Saturday 25 May 2019

Eamon's walk on the (slightly) wild side . . .

A Life in the Wild By Eamon de Buitlear Gill and Macmillan, ?24.99 Eamon de Buitlear must have led an exciting and eventful life, packed with incident, every day a different scenario, making music, making films, tramping the countryside, exploring mountain tops and river beds, thrown into the company of all kinds of interesting people.

A Life in the Wild By Eamon de Buitlear
Gill and Macmillan, ?24.99
Eamon de Buitlear must have led an exciting and eventful life, packed with incident, every day a different scenario, making music, making films, tramping the countryside, exploring mountain tops and river beds, thrown into the company of all kinds of interesting people.

I am sure he did. At one point in his career he was a household name on RTE, even after his famous partnership with Gerrit Van Gelderen had ended. His life surely was not one of daily slog, office politics, cups of tea and the occasional night out with his patient wife or a few pints with the lads after a rugby match. But for almost half of this book you might be forgiven for wondering.

Where is the drama? Where are the details? They are not here to any great extent, either due to excessive editing or because the author did not record them or did not undertake sufficient research when memory failed.

It is easy to be dismissive of the early part of the book, outlining family and childhood: viz "The best part of schooldays were the long summer holidays. Then I was confined to bed with the chickenpox."

His father was a middle ranking Army officer whom we discover to have been an aide de camp to President Douglas Hyde by virtue of a photograph, but the book reveals no details. Both mother, from West Waterford, and father were fluent Irish speakers and it was the language of communication in the family. This was in the 1930s when there was still much fresh national identity enthusiasm that had come to the surface with the emergence of the new State.

The family lived in what must have been a substantial house in Wicklow and the boys went to Blackrock College. No rural poverty here, then.

The author's early working career was as an assistant in Garnett and Keegan's and Helys selling rods and tackle and shotguns and this is where he first met Sean O Riada, who, in a country squire phase in West Cork, came in one day looking for a gun.

Another customer was Fachtna O hAnnrachain, director of music on Radio Eireann, who asked de Buitlear to submit a script in Irish for a traditional music series. De Buitlear didn't lack initiative and eventually went into business on his own selling rods and, eventually, singing birds and children's pets! But the music was always there, the interest being sparked off by early visits to the Gaeltacht, Saturday night ceilis in Barry's Hotel and visits to the Pipers' Club in Thomas Street.

The book at last begins to catch some inspirational rhythm with insights into the beginnings of O Riada's Ceoltoiri Chualann, revealing eccentricities of the man himself as composer, organiser and aspiring movie mogul. There are also mysteries of missing cans of film and it would be interesting to find out what really became of the movie of The Playboy starring Siobhan MacKenna as Pegeen Mike with music by O Riada.

On then to life in the wild and the travels and TV programmes that established de Buitlear as a household name - not to mention his sojourn in the Seanad and activities with various heritage groups. And suddenly, after the early pedantry, there are flashes of brilliant descriptive writing about filming an otter mother and cubs, for example, and, almost as a throwaway, a superb vignette of a friend, Sid Neff, stalking and catching a three pound trout on the Meath Blackwater. These are the tantalising details that the author has starved us of!

Perhaps there was just too much to pack between hard covers but the real reason could well be the man's modesty. Not many TV personalities would reveal a school classroom visit (recent) by the famous wildlife filmmaker who was unrecognised by the children assembled before him.

When the teacher asked someone to name him 30 hands shot up. She pointed at one. "Seamus, tell me who he is." "The inspector," shouted the lad enthusiastically.

Joe Kennedy writes a nature column each week for the Sunday Independent

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