Illuminations: Seán Ó Riada
By: J. Michael Finn
Seán Ó Riada was an Irish musician, composer and arranger of Irish traditional music. He was the single most influential figure in the revival of Irish traditional music during the 1960s. His impact on Irish music is still being felt today, nearly 50 years after his death.
Ó Riada was born John Reidy in Cork City on August 1, 1931. He spent his early years in
Adare, Co Limerick, where his father, a Garda sergeant, was stationed. Seán’s love of music came from parents, who were both competent traditional fiddlers.
He said of his father, “My father had a wonderful store of music. I remember him telling me that he would walk seven miles, and do a day’s work, to learn a tune.”
After beginning school in Adare, Seán later attended St. Finbarr’s College in Cork City, where he became interested in classical musical. He moved to St. Munchin’s College in Limerick and completed his secondary education in 1948.
He attended University College Cork, where he played violin, piano and organ, and studied Greek and Latin classics, graduating in 1952. That year he became assistant director for Radio Éireann, Ireland’s national radio station. During the evenings, Ó Riada played piano with dance bands. In 1953 he married Ruth Coughlan. Together they had seven children.
In 1955, Ó Riada spent several months in France pursuing his interest in techniques of musical modernism. On his return to Ireland in July, he became music director of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, where he wrote, arranged and directed music for the small pit orchestra while continuing his work in radio. It was about this time that he changed his name from John Reidy to the Irish version, Seán Ó Riada.
Ó Riada composed and directed orchestral music for theatre and film, using traditional Irish tunes and “sean-nós” songs (pron: shan-nos; trans: old style). Sean-nós is a highly ornamented style of unaccompanied traditional Irish singing.
In 1959 he scored a documentary film by George Morrison called Mise Éire (I am Ireland), about the founding of the Irish Republic. The title was taken from a poem written by Patrick Pearse. Mise Éire (pron: MISH-uh AYR-uh). The film was assembled using historical and newsreel footage of the events before and after the 1916 Rising.
Mise Éire was released to great acclaim at the 1959 Cork Film Festival. It was the first feature-length Irish language film and the first Irish film to use an orchestral sound track. The film was originally screened only in the Irish language.
The soundtrack music was conducted by Ó Riada and the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. Mise Éire brought Ó Riada national acclaim as a composer.
Our Musical Heritage
In 1963, Ó Riada prepared, scripted and presented the program Our Musical Heritage for Radio Éireann, a fourteen-part series of half-hour lectures on traditional Irish music and song. It was the first detailed examination of Irish traditional music presented using specifically recorded regional musical examples from around the country.
Between 1961 and 1969, Ó Riada led the Ceoltóirí Chualann group (pron: kohl-tor-ee hoo-lahn). Ceoltóirí is the Irish word for musicians, and Cualann is the name of an area just outside Dublin where Ó Riada lived.
The group played in concert halls dressed in black suits with white shirts and black bow ties and played traditional songs and tunes. Ó Riada sat in the middle at front playing a harpsichord and a bodhrán (pron: bau-rahn), a hand-held frame-drum, an Irish instrument that, at the time, had almost died out (now it’s hard to find an Irish band without one).
In addition to Ó Riada, the members of Ceoltóirí Chualann were Paddy Maloney, Sean Potts, Sonny Brogan, John Kelly, Peadar Mercier, and Seán Keane. They recorded the soundtrack of the film Playboy of the Western World in 1962. Their last public performance was in 1969.
In 1962, Paddy Maloney, with Ó Riada’s assistance, founded the award winning traditional group The Chieftains. They have won six Grammy Awards during their over 50-year career. Some music experts have credited The Chieftains with bringing traditional Irish music to a worldwide audience, so much so that the Irish government awarded them the honorary title of “Ireland’s Musical Ambassadors” in 1989.
First Mass Music Written in Irish
In 1963 Ó Riada was appointed lecturer in music at University College Cork. He moved to Ballyvourney in West Cork, an Irish-speaking area, where he established Cór Chúil Aodha (pron: kor hool A-da), a male voice choir, meaning the Choir of Coolea. He turned toward choral church music, composing Ceol an Aifrinn (Music of the Mass) which was the first Mass music written in the Irish language.
Ó Riada suffered from a chronic genetic weakness of the liver. In 1971 he was flown to King’s College Hospital, London, for treatment and died there on October 3, 1971 at the young age of 40. The musician Willie Clancy played at his funeral. He is buried in St Gobnait’s graveyard, Ballyvourney, County Cork.
In 1979, Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote a poem titled, “In Memoriam Seán Ó Riada.” In the poem Heaney wrote the following:
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!
In 2008, a life-sized statue of Ó Riada was erected in the grounds of the Chapel of Saint Gobnait, in Cúil Aodha, in the Cork Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area). On April 23, 2010 Ceoltóirí Chualann reformed under the leadership of Peadar Ó Riada, Seán’s son and a well-known composer, to pay tribute to Seán Ó Riada in Dublin’s Liberty Hall.
Liadh Ní Riada, Seán’s daughter, is a Sinn Féin politician who formerly served as a Member of the European Parliament for the South constituency from 2014 to 2019. She was also the Sinn Féin candidate in the 2018 presidential election.
Two schools are named “Scoil Uí Riada” after him: an Irish Language School in Kilcock, Co. Kildare, and another, in Bishopstown, Cork City.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.