'We were dazzled by the arc of his genius, and then stunned to sorrow by the signs of his decline' - John Montague on Seán Ó Riada
Seán Ó Riada, who was born 88 years ago today, is widely considered to be one of the most influential figures in the revival of Irish traditional music. In this piece from our archives, the late John Montague recalled his long friendship with the great composer.
The argument about Seán Ó Riada's central achievement continues. We are all inclined to glamorise those who die young, and Sean has come to embody the Irish equivalent of Chopin's legend.
That he was musically gifted, in diverse ways, is beyond doubt, but did the diversity deflect the intensity? Or was he the first major composer?
Seán Ó Riada had recognisable genius, that peculiar radiance or emotional electricity that attracts, or sometimes repels, people. I stress the personal impact, although that quality is not always necessary for the production of great work.
I knew Seán Ó Riada as a name before I met him; descriptions of wild evenings at Galloping Green when the carpet was rolled back for dancing, and the music and drink flowed, did not appeal to me. I had my own needs and scenes to deal with, and Garech Browne had already got me deep enough into traditional Irish music -- too deep, I sometimes thought, as another singer's head went back and some unearthly wail smote the night.
So I was nearly hostile when I met Seán, regarding him, perhaps, as a parody of aspects of myself, a russet-headed apostle of the Gael -- which, as far as I was concerned, was only part of the message.
But one night, in Garech's first little flat, Seán sat up with me and proceeded to analyse my first sizeable book of poems, Poisoned Lands, with a minatory exactness. He told me what he thought was wrong and right about it, and I had to agree with most of his judgement, for, apart from the personal interest, I realised that I was in the presence of a formidable intellect.
He then moved on to our mutual friend, Thomas Kinsella, with the same merciless accuracy. Again I listened, only occasionally dissenting. There was edge, but no malice. I was conquered, as I suppose I was meant to be.
That carefully prepared scene set the tone for most of our subsequent meetings, a heady mixture of affectionate competition, irritation and amusement. He was an impresario of genius, appreciating the talent of relatively unsophisticated musicians, and gathering them together to create a folk orchestra of astonishing power, Ceoltori Chulainn.
Although his father, as I remember, played the fiddle, Seán was not a traditional musician by nurture, and his efforts in that direction were a kind of delighted exploration, coinciding with the decision to change his name from John Reidy to Seán Ó Riada. But he was finally disappointed by it, and disbanded Ceoltori Chulainn in a famous radio interview, which left us all stunned.
What he was saying, I now think, was that traditional music is naturally conservative, and could be pushed only so far without betrayal or distortion. Yet he had already done a great deal for it, giving status to musicians who had been forgotten, pushed aside after Ireland changed languages, and showing the way to groups like The Chieftains. It was left to them, and later groups, to carry Irish traditional music into the wider world, and make a dialogue with other kinds of music, even pop, and other instruments -- although Seán should be credited with the reintroduction of the bodhran into Irish group playing.
Whenever I saw him, he was usually convalescing from some public performance, and fun and games were the order of the night, especially in the big salon at Woodtown Manor, with the lights of Dublin flickering in the distance.
It was an attitude I sympathised with: I agreed with Goldsmith's remark that what one wants after a day's creative labour is relaxation, "viva voce over the bottle". But Seán 's forms of relaxation were outrageously various, even frantic. While he and Paddy Moloney were tweeting on tin whistles, he would pause to bicker with an Irish sculptor in low German, and speak to me in fluent argot at the same time.
Around this time, with some pain and bewilderment, I began to realise that Seán was drinking far too much. It was hard to detect, because he had that dubious advantage, a good head for it; he rarely went though the character change induced by heavy drinking, the sudden rearing nastiness of Behan or others of my friends in the shark tank of McDaid's. But there were many clues, if I had had the gumption to read them.
He did not savour the slow pint, nor did he go for the sting of whiskey, preferring the odourless white lightning of vodka sweetened by tonic. He also liked brandy, but drowned in ginger ale. And finally there was the poteen, which flowed in the West Cork Gaeltacht; smothered in milk or sweetened with honey, it was still lethal, and certainly contributed to his early death.
I had tasted it myself when all his musical friends assembled at his home in Coolea for the west Cork practice of the 'Stations', or Mass in the home. Sean greeted me at the door with a tumbler of poteen so raw and strong, it literally drove me, staggering, through the house, to retch in the garden. As a daily tipple, it would have been disastrous.
