Two Seáns

after gaiety

Meeting the President at the Ó Riada sa Gaiety Concert, March 1969 – from left: Seán Ó Riada, Seán Ó Sé, Niall Toibín, President Éamon de Valera, Ruth Ó Riada and Breandán Ó Buachalla (Irish World)

Festivals are high points of summer here in West Cork. Whatever the weather (and it’s always erratic), there is a very predictable buzz abroad wherever they happen. Rain or shine, people gather – the streets are busy, the cafés are full, the excitement is palpable.

Bantry from the water

Colourful Bantry in the festival season

A highlight for us at the moment is the Literary Festival in Bantry, and we were particularly engaged this week by a couple of hours of chat, readings and songs from a ‘Bantry boy’ now turned eighty – Seán Ó Sé. Last year Seán became an author or, more exactly, he collaborated with Patricia Aherne to tell the story of his life – which is a fascinating one.

Seán_Ó_Sé

This Seán comes across as completely honest, unpretentious, and with a deeply embedded faith. Life has taken him on a long journey from Ballylickey – on the shores of Bantry Bay – to a world stage. Woven in with a full time teaching career in Wicklow and Cork (…I never took a day off in my teaching career to go singing… says Seán …Singing was for sport, but if there was jam, that was fine too…) he has been to – and performed in – Canada, America, Cuba, Russia and China, and is still a legend in his own country of Ireland – and particularly in his own corner of it, County Cork.

Mannings

Seán Ó Sé was brought up in Ballylickey; he remembers Mrs Manning (Val’s mother) opening the shop – Manning’s Emporium – that now has a coveted reputation as one of West Cork’s favourite good food venues

He is both raconteur and singer and he has been close friend and colleague of our second Seán: Seán Ó Riada – a most profound influence on music in Ireland in the twentieth century. Seán number one told us about his first meeting – an audition – with Seán number two in the 1960s. In spite of being chronically shy the younger man must have made a good impression, and Ó Sé worked closely with Ó Riada on many of his major projects until the latter’s untimely death in 1971 – at the age of 40.

Famously, Seán Ó Sé was part of a group led by Ó Riada who performed at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in March 1969. The concert was recorded and is now regarded as classic: …crucial in the outburst of quality traditional music in the 1970s and ever since... (Gael Linn). It’s interesting that this group debuted sounds that were hitherto little known in Ireland, where traditional music was mainly seen as a past-time indulged in only by ‘rural individuals with string tied around their trousers’ or by large ceilidh bands following in the dance hall convention. In fact, Ó Riada’s vision was already a reality in the Irish communities around Camden Town in London in the 1950s and 60s, fortunately recorded by collectors such as Bill Leader and Reg Hall. And, in any case, many of the members of the Ó Riada sa Gaiety group had been playing together since 1962: they called themselves The Chieftains!

Seán Ó Riada (left) and (right) the memorable Ó Riada sa Gaiety concert that ushered in a ‘new’ era of Irish Traditional Music: this is Ceoltóirí Chualann in March 1969, (l–r): Seán Ó Riada (Director and harpsichord), Peadar Mercier (bodhran), Éamon de Buitléar (accordion), Mairtin Fay, Sean O’Ceallaigh, Sean O’ Cathain (fiddles), Seán Potts (whistle), Micheal O’Toibride (flute) and Paddy Moloney (uillean pipes). Seán Ó Sé (vocalist) is at the front. Courtesy Gael Linn. The dress code was at Ó Riada’s insistence

Before the Gaiety concert Ó Riada had already made his name writing scores for Irish films, including the 1959 documentary by George Morrison on Ireland’s struggle for freedom in the period 1896-1918. Mise Éire (I am Ireland) uses music which draws on traditional themes. The film was hugely popular when the 1916 rising was commemorated fifty years on, and in the recent 2016 centenary commemorations the main theme – based on Róisín Dubh was often featured.  Róisín Dubh means “Dark Rose” and is one of Ireland’s most famous political songs. The modern translation is credited to Pádraig Pearse. Here’s a link to a fascinating recent TG4 documentary about the making of the film, which includes extracts.

mis eire film

Mise Éire was a sensation when it came out in 1959. It was widely shown during the 1966 commemoration of the Easter Rising in Dublin

Our own Seán – Ó Sé – entertained us thoroughly at the Bantry Literary Festival, telling us his stories of a full and fascinating life, and his memories of growing up on the shores of Bantry Bay. Of course, he sang for us as well: a real treat…

singing in the mariners

That book title: An Poc ar buile; it means ‘The Mad Puck Goat’. Wherever Seán goes he will be asked to sing the song, and our session with him in Bantry was no exception. It’s supposedly a patriotic fighting song. In Irish, it tells the tale of a large billy goat who defied Cromwell and ran down the mountain to warn the people of Killorglin, Co Kerry, of the invading army. Killorglin survived the attack, and the event is commemorated every year on August 10th, when a wild goat is raised to the top of a scaffold tower and presides for three days over the festivities. Here is Seán singing about the goat’s exploits at the Cavan Fleadh Cheoil in 2010.

puck-fair

Killorglin’s Puck Fair, 1900

Ag gabháil dom sior chun Droichead Uí Mhóradha
Píce im dhóid ‘s mé ag dul i meithil
Cé casfaí orm i gcuma ceoidh
Ach pocán crón is é ar buile…

curfá

Ailliliú, puilliliú, ailliliú tá an puc ar buile!
Ailliliú, puilliliú, ailliliú tá an puc ar buile!

