Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

The Magic of O Riada

The Magic of O Riada
Few people have had such an influence on the music life of 
Ireland as Sean O Riada, composer of the Mise Eire musical 
score The composer was born plain John Reidy in Cork city 
in 1931. His family lived in Adare and also in Bruff in 
Limerick. Both sides of his family passed on their interest
in music.
He entered University College, Cork at age 17, where he 
met his future wife, Ruth Coughlan, who also came from a 
musical background. O Riada's interest advanced from 
dance music and jazz before focusing on traditional Irish 
His first job was as assistant director of music in Radio 
Eireann (now RTE, Ireland's public broadcasting service.) 
Becoming frustrated with the position, 0 Riada headed for 
Paris by himself. There he made some musical performances 
on the French state radio station and studied advanced 
composition. He became so down and out in Paris that his 
wife, Ruth, went there to find  him living in poverty 
and in ill health.
Following his return to Ireland he became director of 
music at the Abbey Theater, a position that allowed him 
more time to compose. In 1955 he became passionate about 
the Irish language. It was at this time that his drinking 
became legendary and his name became famous around 
Dublin's historical pubs. While he lived with his family 
at Galloping Green on the Stillorgan Road, he and his 
friends were _ "regulars" at the neighboring Byrne's Pub, 
one of the few  traditional pubs left in the Dublin area.
The floor of the main living room in the 0 Riada home 
had no carpeting, just bare boards. There O Riada often 
organized. impromptu traditional dancing sessions. One 
of Sean's seven children, Peadar, is now a renowned 
composer in his own right.
On a whim, as often happened with O Riada, he came home 
one morning and announced "That's it, pack the bags!" 
Having left his job at The Abbey, he then supported his 
family by free-lancing for RTE and The Irish Times.
He later became a lecturer in music at his old alma 
mater, UCC, where he worked for the rest of his life. 
Eventually the family moved to Cuil Aodha in the West 
Cork Gaeltacht (an Irish language area), where the 
0 Riada family still lives and where a statue of O Riada 
has been installed. All seven of O Riada's children are 
alive and all are mostly involved in music and the arts.
O Riada was commissioned to write the music for a film 
on Ireland's fight for independence: Mise Eire. During 
20 years of active composition, his output was prodigious, 
including a symphony and over 700 arrangements of songs 
and dance for traditional groups. His last published 
recording, which came out just before he died, was 
O Riada's Farewell, for harpsichord.
The composer also founded Ceoltoiri Chualann, which was 
the genesis of The Chieftains, one of the most influential
Irish musical groups of all time. One of O Riada's 
compositions didn't happen - the score to an unfinished 
film called Kennedy's Ireland. Today, that music is the 
background music at the Kennedy Center in Boston.
O Riada is widely recognized as Ireland's most 
influential composer of the 20th century, having 
put a totally new slant on the country's traditional 
musical heritage.

Ireland of the Welcomes, May / June 2009