Seán was a stylish man, partly 18th century, a style acknowledged in his Ceol na Uasal, or 'Music of the Nobles', with its homage to Carolan. But the style began to falter in puzzling ways. We had stayed at Woodtown one night, and he came to see me as I was rising just after dawn. Gazing down at the tranquil autumn drive, I unburdened myself of a few painful confidences, the kind of things one tells a trusted friend.
He listened with the sympathy and understanding I had hoped for, except that his reaction was more far violent than mine. "If someone did that to me," he said chillingly, "I would have to think of killing them."
The confidence I had vouchsafed him was cause, I thought, for regret and sorrow; vengeance of the kind he described would never have occurred to me, and I was shocked by this glimpse of something dark, even paranoid, in his psyche, which would emerge later when there was trouble in the North.
But to the point: privacy seems to me one of the privileges of close friendship. I was horrified when, some months later, the story floated back to me, in a garbled version. I had to face the fact that Seán had told my halting, raw confidences to someone who did not seem to appreciate them as anything but sensational disclosures, titillating gossip.
Tom Kinsella, myself and Sean Lucy have all written poems about Seán Ó Riada -- showing that a male can be a muse as well.
It was a generational thing, of course: we were dazzled by the arc of his genius, and then stunned to sorrow by the signs of his decline, before his early death. Of course, we were partly weeping for ourselves; after we had shouldered the coffin together at his funeral in Coolea in County Cork, Kinsella cried out in the fierceness of grief: "The gobs***e!"
To hear the strains of his own Mass, at his own funeral, was a moving and an unnerving experience; under the gloss of modernity, Seán had a simple, old-fashioned faith. Beyond the ordeal of dying, I think that he was largely unafraid of death itself, in a way that would seem alien and perhaps innocent in our secular, or at least agnostic, age. But it did seem true of Sean, that he believed, quietly though fiercely, in the tenets of his Catholic religion, and truly wished for his soul to be liberated into that wider world described in his favourite medieval Irish poem, Under Sorrow's Sign.
People are sometimes apologetically curious about the background to Ó Riada's Farewell -- both his last record and the title of my elegy for him. When Seán began to sense that he was dying, he called Garech Browne, and asked if he could record Irish tunes on the 18th century harpsichord that Garech had acquired.
Mystified, Garech agreed, especially since the silence at Luggala, his Wicklow estate, had already been used for the recording of John Field nocturnes. The ancient harpsichord features on the record cover, its burnished wood shining like a coffin lid:
"clatter of harpsichord
the music leaping
like a long candle flame
to light ancestral faces"
I incorporate that imagery into my poem, the central drama of which derives from a furious argument between myself and Sean shortly before he died. The story of that argument might entail a breach of privacy of the kind I have chastised him for, but I will try to tell it tactfully.
At this point in my marriage, long separations -- Madeleine [Montague's first wife] in Paris, myself in Dublin or Berkeley -- had spawned a series of light affairs on both sides, which had almost begun to seem normal, although they were probably a harbinger of the marriage's demise. The year of Sean's death, I had become involved with a Californian girl, an exchange student at Trinity.
This was a lighter, less troubling echo of my dark Berkeley affair, but Sean had decided that the young woman was, if not actually evil, then in some sense "bad" for me, being only a vehicle for desire. He might have had a point, but who can say where lust ends and love begins?
Infatuation can yield to love, or at least to genuine affection, and I have tried not to forget those whom I have touched or who have touched me, even if only briefly. And perhaps I detected in Sean's stern attitude a little of his old-fashioned Catholic self, a deep unease in the new Sixties world of casual, guilt-free sex.
The girl in question was indeed a product of the Sixties: by no means immoral, but naively at ease in the new climate of free love. Only she had formed an attachment to myself and not Seán, so that a deep though probably unconscious jealousy might also have influenced his baleful attitude towards her.
Anyway, their distrust was mutual. She did not speak of it but seemed deeply afraid of him, and with reason. She and I had spent a cluttered, drunken evening with Seán, in which he had given a most unimpressive display of his magic powers. I do not use the word "magic" flippantly or facetiously, because of the mysterious connection between certain kinds of art and magic. But I am also chary of any artist misusing the powers placed so briefly in his custody: the shaman or healer in the artist should foster the art, not take over the driving seat.
But Seán seemed to be wilfully letting this happen, a parody of the saint who must prove his point with miracles. Later that night, when the two of us were alone together by the fireside, our customary friendly banter turned sour.
He told me I was in danger, and I responded that he was in worse: a harsh judgement that he accepted almost humbly. But suddenly he swerved back to his dark obsession with this girl, whom he insisted on identifying with death, going so far as to prophecy her barrenness and early demise. Worse, when the young woman joined us by the fire, he insisted on telling it to her face, while she wept silently.