Do ritheamar trasna trí ruillógach,
Is do ghluais an comhrac ar fud na muinge,
Is treascairt do bhfuair sé sna turtóga
Chuas ina ainneoin ina dhrom le fuinneamh…

curfá

Níor fhág sé carraig go raibh scót ann
Ná gur rith le fórsa chun mé a mhilleadh,
S’Ansan sea do cháith sé an léim ba mhó.
Le fána mhór na Faille Bríce…

curfá

Bhí garda mór i mBaile an Róistigh
Is bhailigh fórsa chun sinn a chlipeadh
Do bhuail sé rop dá adhairc sa tóin ann
S’dá bhríste nua do dhein sé giobail…

curfá

I nDaingean Uí Chúis le haghaidh an tráthnóna
Bhí an sagart paróiste amach ‘nár gcoinnibh
Is é dúirt gurbh é an diabhal ba Dhóigh leis
A ghaibh an treo ar phocán buile…

curfá

As I set out with me pike in hand,
To Dromore town to join a meithil,
Who should I meet but a tan puck goat,
And he’s roaring mad in ferocious mettle.

Chorus:
Aill-il-lu puill-il-iu – Aill-il-lu it’s the mad puck goat.
Aill-il-lu puill-il-iu – Aill-il-lu it’s the mad puck goat.

He chased me over bush and weed,
And thru the bog the running proceeded,
‘Til he caught his horns in a clump of gorse,
And on his back I jumped unheeded.

Chorus

He did not leave a rock that had a passage through,
Which he did not run with force to destroy me,
And then he gave the greatest leap,
To the big slope of Faille Bríce.

Chorus

When the sergeant stood in Rochestown,
With a force of guards to apprehend us,
The goat he tore his trousers down,
And made rags of his breeches and new suspenders.

Chorus

In Dingle Town the next afternoon,
The parish priest addressed the meeting,
And swore it was The Devil himself,
He’d seen riding on the poc ar buile.

Chorus

old bohereen

Ah! Sweet Fiddler…

paddysmoke

How did I first become aware of Irish Traditional Music? Probably through this Long Player (remember those?) released by Topic Records in 1968. Paddy in the Smoke was – still is – central to my collection of folk music on vinyl and is available today as a CD or a download.  The recordings were made during the mid 1960s in a London pub, The Favourite, in Holloway. Irish musicians gathered there every Sunday between noon and 2pm (such were the licensing laws of the day!) and those sessions are now legendary, probably representing the epitome of ‘folk music to aspire to’ – certainly that was the case for this wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old attempting to play along with these wonderful tunes on an ancient single-row Hohner melodeon. Here’s a sample of one of the tracks on YouTube: you can hear how the atmosphere of the occasions has been wonderfully captured.

More from my collection of fiddle recordings

Jump forward a few years and in the mid 1970s I was making my first trip to Ireland, visiting Cork, Clare and Longford – looking for The Music: I found it in abundance. By then I was playing an Anglo Concertina, but I was very aware that wherever you went to in Ireland – or whatever you listened to from the Irish tradition – it was above all else the fiddle that seemed to be the king-pin.

Fiddles at the Chief O'Neill's Festival, Tralibane

Fiddles at the Chief O’Neill’s Festival, Tralibane

Now – dare I say it – almost 50 years on from hearing those first notes, here I am living on the shores of Roaringwater Bay and I am more than ever immersed in the music. Still it’s the fiddle that’s ubiquitous, wherever I go and whatever I listen to.

Fiddles to the fore: Friday night session in Ballydehob

I started to learn the ‘violin’ when I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a fruitful venture – I had given it up within the year and moved on to the piano. I suppose I have just always been happiest with an instrument that only requires you to press a key or a button to get exactly the right note. But I am filled with admiration for anyone who plays the fiddle – who is able to perfectly pitch the notes, and then ‘bend’ the music when the mood requires it. You can’t ‘bend’ steel reeds!

The Rakes dance band, founded in 1956 – Reg Hall, Michael Plunkett and Paul Gross. They introduced me to Irish dance music back in the day… They are still going strong! Reg Hall was responsible for the Paddy in the Smoke recordings, together with Bill Leader

A fiddle is a violin – it’s the same instrument. Generally, classical players of the violin call it by either name, but traditional music players invariably call it a fiddle. It’s a beautifully constructed instrument with a feminine, flowing shape – a piece of craftsmanship which has been made the same way for 500 years. A seventh century Irish poem The Fair of Carman describes ‘…Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players…’ but we don’t know what the fiddle was at that time. An excavation in Dublin during the 18th century uncovered a fiddle and bow dating from the 11th century: this is the oldest bow known in Europe – the bow is of dogwood and has an animal head carved on the tip.

workshop

The violin maker’s workshop (www.violinist.com)

Can anyone learn to play the fiddle? Probably – with sufficient patience and perseverance – and a bit of musicality. But it takes very particular skills to put The Music into the instrument. We are immersed in good fiddling around here: we have so many music festivals – Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Masters of Tradition, Chief O’Neill’s, Ballydehob Trad Fest – right on the doorstep. The whole gamut of different regional styles and techniques is here for us to take in. If you have half an hour or so to spare, it’s well worth looking at this YouTube video dating from 2008: firstly, you’ll see Jeremy Irons learning to play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ll see his mentors, including maestro Martin Hayes. But Jeremy lives in Kilcoe Castle, just over the hill from us – so you can also get a flavour of life down here in Roaringwater Bay – immersed in the sweet fiddle music…

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