Sean O Riada was born in Cork city in 1931. His mother was from Ballyvourney, Co Cork, and his father from Clare. At a young age the family moved to Adare, Co Limerick, before returning to Cork and he went to school at Farranferris. While in Adare where his father was posted, he started to learn the piano and violin.
He took music in his Leaving Cert exam and went to university in Cork to study Classics. After two years he switched to Music, graduating in 1952 with a B. Mus. At this time he used the English form of his name – John Reidy. While a student he played piano with jazz and dance bands in Cork.
He got a job as assistant director of music – mostly administrative work – with Radio Eireann in 1953. He married Ruth Coughlan and they set up home in Dublin. After two years he left and went to Paris and on his return he got a job in 1957 as musical director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Riobaird Mac Gorain and film director George Morrison asked O Riada to produce the musical score for the film Mise Eire. It was performed by the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra. Both the film, which dealt with the War of Independence, and the music captured the imagination of the Irish public. O Riada’s dramatic and imaginative use of traditional airs and marches along with his own scores, made him a household name when the film went on general release in 1960. The follow-up Saoirse again exhibited his talents.
Meanwhile The Abbey was staging Song of the Anvil by Bryan McMahon, which called for incidental music. “It had to be some kind of traditional music,” he told journalist Marion Fitzgerald. “So I went into the whole question of ensemble playing.”
In his quest to recruit musicians he initially met accordeonist Eamon de Buitlear who introduced him to Paddy Moloney. Soon whistle player Sean Potts, fiddler Martin Fay, accordeon player Sonny Brogan, flute player Vincent Broderick and fiddler and concertina player John Kelly joined in. Rehearsals tended to become late night sessions. Martin Fay had already being playing violin with the Abbey’s six-piece orchestra. Soon the famous rehearsal sessions commenced at O Riada’s home in Galloping Green, between Dublin and Bray. Michael Tubridy had replaced Vincent Broderick on flute. O Riada played bodhran and Ronnie McShane played bones.
Named Ceoltoiri Cualann, the group was an instant success when it played in public in Dublin. He also brought in singers Sean O Se and Darach O Cathain. O Se’s recording of An Puc ar Buile was the nearest the Irish language came to enjoying a pop chart hit.
In 1962 Garech de Brun set up Claddagh Records. Gradually Paddy Moloney and the others formed The Chieftains in 1963. When they released their first album The Chieftains, O Riada’s gave it a mixed welcome. Ceoltoiri Cualann continued to exist and perform occasionally.
In 1963 he abandoned the job in The Abbey and set up house in Cul Aodha, near Ballyvourney in the west Cork Gaeltacht. He also took up the post of Lecturer in Irish Music in University College, Cork.
He also composed music for the Mass and, performed by Chor Cuil Aodha, led by his son Peadar, this is the “O Riada Mass” that brings the Willie Clancy Summer School and now many other traditional music gatherings to a close. He set the words of Ag Criost and Siol to music for it.
He was hospitalised in Cork in the summer of 1971. In September he underwent an operation in London. His death in October came as a shock to the Irish people. Months before he died he made one final recording. On an antique harpsichord in Garech de Brun house in the Wicklow mountains, he recorded the poignant O Riada’s Farewell.
There’s an extended profile of Sean O Riada Here
Sean O Riada, His Life and Work, Tomas O Canainn, (2003), The Collins Press, ISBN 1-903464-40-4
Ceol an Aifreann & Aifreann 2 (O Riada Mass 1&2) Gael Linn
Ceol an Aifreann, (O Riada Mass), Sean O Riada, CD11537
Mise Eire, ORIADACD001
O Riada sa Gaiety, Sean O Riada (2005)