Tuesday 20 August 2019

John Daly: 'A long dark drive with some soul'

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Such is its power, even the most reluctant nationalist must find the haunting notes of Seán Ó Riada’s (pictured) stirring soundtrack hard to resist
Such is its power, even the most reluctant nationalist must find the haunting notes of Seán Ó Riada’s (pictured) stirring soundtrack hard to resist

John Daly

Strange things happen in the dead of night. So it was last week, when I headed deep into the West on a sad errand, setting out at 3am across an Ireland as silent as it was gloomy.

Switching between radio stations to find just the right company on this cross-country safari, I landed by chance on a musical air whose soaring notes immediately had the small hairs on my neck standing to attention. 'Mise Éire' - an evocative cadence of solo horn, cymbal crash and soaring orchestral sorcery filled my mind and the car.

Pulling over on a deserted stretch of road, I opened the four windows to a star-filled sky, turned the volume up to max and let myself be wafted on a magic carpet of history and heritage. Suddenly, my mind was filled with images of my parents in their prime and long-forgotten faces and places stirred to the surface.

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Without warning, tears were rolling down my cheeks as the musical kaleidoscope edged higher toward its climax, in tandem with the unfolding newsreel of my past.

Is this what "your whole life passes before your eyes" means, I wondered? Such is its power, even the most reluctant nationalist must find the haunting notes of Seán Ó Riada's stirring soundtrack hard to resist. Composed around this time 60 years ago for the iconic 1959 film, it still manages to excite and inspire in an anthem dedicated to the pivotal moments in the struggle to nationhood. Tracking seminal events from the 1880s onwards, it spun a web of heroic antiquity across the emergence of Irish nationalism, the Gaelic League, the founding of the Abbey Theatre, before culminating in footage of the Rising.

First screened at the Cork Film Festival that year, 'Mise Éire' arrived into an Ireland still depressed and demoralised from post-war shortages, mass emigration and a deep cultural conservatism embedded throughout all stratas of life. "Ireland of the 1950s lacked much in self esteem," wrote Tomás Ó Canainn in his biography of Ó Riada. "But those same 1950s were Seán's twenties - when his burgeoning talent had all the energy of a fiercely burning star."

Moulding the traditional airs of Róisín Dubh and Sliabh na mBan, he tapped into a national consciousness thirsting to celebrate its sovereign identity, and transformed himself overnight from a respected composer into a revered national icon. On the road to his early death at 40, Ó Riada wore the trappings of popularity with an eccentric grace and style that was all too rare a sight in that Ireland of the flat cap and crozier.

Frequently dressing in a foppish Edwardian style, he would often insist on speaking only in French or Irish, with lapses into Latin. Of many a lunch at the Red Bank restaurant, filmmaker Louis Marcus remembered "a complex person of mind and spirit, yet with the best collection of dirty stories I'd ever heard."

On the guest list for my fantasy dinner party, Ó Riada would have pride of place. No question.

Making assumptions? Better cut that out

Waiting my turn at the local Turkish barbers, an elderly gent arrived in - 80 at least, clearly from the country, seriously out of place. He was next for Azra's clippers - a 20-something punk, complete with nose stud, arm tats and attitude to burn. This'll be interesting, I thought.

He stumbled to the chair, all gammy hip and wonky knees, eventually flopping awkwardly in the seat. "Gimme a fade down taper number 2 on the sides, channel cut the top and skip the product," he demanded, like a villain from 'Peaky Blinders'. Truly, you just never know . . .

Irish Independent

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