An Irishman's Diary

 

IT HAS taken a while: almost 37 years in fact. But on the weekend after next, the village of Cúil Aodha in West Cork will finally get around to unveiling a statue in honour of Seán Ó Riada, its most famous resident, who spent his later years there before dying in 1971, aged only 40, writes Frank McNally

An initiative of friends and relatives, the statue (by Kerry sculptor Mike Kenny) portrays Ó Riada playing the organ and will be located in the grounds of the local church, where one of his most enduring compositions - the Ó Riada Mass - is still sung every Sunday by a choir led by his son Peadar.

Statues are not everything, of course. The emphasis of previous commemorations, as in Ó Riada's life, was on music. And it will be back there after the ceremonies on August 3rd, with an open-air céilí featuring the Allow (pronounced as in "Mallow") Céilí Band: the reigning All-Ireland champions, from North Cork.

Cúil Aodha is an unusual place, and not just because it is the centre of the West Cork Gaeltacht, with its 1,000 or so Irish speakers. The same weekend, on August 1st, the village also hosts a sort-of conferring ceremony, courtesy of Acadamh Fódla: an informal academy founded by Peadar Ó Riada in the style of Newman's "Ideal University".

The academy boasts up to 100 members in several faculties, including music, history, agriculture, and - a recent addition - energy. These meet weekly to assess research projects ranging from the mapping of local fields (most of which, as elsewhere in Ireland, have individual names) to investigations of events from the Land War and War of Independence.

One of the more intriguing projects, currently being pursued by the agriculture faculty, aims to re-create the formula for that ancient alcoholic drink: mead. In fact, researchers - who stress that their interest is purely academic - believe they may have found it already. On a contrastingly sober note, the energy faculty is now calculating the area's carbon footprint.

At any rate, like Aosdána, the Acadamh honours certain members with the title of "Saoi" ("wise man" or "master"). And the latest on whom that title will be conferred is be local historian Dónal Ó Liatháin - who, incidentally, has also contributed the inscription for Ó Riada's statue: "Srutháín gléineach thar clocháin/Cáisí ceoil do chuimhneachán". (Rough translation: "Streams sparkle over stones/Torrents of music your memorial.") Although he would hardly object to having one play at his commemoration - especially an award-winning one like the Allow - Seán Ó Riada had a tense relationship with the céilí bands of his time, whose crimes against music were partly to blame for the disrepute into which the traditional form had fallen by the 1950s, and from which he was to help rescue it.

The revival began with Ceoltóirí Chualann, his traditional orchestra, which attempted to explore the music rather than batter the life out of it, as many céilí bands did then. Indeed, much of the subsequent development of Irish music can probably be traced from that group's early rehearsals at Ó Riada's Dublin home in Galloping Green.

A few years later, the Irish Timesmusic critic tried to explain what the experiment involved: "In theory it was to have a wide variety of unison timbres with jazz-type opportunities for stretches of virtuoso solo variation and with creative arrangements of traditional music and perhaps actual composition, using in the new-old form ancient techniques such as canon, canon with augmentation and other contrapuntal means, leading to a new synthesis of age-old Irish traditional and European means." Phew. As the critic added: "These hopes were never fully realised." And no wonder.

But in the process of trying, Ceoltóirí Chualann spawned the Chieftains, most of whose members had played in it. Moreover, it would be a major influence on all the great traditional groups that followed, from Planxty to the Bothy Band to Moving Hearts and beyond.

Ó Riada is still probably best known for his soundtrack to George Morrison's 1960 film, Mise Éire, although in more recent times he also has the unusual distinction of having had one his songs covered by Kate Bush: the haunting Mná na hÉireann.

His great disappointment, however, was the failure of the purely classical compositions to which he also devoted himself. The frustration involved may have been a factor in the drinking that ended his life so prematurely.

By the end of the 1960s, he had seen Irish music become fashionable again, partly thanks to the US folk revival. Ceoltóirí Chualann's experiment was nearly at an end, however. To the other members' surprise, Ó Riada disbanded the group in 1970, around the same time as the Beatles. And not much later, sadly, he was gone himself.

(Information on the Cúil Aodha commemoration, or other events in the Muskerry area, can be found at www.imuscrai.wordpress.com.) fmcnally@irish-times.ie