TV Review: Sean Ó Riada

                           Sean Ó Riada was a great man for reading, his son tells us on NATIONWIDE (RTÉ ONE). He would go “to the jacks” and sit there for an hour, just him and a book. He did his composing at night when the children were in bed.  He never used the piano or a musical instrument when composing, but the seven children would hear him whistling softly as he tried out a few new bars. And when he wrote down his music, he did so carefully. The first draft was always the last draft.

This was a totally engrossing picture of the one Irish musical composer of modern times known to just about everyone in Ireland. As a young man at University College Cork,  he was flamboyant, self-assured, dressed like a dandy and was the Auditor of the debating society.  After graduating – in Music, of course – he got married and he and his wife Ruth had the first of their seven children. The child was deposited with grandparents, while Ruth went to Paris and Ó Riada to London. His letters to her still exist. From London he tells her: “I hate this fucking place, the noise and the people”.

They came back to Dublin and in 1959, he wrote the music that he will always be remembered for: the score of the documentary film Mise Eire. The combination of a classical orchestra with traditional Irish music – especially patriotic ballads – played over the black and white footage of Ireland’s struggle for freedom in the early part of the twentieth century  – the combination was explosive. It was, as the programme said “a pivotal moment” for Ó Riada – he became a household name.

University College Cork has a mini-museum of objects associated with him, including the bodhran, which he resurrected and made popular again,  and his  small, easily transported harp, its strings held taut by a row of different-coloured golf tees.

Ó Riada went through several phases – from part-time jazz musician and Edwardian boulevardier complete with walking cane, to his return to West Cork, where he became immersed in the local culture and  along with his family became a vital part of the local community. “He could talk to anybody” one local remarked.

He died at the cruelly early age of forty.  But then as his son said, “It’s not so much the length that counts, it’s how you managed the time you had”.

Mise Eire – once seen and heard, never forgotten. Check it out on youtube.

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