O Riada, Sean

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O Riada, Sean


Sean O Riada's spirit, wrote Sing Out reviewer Rob Weir, "lurks at the core of 20th-century Ireland's soul in classical music, scholarship, radio, television, film, traditional music, poetry, and the revival of Gaelic culture." To folk music enthusiasts in the United States he is perhaps best known for bringing together the traditional music ensemble Ceoltoiri Chualann, which became the Chieftains, one of the most influential and durable Irish music groups of all time. In Ireland itself, O Riada was a something of a celebrity, one whose funeral was attended by people from all walks of life. O Riada wrestled musically with the question of what it meant to be Irish. In so doing, he helped give birth to the idea of Irish music as it is known today.

O Riada was born John Reidy on August 1, 1931, in Cork, Ireland. He used that name for the first part of his life, switching to its Irish equivalent, Sean O Riada, as he immersed himself more and more deeply in Irish culture in the 1950s. The family lived in musically rich County Limerick for a time, and he learned traditional tunes from his parents, who both played the fiddle. "My father had a wonderful store of music," O Riada said in an interview quoted on the RamblingHouse website. "I remember him telling me that he would walk seven miles, and do a day's work, to learn a tune."

Switched to Traditional Tunes During Concert

Another strand of O Riada's musical education came at St. Finbarr's College, a religious institution that in the United States would be called a high school or prep school. O Riada took lessons on violin, piano, and organ, as well as studying Latin and ancient Greek. The musical conflict that would characterize his adult life was anticipated when he gave a concert at the Palace Theatre in Cork. The crowd of townies was bored by the classical violin pieces he played at the beginning of the program, but perked up and applauded loudly when he made a quick switch to the traditional fiddle tunes he knew.

O Riada enrolled at University College in Cork, declaring a classics major but soon switching to music. He graduated in 1952, with side gigs in jazz and dance bands around the city helping to pay the bills. After finishing school, he got a job as assistant music director at Ireland's Radio Eireann—even though, or perhaps because, he challenged his interviewer to a philosophical debate. After two years, frustrated because he was doing mostly office work, O Riada headed for Paris. He landed some work there on the French RTF radio network, gave piano concerts of his own music, and became interested in the difficult classical compositional method of serialism, which was in vogue in France at the time due to the influence of composer Olivier Messiaen.

Returning to Ireland and settling in Dublin, O Riada wrote the serialist-inspired classical composition Nomos No. 1: Hercules dux Ferrariae. Some musical scholars hailed him as a composer who could bring Irish classical music up to a level comparable with that of cutting-edge France and Germany, but in Ireland as elsewhere, serialism was beloved by academics but firmly rejected by the general public. More successful were a series of settings of Irish traditional songs for voice and piano that O Riada wrote at around the same time. O Riada married Ruth Coughlin, who outlived him by just five years. The two had six children.

In the late 1950s Irish traditional music was nowhere near as popular as it is today. It survived in the rural pockets where it had always flourished, but the idea of a large urban public supporting the music in pubs and concerts was almost completely unknown. O Riada was well ahead of his time, as he learned to speak Irish Gaelic and struck up friendships among the pub musicians he met in Irish villages. In 1957 he got a job that proved to be the ideal platform for his growing interest in exploring Ireland's musical past: he became music director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

Formed Ceoltoiri Chualann

Responsible for furnishing authentic-sounding music for plays set in a variety of locales at different periods of Irish history, O Riada brought together Ceoltoiri Chualann, an ensemble that specialized in Irish traditional music. The group was a mixture of older and younger musicians. It featured accordion, tin whistle, fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, bodhran drum, and sometimes other instruments, but the ancient metal-stringed Irish harp wasn't available. So O Riada himself filled in on his chosen substitute: a harpsichord. He also played the bodhran at times.

The sound that resulted as these musicians realized O Riada's evolving vision wasn't an exact replica of what traditional rural Irish musicians would have played. Musician Sean Mac Reamoinn, quoted on the RamblingHouse website, described it this way: "What O Riada was doing was developing the inner logic of the music, and the only parallel I can make is that of jazz, where he was giving different instruments their head. They did their break, as it were, but he managed to weld them into a unity. And the sound that emerged, with tunes that many of us knew for a long time, was quite exciting." The new freedom of O Riada's versions of traditional music helped motivate his uilleann piper, Paddy Moloney, to form the Chieftains, a group that has inspired countless younger musicians. Ironically O Riada, with one foot still in the world of classical music, regarded his protege's creation with ambivalence.

