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February 17, 2013 / rockroots

Seán Ó Riada’s Gold



This is far from rock music, however at this time of year, as everyone with a tenuous connection to Ireland celebrates the anniversary of the death of a Christian evangelist, attention turns to Irish culture and heritage. And (here I go again on another rant) as rock music doesn’t make the grade as far as approved Irish culture is concerned, here instead is the acceptable face of Irish music. Seán Ó Riada is widely considered the godfather of a revival of traditional Irish music during the 1960s. From a varied background as a dance band pianist and an avant-garde composer, Ó Riada began to write soundtrack music for Irish films at the end of the ’50s and formed a traditional music ensemble named Ceoltóirí Chualann in 1961. In truth, Ó Riada’s music owed less to the bar-room trad session music of the ceilí bands and more to an Irish classical music in the tradition of O’Carolan. He himself played the harpsichord – not generally regarded as a traditional Irish instrument – as an approximation of a traditional wire-strung harp.

Seán Ó Riada died in 1971 shortly after his 40th birthday, his liver disease and premature ageing a result of many years’ heavy drinking. Soon after, the LP Ó Riada’s Farewell appeared, not as a cash-in on his legacy as the name might suggest, but rather a collection of his cherished final recordings, packaged with many tributes in the liner notes written in English, Irish (both traditional and Latin script), French, German, Vietnamese and Japanese, representing the esteem which he had earned in his relatively short life. The recordings were made, unaccompanied, on a gorgeous eighteenth century upright harpsichord built by Ferdinand Weber of Marlborough Street for a town house on Kildare Street, and pictured on the front cover. The instrument could be “disagreeable” and the percussive noise of the keys on this record, akin to someone constantly thumping the far side of a door, can be quite distracting. Nevertheless, the ancient music is revived and heard as it was originally conceived, and its fragile beauty can be both haunting and uplifting. This music is, I should point out, widely available on digital remaster and mp3 download and whatever other new-fangled methods people use these days; what is here is merely a scratchy vinyl transfer so if you like it, buy it.


Ó Riada’s Farewell:

  1. Fanny Power
  2. Mabel Kelly
  3. Aisling Gheal
  4. Kerry Slide
  5. An Chúilfhionn
  6. The Three Sea Captains
  7. Suite: Túirne Mháire/Na Bearta Cruadha/An Brianach Óg (two versions)
  8. Cúil Aodha Slide
  9. Mo Ghile Mear
  10. An Cailín Deas Rua
  11. An tSean Bhean Bhocht
  12. Aon Lá sa Mhuilleann
  13. Sí Bheag a’s Sí Mhór
  14. Seán Ó Duibhir an Ghleanna


Of arguably more interest is a tape that I came across some years ago consisting of soundtrack music recorded by Seán Ó Riada in about 1966. Recorded once again on solo harpsichord (perhaps even the same one), the 13 minutes or so of music were made for a short film titled Celtic Gold In Ireland, sponsored by the National Museum of Ireland to showcase some of their collection of ancient artefacts. The brief musical cues are in much the same vein as the final album but, to the best of my knowledge, have never been made available before now. Ó Riada’s bandmates in Ceoltóirí Chualann carried on and nurtured his legacy via The Chieftains, and his influence can be heard in everything from Van Morrison to Riverdance, and will most likely be in evidence over the forthcoming celebrations. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day; next time we return to rock.

Celtic Gold In Ireland (192 kbps)



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