"A door opens,
and she steps into the room,
smothered in a black gown,
harsh black hair falling to
a pallid tearstained face.
How pretty you look,
The girl would, in fact, fall ill years later, long after she had resumed her life in California. I believe that she was probably a victim of that Sixties sexual phenomenon, the Pill. In the "swinging Sixties", we did not seem to know or care enough about the possible side effects of all the hormones that countless women were taking every day. Many of those women, including my Californian friend, would be stricken with cancer or other diseases when they were still relatively young. In the Sixties, Aids had yet to afflict us, and we thought we were free, but the Pill was compromising women's health in ways that would only become clear later.
That night in Woodtown, I had no choice but to do what I had been taught as a child by those who cherished the old earth magic, and that I had relearnt from other poets -- how to "sett the wards".
I placed a walled circle around myself and her so that any harm would rebound from it. Today she has overcome her illness and is alive, while he, alas, is not, but I do not think my ritual of protection had much to do with it.
It was Seán who had fallen in love with death, his powers betrayed and drained, due partly (or so it seemed to me) to his capricious trafficking in magic, and partly by the fervour of his nationalist mission. Obsessions fed, of course, by his lack of recognition as a composer, instead of merely a conductor or arranger. And through it all, the haze of spirit-sapping alcohol.
An example of the caprice was his telling myself and Garech, in a hotel bar, that he could make a man stumble; sure enough, the man he had indicated almost fell there and then. An example of his nationalist zeal was his telling me, on our next meeting, that, since he had seen me last, he had "killed his man" in Belfast.
Since I was from the North, and had some sense of how the IRA operated, I recognised a common alcohol-fuelled fantasy: no volunteer on active service would babble in such a fashion.
Finally, an example of how alcohol was corroding his mind was given by his last lady friend, who described coming to his room in the Shelbourne Hotel and finding him lying fully clothed on the bed.
"Don't turn on the light," he admonished, "I am covered in blood."
Few men have had as direct an effect on my life as Seán Ó Riada. The encounters I describe were mainly fruitful, for us both, I hope, although, as I have said, his nationalism troubled me, since it was so fervently idealistic -- more an aisling or vision, than reality. But I am pleased that I wrote a poem for Sean during his lifetime.
Patriotic Suite is meant to be a bitter-sweet commentary on the contrast between the ideals of 1916, and the reality of our little nation state of 1966, a question mark after Mise Eire.
I knew that Seán cultivated being a poor correspondent as one of his affectations, and perhaps travel, work and especially drink are not conducive to answering letters. But I was still hurt when he did not write to acknowledge my poem, although word was passed along that he was pleased.
The news came through Sean Lucy, Corkman, poet and professor, who was assembling his Anthology of Irish Love Poems. I was sceptical about Lucy, with that too-easy, lofty disparagement which is, or was, part of Dublin life, and which I have tried to overcome. Ó Riada would have none of such arrogant Dublin disdain: "There's someone there," he assured me, "you'll understand him yet."
I dismissed it as provincial loyalty, but he did seem more convinced than defiant in his praise of Lucy. At Seán's funeral, Lucy helped us shoulder the coffin, and I talked with him afterwards. Ó Riada's wife Ruth glimpsed me as I entered the wakehouse. " Seán told me a lot about you," she said, and added firmly, "It's time for you to come home."
Three months later I was teaching at University College, Cork, with Seán Lucy as my friend and colleague. And now, here I am, working on this salute with my novelist wife Elizabeth in our renovated west Cork farmhouse, surrounded by rugged hills that remind me of Tyrone.
To say that I feel tele-guided would be to exaggerate, but Ó Riada did wish that I should become a friend of his earlier friend -- another Seán -- and that in some sense I should take up the slack of his achievement in music by bringing encouragement in a different sphere.
With his widow's admonition that I should "come home", I believe, or deceive myself, that Seán Ó Riada still wishes me well, mockingly urging me on, and is still a comrade across the great void or divide.
One may reflect how the worldly failure of a poet like Kavanagh, who wrote with passion and loneliness about rural Ireland, has been redeemed by the worldly success of Seamus Heaney, also a chronicler of rural Ireland, though in a later time. But I imagine Seán's blessing not in the manner of failure being transformed into success, but as an act of transference, and indeed affection.
"Roving unsatisfied ghost,
old friend, lean closer;
leave us your skills:
lie still in the quiet
of your chosen earth."
Taken from 'The Pear is Ripe: A Memoir' by John Montague (Liberties Press).
Seán Ó Riada, composer (1931-1971)
John Montague, poet (1929-2016)