Meeting Ó Riada
If the name of Séan Ó Riada conjures up images of Ceoltóirí Chualann, pictures and music from the film Mise Éire, or evokes the memory of his sad funeral with huge crowds outside Cúil Aodha church listening to Willie Clancy play inside over the PA, then perhaps this book is of interest to you.
No, actually let me stop right there. Ó Riada, whose significance as the primary forerunner in the area of contemporary Irish art music and in the revival of traditional musical forms is presumed, is someone I, and many of my peers, know next to nothing about. Upon his death in 1971, his impression on the Irish musical landscape was ubiquitous and yet today there are few signs of his import amongst the younger generation of composers. The last time his work was performed in the National Concert Hall was several years ago, and when I hear his name it is to those other concert arrangements of quasi-traditional Irish music (Davey, Ó Súilleabháin and Whelan, etc.) that my mind turns.
And so you’ll forgive me if I appear a little excited. You see I’ve only just ‘met’ this extraordinary character, a musician whose talents and genius enabled him to turn his hand(s) to jazz, ‘contemporary’ techniques, and of course the traditional forms, and a man whose life seemed to be blossoming on the outside yet was precariously balanced within. And it’s partially thanks to Tomás Ó Canainn’s new biography of Ó Riada that I’ve had this pleasure.
Tomás Ó Canainn is himself an intriguing character; he has published books of poetry and a novel and at one time served as Dean of Engineering for University College Cork. He is a former all-Ireland uilleann pipe champion as well as a singer and accordionist, and was a friend, pupil and colleague of Ó Riada’s. He was also one of the last people to see Ó Riada’s body, as he aided the sculptor Séamus Murphy in preparing the death mask.
He describes his story as a ‘cloch ar a charn – another small stone on the monument to his memory, his music and to the work of art that his life was’. And yes, there have been many other such stones, all portraying Ó Riada from different perspectives, some emphasising his professional successes, whilst others focusing on the shadow behind the public mask. But it is this multiplicity which Ó Canainn attempts to overcome as he opens various doors into his subject’s life and attempts to find a complete Ó Riada. He does this by dedicating each chapter to an individual facet or stage in his life; starting from Ó Riada’s early years in school and as a student, through to his professional life working with Radio Éireann and for Gael Linn, and then his emergence as an important composer and musician. He also includes chapters on Ó Riada’s profitable activities as a writer, his friendship with the singer Séan Ó Sé and in later years the strange and unsuccessful digression he made into filmmaking.
However, what is evident throughout this account is the distance from which Ó Canainn looks back on the life and personality of Ó Riada. Although he fully marks out this path, nowhere do I get a sense that these two men were close. This invariably makes ‘… his life and work’ overly concerned with factual detail and includes many accounts and correspondences, some of which are fascinating, but most of which add little or nothing to our understanding of the man. Indeed at times the detail is embarrassing as in the chapter entitled ‘True Love in Hard Times’, which is a very private correspondence between Ó Riada and his wife Ruth and is an unnecessary and rude filler.
What is most striking in reading Tomás Ó Canainn’s biography, especially when measured against other authors’ accounts or even just reading between the lines, is his unwillingness to broach the serious underlying concerns which caused Ó Riada’s career and health such harm. It may well be that Ó Canainn refrained from doing so due to his great respect and admiration, or that he felt ill- qualified in this regard, but he nonetheless fails to portray the isolation and pressure that fame and talent bestowed upon Séan Ó Riada.
There is inexplicably almost no mention of a drink problem, and yet the final pages note that his death certificate states ‘cirrhosis of the liver, caused by alcohol’. In contrast, Thomas Kinsella (another close friend) has written that ‘I have never known anyone with the same destructive affinity for alcohol’. And what was really going on in Ó Riada’s head when he resigned his post as Assistant Director of Music at Radio Éireann, disappearing in Paris, his location not even known to his wife? Surely all this is worthy of some comment?
The only real explanation I can find is that Ó Riada felt a profound sense of failure in the eyes of certain areas of the establishment. Whilst his accomplishment in the traditional arts is fully appreciated now, it was not to the same degree then, and although he had a special relationship with the Irish community, his progress and stance as a ‘serious’ composer was often in question. Evidence for this is to be found in the Appendix, where the final published correspondences between The Irish Times music critic Charles Acton and Ó Riada are included. The back page summary of Séan Ó Riada, his life and work, describes these as ‘highly amusing’, yet on closer inspection they paint a sad picture with Acton pleading: ‘I still believe that, were you to desire to become a fully professional composer, you would certainly equal Duparc and greatly exceed Cogan. But by using the line of least resistance, as I am afraid you are doing, I feel that you are in grave danger of becoming “a man of enormous promise – in the past”. Please don’t do that’.
Tragically, Ó Riada was to die soon after, leaving both his family and his country at the age of forty. But forgive me if I have overstated these particular issues or read between the lines too much; Séan Ó Riada, his life and work is a highly detailed and enjoyable account of one of Irelands heroes, and whilst its style is at times too pedestrian for this writer, it is nonetheless a good introduction into the life of one of Ireland’s most influential musicians and is to be recommended.
Séan Ó Riada, his life and work by Tomás Ó Canainn is published by The Collins Press.
Published on 1 March 2004