Both Ceoltoiri Chualann and the Chieftains recorded on the pioneering Irish labels Gael-Linn and Claddagh, and attracted a strong concert following. O Riada's fame grew as traditional Irish music caught on. He continued to work in larger musical forms and became especially renowned for his film scores, a genre in which he could merge his classical thinking with his experiments in traditional music. Internationally, his best-known score was written for the 1963 film The Playboy of the Western World, a cinematic treatment of the classic Irish stage play. In Ireland itself, it was his score for Mise Eire (I Am Ireland) that was most familiar.

Became Familiar Radio and Television Figure

That year, O Riada was appointed lecturer in Irish music at his alma mater, University College in Cork. He continued to communicate with nonacademic audiences, producing a 15-part series of programs exploring Irish music for Radio Eireann and also appearing on television. An enthusiastic, magnetic personality, O Riada became popular with the public at large. He released several recordings of his own; one of them contained a piece called "Mná na hEireann" ("The Women of Ireland") that has become enough of a classic that various soundtracks, including that for director Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, have used it in order to evoke Ireland with a single musical suggestion.

O Riada also gained fame as the author of frequent commentaries, musical and otherwise, in the Irish Times. He faced criticism in his later years from some who felt that he should have devoted more of his energy to classical music. Rejecting that idea, O Riada nevertheless composed several choral settings of the Catholic Mass in the late 1960s. Some of these incorporated Irish traditional elements, and one, the Cuil Audha Mass (1968), was written in Irish Gaelic after the Second Vatican Conference relaxed restrictions on the use of local languages. O Riada laid plans to write a large number of masses that could be used locally in various parts of Ireland.

After writing a Requiem mass (a mass for the dead) in 1970, O Riada ominously followed it up with a recording of a solo harpsichord piece, "O Riada's Farewell." Although he was not yet 40, people who met O Riada for the first time assumed that he was an old man; his long alcohol addiction had begun to take a terrible toll. He was hospitalized in the summer of 1971 and died on October 3 of that year of cirrhosis of the liver. Although he remained well known and even controversial in Ireland, his pioneering role was gradually forgotten by music lovers elsewhere, who thought nothing of going down to a pub where Irish musicians were performing, forgetting that not so long ago it wasn't easy to do that. Partial rediscovery of his contributions came with the publication of a biography, Sean O Riada: His Life and Work, in 2003.

For the Record . . .

Born John Reidy on August 1, 1931, in Cork, Ireland; adopted Irish form of name, Sean O Riada, after becoming interested in traditional Irish culture, 1950s; died on October 3, 1971, in London, England, of cirrhosis of the liver; married Ruth Coughlan; children: six. Education: University College, Cork, Ireland, bachelor's degree in music, 1952; further studies in classical music in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and other composers.

Radio Eireann, Ireland, assistant director of music, 1952-54; Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Ireland, musical director, 1955-62; formed group Ceoltoiri Chualann to per form Irish traditional repertory for plays, late 1950s; Ceoltoiri Chualann evolved into the Chieftains; wrote score for film The Playboy of the Western World, 1963; made several solo recordings; active as music journalist, late 1960s.

Selected discography

Mise Eire, 1959; reissued, Shanachie.

O Riada sa Gaiety, Gael-Linn, 1969.

Sean O Riada, Gael-Linn, 1995.

The Playboy of the Western World (film score) Gael-Linn.

Reacaireacht an Riadaigh, Gael-Linn.

Ceol an Aifrinn, Gael-Linn.

Aifreann 2.

The Battle of Aughrim.

O Riada's Farewell; reissued, Atlantic.



Canainn, Thomas, Sean O Riada: His Life and Work, Collins Press, 2003.


Irish Times, June 10, 1998, p. 12; November 5, 2003, p. 14.

Washington Post, March 15, 2000, p. C5.


"Seán Ó Riada," by Dr. David C.F Wright, MusicWeb, http://www.musicweb-international.com/oriada (July 1, 2005).

"Sean O Riada," RamblingHouse, http://homepages.iol.ie/~ronolan/riada.html (July 1, 2005).

—James M. Manheim