath Dara Luimnighe. Sairsint Gárdaí ab ea a athair agus banaltra a mháthair. Bhí driofúr amháin aige Louise agus cé go raibh sé leicthe ag fás aníos bhí saoghal maith ceolmhar aige. B’é an t-Uasal Metcalf a chéad mhuinteoir ceoil. Is minic a bhíodh an ceoltóir traidisiúnta Patrick Kelly ag seinnt sa tigh i dteannta a athar chomh maith. Is gairid go raibh sé ag seinnt le ceolfhoireann Luimnighe. Bhíodh turas blaintiúil go Feis Mhaitiú mar a mbailíodh sé a chion féin de dhuaiseanna.

Tar éis céim a bhaint amach in Ollscoil Chorcaighe faoi údarás an Ollamh Fleischmann, do phós sé Ruth Coughlan. Bhí seachtar muirir orthu. Chuireadar futha ‘sna céad blianta i mBaile Atha Cliath áit a raibh sé mar leas stiurthóir ceoil ar Raidéó Éireann ar dtúis agus ansan mar stiúrthóir ceoil ar Amharclann na Mainistreach. Do bhunaigh sé Ceoltóírí Chualann chun ceol traidisiúnta na tíre seo do chuir ar stáitse ionas go bhfaigheadh an ceol an t’aitheantas a shíl sé a bheith tuillte aige. Do lean an ghluaiseacht seo ar aghaidh ionas go bhfuil ceol na tíre seo aitheanta anois ar fuaid an domhain. Ar chuireadh ó Ghael Linn do chuir sé ceol le scannán faoin’ dteideal “Mise Eire” agus tar éis a fheabhas agus a oibrigh sé seo, do chúm sé an ceol do leath dosaen éigin scannán eile. Tar éis dó glacadh le post mar léachtóir cúnta ceoil I ‘nOllscoil Chorcaighe, do bhog sé chun cónaithe go Cuil Aodha tar éis seal do chaitheamh i nGaeltacht Chorca Dhuibhne. Is ann a chum sé na h-Aifreanntaí agus ghlac sé páirt iomlán i saoghal an phobail áitiúil. I dteannta lena chuid cumadóireachta ceoil idir clasaiceach agus gaelach, do chuir sé suim i scannánaíocht, litríocht, foghlaéireacht agus bhfarraige. Shaotharaigh sé ar son cúis na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta. Fuair sé bás in aois a dachad blian i 1971 agus tá sé curtha i Reilig Ghobnatan mar a bhfuil a Mhuintir.

Seán Ó Riada was born in Cork on August Ist, 1931, while his father, a sergeant in the Garda Síochana, was stationed in Adare, Co. Limerick. His mother was Julia Creedon from Kilnamartyra in the Barony of West Muskerry, and his father Sean Reidy of Kilmihil, Co. Clare. Both were of farming stock with strong cultural traditions; she a concertina and melodian player with many of the songs of her area, and he having once studied the fiddle with Patrick Kelly. Ó Riada’s cradle songs were “Codlaigi Einini” from his father and “Cois an Ghaorthaidh” from his mother.

At the age of four he went to the Christian Brothers’ School in Adare. His first teacher was Brother Long from Dingle, who set the foundation for his strong passion for the Irish language. At the age of seven he got his first violin lesson from Granville Metcalfe who used to come out to Adare from Limerick once a week to teach music. A year later he began to study the piano. When he was ten he joined the Limerick Club and performed with them until he left Adare to go to boarding school. During this period he also studied theory, counterpoint and harmony with Professor Van de Veld. In 1943 he won a scholarship to Farrenferris Seminary School in Cork, from where he matriculated in 1947, and, being too young to enter University, he spent the following year in St. Munchins in Limerick where he took his Leaving Certificate.

