Analysis: the Cúil Aodha composer was a central figure in the development of Irish film and TV music 

Cork-born composer Seán Ó Riada is known as a champion for Irish traditional music who founded Ceoltóiri Chualann, the group that evolved into The Chieftains and modelled the traditional music ensemble as we know it today. Ó Riada was a classically trained composer who successively took on roles as assistant director of music at Raidió Éireann, director of music at the Abbey Theatre, and UCC's (and Ireland’s) first lecturer in traditional music. He also wrote original mass settings in the Irish language, music that continues to feature regularly at weddings and other church ceremonies.

Ó Riada was also a central figure in the development of Irish film and TV music and articulated a distinct Irish sound long before the establishment of indigenous film industries. Prior to Ó Riada, the only Irish composer to write a feature-length score was Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair. This was in 1938 for West of Kerry (aka The Islandman), directed by Patrick Heale and one of the first Irish-produced sound films.

From RTÉ Archives, a Breandán Ó hEithir report for Féach from 1971 on the Cúil Aodha Gaeltacht in Co Cork, home to Seán Ó Riada

But it was not until Ó Riada’s time that Irish composers began to have regular opportunities to write for screen. This came about through government investment in Gael-Linn’s Irish-language documentaries from the mid-1950s and the establishment of RTÉ Television in 1960.  From 1959-1969, Ó Riada’s film and TV output included three full-length documentaries, two narrative films and numerous newsreel items and TV documentaries. 

The composer is best known for his dramatic and emotive score for the 1959 film documentary Mise Éiredirected by George Morrison. The first in a trilogy of Gael-Linn productions interpreting the evolution of the Irish state, the documentary was an innovative mix of still and moving archival images, Irish-language voiceover and Ó Riada’s music. As much as the film itself, Mise Éire’s soundtrack captured the national imagination, an impact that would not be matched until the phenomenal response to Bill Whelan’s Riverdance in 1994. The other two films in the trilogy were Saoirse? also directed by Morrison in 1961 and An Tine Bheo released in 1966 with Louis Marcus as director.

An Tine Bheo with score composed by Seán Ó Riada

To date, these films and their soundtracks have received far less attention than Mise Éire, possibly because they included more problematic historical subjects - such as the Civil War - and also, it has to be said, because in the case of their film scores Ó Riada recycled material from Mise Éire alongside some original cues. Overall, Ó Riada's soundtracks for the trilogy stand out for their inspired orchestral arrangements of traditional songs and rebel ballads like 'Róisín Dubh’, ‘The Croppy Boy’, ‘Sliabh na mBan’ and ‘Boolavogue’.

In his 1993 book on the composer's life and work, Tomás Ó Canainn observes that Ó Riada was the first to translate sean-nós melodic idiom to orchestral style. Meanwhile, musicologist David Cooper considers the uniqueness of the Mise Éire soundtrack to be in its combination of Irish traditional, Hollywood and twentieth-century European influences.

Ó Riada also provided scores for two international productions based on Irish literary themes. He worked on Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst's screen adaptation of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1962, while Young Cassidy (1965), adapted from Seán O’Casey’s memoirs, was one of John Ford’s last films. In different ways, the soundtracks for these productions pushed the boundaries of Irish film composition. The Playboy’s minimal, traditional score performed by members of Ceoltóirí Chualann was radical for its time, presenting an alternative aesthetic to the wall-to-wall orchestral scoring of classic Hollywood style.

As the above examples illustrate, Ó Riada could be both ideological and pragmatic. He abandoned his training as a classical composer in favour of arranging and performing what he believed to be a revival of an ancient Irish art music. Yet as the cultural critic Richard Pine notes, his various commissions for screen productions throughout the 1960s helped maintain his links with orchestral music.

It would have been difficult for Irish TV viewers of that decade to escape his inimitable style in newsreel and documentary items that included Rhapsody of a River (1965), Irish Rising 1916 (1966), the series Music and Man (1965-1966), Kennedy's Ireland (1966), Celtic Gold in Ireland (1966) and Pobal – People of Ireland, which Louis Marcus directed in 1969. Ó Riada’s and Ceoltóirí Chualann’s innovative and dynamic soundtrack for Pobal worked particularly well in a documentary that was less authorial and more observational that the films in the Gael-Linn trilogy.

It was a sound that would later reach international audiences in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). That film’s compilation soundtrack featured The Chieftains and included original, traditional-style material by Ó Riada alongside works by Handel, Schubert and other classical composers. Ó Riada’s slow air Mná na hÉireann, which is heard in Barry Lyndon, has itself became a film music classic. It has reappeared in several subsequent soundtracks, most notably perhaps in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) where the tune is reworked as a medieval dance to underscore the courtship of Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe.

In addition to developing a unique style for Irish film and TV, Ó Riada's work has led to a generic Celtic sound that continues to influence scoring practices in international film.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