Film-maker, musician and conservationist

Éamon de Buitléar's work as a film-maker took him all over Ireland as well as to Sardinia, Ethiopia, the Azores and Lesotho in southern Africa

Éamon de Buitléar's work as a film-maker took him all over Ireland as well as to Sardinia, Ethiopia, the Azores and Lesotho in southern Africa

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

Éamon de Buitléar: Born: January 22nd, 1930 Died: January 27th, 2013Éamon de Buitléar, who has died aged 83, was a film-maker and conservationist. Passionate about the natural world, he was one of Ireland’s first independent film-makers. He also was deeply involved in Irish traditional music and enjoyed a long collaboration with Seán Ó Riada.

With the Dutch illustrator and cartoonist Gerrit van Gelderen he devised the award-winning wildlife programme Amuigh Faoin Spéir for RTÉ. Other credits include The Natural World and the Living Isles (BBC), the series Exploring the Landscape, Ireland’s Wild Countryside and A Life in the Wild (RTÉ), Wild Islands (RTÉ, STV and S4C), Éiníní agus Ainimhithe na hÉireann (TG4) and Nature Watch (ITV).

His work as a film-maker took him all over Ireland as well as to Sardinia, Ethiopia, the Azores and Lesotho.

President Michael D Higgins described him as a “real communicator” with a “warm and engaging personality”. Broadcaster Éanna Ní Lamhna recalled the impact made by Amuigh Faoin Spéir, which “burst upon an unsuspecting public”.

Born in 1930, he was one of seven children of Éamon de Buitléar and his wife Nóra O’Brien. His father, a Dubliner, was commanding officer An Céad Chath, Renmore Barracks, Galway, and later served as aide-de-camp to president Douglas Hyde. His mother was from Co Waterford.

Tricks of the trade

The Irish-speaking family lived in Bray, on the banks of the Dargle river. His father awakened his interest in fishing and a local poacher taught him some tricks of the trade. The first fish he remembered catching was a 1lb trout, when he was five. He also remembered hooking rudd in the lake at Áras an Uachtaráin.

He attended St Brigid’s private school, Bray, before becoming a pupil of Willow Park and later Blackrock College. His first job was in a fishing tackle shop, Garnetts and Keegan’s, in Parliament Street, Dublin.

As a young man he regularly visited Conamara, played rugby with the Blackrock College second team, attended singing classes under Seán Óg Ó Tuama and frequented the Piper’s Club. He played the mouth organ and button accordian and joined the Loch Gamhna céilí band. He also presented traditional music programmes on Raidió Éireann.

After switching jobs several times, and opening a pet shop, he took up a position in Hely’s of Dame Street. There he first met Seán Ó Riada, who was buying a shotgun, and who invited him to join a folk orchestra he was forming. This was Ceoltóirí Chualann, launched at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1961.

The ensemble enjoyed success with two radio series, Fleadh Cheoil an Raidió and Reachaireacht an Riadaigh, and later provided the soundtrack for the film version of The Playboy of the Western World. Albums for Gael Linn followed, the best known of which is Ó Riada sa Gaiety. Ceoltóirí Chualann’s final public appearance was at the Carolan Tercentenary Concert in City Hall, Cork, in June 1970.

Recalling his collaboration with Ó Riada, de Buitléar described it as “a revolution in attitudes to traditional music”. Things were much different in the 1950s, he said: “We were thrown out of a Dublin pub simply because traditional musicians were not welcome in many places, we were not respectable. Ó Riada changed all that. Of course, many traditional musicians did not like what we were doing; there was a fear we were changing the tradition too much.”

In the early 1970s de Buitléar founded Ceoltóirí Laighean. He invited younger musicians like Mary Bergin, Aibhlín McCrann and Paddy Glackin to join, along with older hands like Sonny Brogan and John Kelly.

The group featured in the radio series Rachmas Ceoil and released two albums, The Crooked Road (1973) and The Star of Munster (1975). But as the 1970s closed, de Buitléar concentrated on film-making.

By now he and van Gelderen had parted company. But de Buitléar’s work continued to impress, and in 1986 his television programme Cois Farraige leis an Madra Uisce won a Jacob’s award. He was still going strong in his seventies and made two film documentaries Islandman – Máistir Báid Mhór and Húicéirí, about Galway hookers.

Roused to anger

He also wrote many nature books for children, including the series An Saol Beo. And he created the first Irish-made cartoon for children, Lúidín Mac Lú Leipreachán.

His love for the natural heritage and culture of Ireland ran deep. But he could be roused to anger when he sensed a threat to the things that were important to him. And he was quick to recognise the damage certain types of development could cause.

He was firmly opposed to the Burren interpretative centre. Commenting on the shelving of the plan, he wrote: “Time and resources that should have gone into protecting our environment and our wildlife was wasted in fighting what became a very bitter political campaign.”

He was a member of Seanad Éireann (1987-89) and served on the National Heritage Council and Central Fisheries Board.

He told this newspaper in 2004 that he did not regret what he had done in life but, rather, what he had not done: “I’d love to have been a really good painter . . . maybe I should have studied zoology, but then maybe I would never have made films. I’m not a specialist at anything, I just like the outdoors.”

He was married to Laillí, daughter of painter Charles Lamb, in 1957. She survives him, together with their daughters Aoife, Róisín and Doireann and sons Éanna and Cian.