He entered U.C.C. in 1948 on a scholarship and read first Arts with Music as a subject. He also took Greek, Latin and Irish. U.C.C. in those days was small, and exciting because of the number of foreign students who flocked there after the Second World War. Ó Riada plunged into a wide course of reading and talking which was oriented towards the ancient and modern cultures of Europe. In 1957 he graduated with honours in Music.

In September, 1953 he married Ruth Coghlan and they had seven children, Peadar, Rachel, Eoghan, Alasdar, Cathal, Sorcha, Liadh. The last two children were born after he had moved to the Gaeltacht but the whole family were brought up through Irish.

Also in 1953 he was appointed Assistant Director of Music in Radio Eireann.

Dr. Arthur Young was his Co-Assistant Director, and in those good old days they graciously attended symphony concerts and gave short shrift to various “trad fids” who came up for audition, and also to various deputations from the country, including a very persistent petitioner from Cuil Aodha, whose house Sean was destined to buy ten years later.

Ó Riada resigned from Radio Eireann in 1955, and, in a logical extension to all of his classical reading and studies, took off to starve in a garret in Paris. Here he met many artists and musicians through R.D.T.F. But here also he turned towards the Aisling which had been hovering over all his life and he ended up by saying to his wife “I’d rather be breaking stones in Ireland than be the richest man living in Europe”.

Back in Dublin, he began the most prolific period of his life, starting with many arrangements for the Radio Eireann Singers and Light Orchestra, doing original compositions for Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, writing for solo voice and for piano. During this time he was working as Music Director of the Abbey Theatre. This position gave him a good deal of spare time and allowed him to do many radio broadcasts and to work on incidental music for films.

Side by side with the flowering of Ó Riada’s European classical creativity another theme began to emerge during those seven years. The spirit of this theme was first expressed in the music which he wrote for the film Mise Eire. The impact of this particular music on the nation in 1959 was dramatic and immediate and it marked the beginning of 0 Riada’s rapport with the people of Ireland and their culture. He began a deep study of Irish traditional music which resulted in a radio series entitled “Our Musical Heritage”. He proceeded to experiment with combinations of musicians to evolve Ceoltoiri Chualann. This group was first presented to the public as a folk or traditional orchestra providing the incidental music for the Abbey Theatre presentation of the Honey Spike, a play by Brian Mc Mahon. Their first formal appearance as a stage group was at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.

While he was still in Dublin, he made his first contact with the Gaeltacht when he spent the summer of 1959 with his family in Bru na Gráige (Corca Dhuibhne) at the invitation of an tAthair Tadhg Ó Murchu. it was after this visit, which made a deep impression on them, that the Ó Riadas began to hold the now famous Ceilidhe at their home in Galloping Green, which brought together all the strands of Sean’s various interests – muintir na Gaeltachta, traditional and classical musicians, poets, diplomats, plumbers and business men.

Finally, and once more in a logical extension of his cultural development, he resigned from the Abbey in 1962 and moved to Corca Dhuibhne where he lived for a year doing freelance work for R.T.E. and writing for the “Irish Times”, until in October, 1963 he was appointed assistant lecturer in Music at University College, Cork.

On his appointment he moved to Cuil Aodha to live in An Draighean. Here, ten miles from where his mother was born, Ó Riada felt he had come home. Henceforth he regarded all trips to Cork, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh, London, Canada, America for lectures, concerts, recordings and festivals, in the nature of forages from his home base to bring back spoils and to further the interests of the Naisiun Gaolach. He made 16mm. films, wrote music, went fishing, studied Indian and Oriental Music, sat on National Commissions and committees, and generally was deeply involved in the community. He formed a choir and and wrote his first Mass for them. His fascination with things spiritual led him to write a further two Masses (Glenstall and an Irish Goverment commisioned Requem). He died on the 3rd of October, 1971 in Kings College Hospital after a short illness brought on by the effect of excessive alcohol use on an inhereited weak liver. He lies buried in Reilig Gobnatan.

Text kindly provided by Peadar Ó RIada