Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Séan O'Riada - An Irishman's Diary

Frank McNally
SEÁN Ó RIADA is rightly credited with sparking the latter-day revival in Irish traditional music, a subject we’ll come back to in a moment. But a more controversial aspect of his legacy, it could be argued, is the encouragement he gave to subsequent generations of bodhrán players.

Fifty years after he legitimised their activity in his arrangements with Ceoltóirí Chualann, many purists still question whether the bodhrán qualifies as a musical instrument at all, never mind an Irish one. And leaving that vexed issue aside, Ó Riada’s promotion of what he considered Ireland’s native drum had another regrettable consequence.

It’s not just those with sensitive ears who have suffered since. The revival of the bodhrán also unleashed a new era of persecution on an animal that, ironically, had played an honoured role in the nation’s long struggle for independence. I refer of course to the goat, on whose skin bodhrán players (and Lambeg drummers too, for that matter) beat their infernal tattoos.

Never mind the wolfhound, or even the Kerry Blue terrier, which, as we mentioned recently, Michael Collins favoured as a national mascot. For a quadruped symbol of the fighting Irish, song-writers have traditionally looked elsewhere: to a species which, even in Paddy McGinty’s non-subversive version, was seen as the very embodiment of rebelliousness and the love of freedom.

The classic ballad of the genre, surely, is The Peeler and the Goat . Written in the 1830s, this was a musical revenge by its Tipperary-born author Darby Ryan, after he had been arrested for taking part in a banned demonstration against the Tithes Act.

Hearing of the similar impoundment of a billy-goat by the Bansha police, he dramatised the political and civil liberty issues of the day in a dialogue between the four-legged prisoner and his oppressor. The result, as Fintan Vallely wrote in his book Sing Up , was a hit of White Christmas proportions.

Hugely popular in Ireland, the song soon spread to America and Australia too. Its satirical power was such that singers could incur arrest, or a beating, or both. And although self-censored versions arose, these were sung typically “with a humbugging sort of smile which outraged the dignity of the law” and so were also banned.

One measure of the song’s evolution, and its fame, was that the Melbourne Argus eventually offered a reward for anyone who could produce the original lyrics. But Irish ballads are famously organic. So in keeping with this tradition, the version featured in Vallely’s book includes his own extra verse, which updates the goat’s oppression to the bodhrán revival.

The other great Irish goat song is, of course, An Poc Ar Buile . This is less overtly political, although it too features the attempted arrest of the whiskered hero, who only retains his freedom at the expense of a policeman’s trousers. It may be sexual rather than political liberation this particular goat has in mind: he also earns a reprimand from the pulpit. But at any rate the song, with its boisterous chorus, has long been a favourite at ballad sessions and sing-songs.

Which brings us back to Seán Ó Riada: because ironically, as well as condemning thousands of innocent goats to the tannery, the celebrated composer was also central to the modern-day revival of An Poc Ar Buile . As sung by Seán Ó Sé, it became a standard at Ó Riada concerts. And as such it will feature in an event in Cork this Friday night, to mark the 40th anniversary of the most famous of those concerts: “Ó Riada sa Gaiety”.

The Cork gathering will include members of the original Ceoltóirí Chualann, as well as Cór Chúil Aodha, the choir founded by Ó Riada’s son Peadar. A member of the latter group, Conchubar Ó Liatháin, reminds me that what Riverdance was to Ireland’s most recent boom, Ó Riada’s music was to an earlier era of economic growth, engineered by Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker Of the two booms, the older one is holding up a bit better at the moment, although Conchubar suggests this weekend’s 40th anniversary celebration is doubly appropriate in gloom-ridden 2010. “We need to remember what it is about Ireland that’s so much fun and so attractive,” he writes. “In the current atmosphere of rising anger and unrelenting recrimination, it’s easy to forget that Irish traditional music has become a worldwide phenomenon and is now our most popular and profitable export.” Hear, hear.

The bad news about Friday’s event, if you don’t already have tickets, is that it has just sold out. The good news is that, encouraged by the demand, the organisers are now planning further concerts: in Dublin, Ennis, and perhaps elsewhere.

Conchubar also asks me to mention that February 5th will mark the 50th anniversary of Mise Éire , another Ó Riada milestone. And that on February 6th, the Ionad Cultúrtha in Ballyvourney, Co Cork, will celebrate both this and the old Celtic spring festival of Imbolc with a day-long series of talks by musicians and others, on a wide range of culture-related issues. The price goats have paid for the traditional music revival is not among the listed topics, but perhaps it should be. More details are at

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