If you’ve ever listened to the Chieftains, thank Seán Ó Riada. Indeed, if you’ve listened to any traditional Irish music recorded in the last 40 years, he probably deserves your gratitude. He took the music that had become dusty, largely consigned to history, and gave it a new respectability that’s lasted far beyond his untimely death in 1971.
Ó Riada’s Irishness was a very conscious thing. He was born John Reidy in Cork in 1931, the son of an officer in the Garda, or Irish police, and grew up largely in Adare, Co. Limerick. Both his parents played traditional music on the fiddle, and at school the boy learned piano and violin, showing great promise musically and academically. Although the family was poor, he went to University College, Cork, to study classics, but after two years switched to music, which was already providing him with an income from his playing in local dance and jazz bands.
Upon graduation he found a job as assistant director of music at Radio Éirann, which proved to be more administrative than anything. Now married, Ó Riada soon became bored with his job, and in 1955 they moved to France for two years, where he composed Nomos No. 1: Ferrarie dux Hercules, a piece for strings still lauded by classical players. He was tempted back to Ireland with an offer to be musical director of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theater.
It was there that his musical ambitions began to truly take shape, a place where he could form his “folk chamber orchestra.” It took shape for a production of the play Song Of The Anvil, as Ó Riada assembled a wealth of traditional musicians, including uillean piper Paddy Moloney, other instrumentalists and singers who began rehearsing at Ó Riada’s home. He was trying to find a new way into the music. The group, which was named Ceoltóiri Chualann , gave its first performance in 1959, with Ó Riada on bodhran and harpsichord, an instrument he’d chosen to try to reproduce the sound of the defunct metal-string harp.
The music was an innovation, giving a dignity and form to the old folk sounds, and placing them in an entirely new context. They began performing on radio, giving them a national audience. The ensemble proved a revelation, bringing different colors and textures to the music, and reviving the compositions of the 18th century blind harpist O’Carolan, whose work has since become a staple of traditional groups.
In 1962 they began recording for newly-formed Claddagh Records, and a year later Moloney and some of the others formed the Chieftains, although Ceoltóiri Chualann continued to exist. Ó Riada (as he was now calling himself) gave up his position at the Abbey, and moved with his family to the<
There’s very little of Ó Riada’s work in print, and nothing of Ceoltóiri Chualann, altogether a shocking omission.
Ó Riada’s Farewell (Claddagh Records, 1972)
The man’s masterpiece, a spare, beautifully elegant record that captures the essence of Irish music and one man’s dedication to it. A perfect little pearl.
Mis Eire (Shanachie, 1960)
Ó Riada’s soundtrack debut, making Irish music as it had never been heard before, in an orchestral setting that emphasized the melodies and beauty of it all.
Amidst These Hills, Peadar Ó Riada (Bar/None, 1995)
Ó Riada’s son became a musician and composer, too, with a delightfully individual sense of writing and playing. This disc shows several of his facets, and the unusual becomes quite lovely.