Friday 24 November 2017

Obituary: Eamon de Buitlear

The pioneering film-maker touched the lives of a generation with his erudite and genial style, writes Eamon Delaney

The passing last week of musician, film-maker and wildlife expert Eamon de Buitlear, who was buried in Kilquade, Co Wicklow, represents the departure of another part of that generation which truly illustrated the riches of a post-independent Ireland, and whose like we may not see in the more international and homogeneous culture of the future. The description of him at his funeral as a "true patriot" was apt and well deserved.

Certainly when, as a kid, I saw him on the Connemara coastline, watching the sea birds through binoculars, and then later in the local pub, regarding traditional musicians with the same intent, he seemed to fulfil the best of native Irish culture in a contemporary context: an Irish speaker, broadcaster, musician and, most of all, someone who had combined a passionate interest in our landscape with a pioneering use of documentary technique and outdoor film-making.

In Carraroe, Co Galway, where my family has a house, de Buitlear would arrive with his own family for the long summer and could soon be seen, among the ferns and rocks, recording the stoats, gulls and stonechats, and, most dramatically, the crossing of Cashla Bay by those jumping black dolphins, known locally as the 'muca mara' – 'the pigs of the sea'.

By this time, de Buitlear was also a familiar television personality through his popular RTE wildlife series Amuigh Faoin Speir (Out Under the Sky), which explored the Irish landscape in his erudite and genial style, both unfussy and yet wondrous at what was on our own doorstep. The series led to other such programmes and de Buitlear formed his own company, with fellow nature observer Gerrit van Gelderen. The company, which bore his name, was one of the first independent producers outside of RTE. In 1986, his programme Cois Farraige leis an Madra Uisce won a Jacob's television award.

In 1987, he was nominated to the Seanad by Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who believed the Seanad should be used to bring wider cultural talents like de Buitlear's into the political culture.

Eamon de Buitlear's background could not have been more auspicious for his cultural development. Born in 1930, he grew up in a house of Irish speakers in Wicklow and his military father was an aide-de-camp to the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, the founder of the Gaelic League. Eamon then began his working life in Garnett and Keegan's and then Hely's outdoors stores, selling fishing gear and shotguns. A budding entrepreneur, he later sold such items himself, along with singing birds and children's pets. Around this time, he met Sean O Riada, the composer who transformed Irish traditional music in the Sixties with modern orchestral arrangements. de Buitlear was enthralled by music from early visits to the Gaeltacht, Saturday night ceilis in Barry's Hotel and visits to the Pipers' Club in Thomas Street, and later he would join O Riada's music group Ceoltoiri Chualann.

His cultural landscape was enhanced when he met his eventual wife, Lailli, who would prove a rock of support and inspiration for him throughout his life. She was the daughter of the artist Charles Lamb, an iconic painter of Connemara landscapes whose cut-stone house and studio were based in Carraroe. Through Lailli, Eamon discovered the local gorse-strewn landscape.

In tandem with his interest in music and landscape, was Eamon's growing involvement in radio and TV broadcasting, all of which he described in his 2004 memoir, A Life in the Wild, published by Gill and Macmillan. In 2005, he was appointed to the Central Fisheries Board, and in later years was much consulted on for his expertise in film-making and wildlife documentation, both written and filmic.

His funeral in St Patrick's Church, Kilquade, Co Wicklow, was attended by many mourners from the worlds of music, broadcasting and politics and the service included music by his old friend and collaborator, Sean O Riada.

He may no longer have the vigilant physical presence he once had on the coastline of Connemara or in the valleys of Wicklow, but, as the congregation was told, generations have been inspired and enriched by de Buitlear's programmes and books, and through this, his legacy will endure.

He is survived by his wife, Lailli, and his five children, Aoife, Eanna, Roisin, Cian and Doireann.

Irish Independent

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