In MemoriamSeán Ó’Riada

Heaney pays tribute to Seán Ó’Riada’s contribution to Irish musical culture. Ó’Riada died suddenly at the age of forty in 1971. Heaney had admired the different thrusts of O’Riada’s talent from the classical podium to the craich of Irish traditional songs on the stage or in the pub. In contrast he hints that he and his fellow creative spirit were poles apart in personality. DOD 225 his posturing irked me … interrogating rather than conversing … I admired him even if I didn’t get too close … his change of life, from Dublin bohemia to Gaeltacht dachas (home), was an example that was there to be followed.

As with all the poems preceding the Glanmore Sonnets it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Belfast. Both he and Ó’Riada had plumped for radical changes of location.

Heaney sets the scene, context and sheer effrontery of the poem’s first lines (DOD225): Later in that same year, 1968 …he was ‘composer of the year’ at the Queen’s University festival … I remember getting a terrific charge when he and his musicians appeared on the stage of the Sir William Whitla Hall, lashing into all those Irish jigs and reels and marches. The Whitla Hall was such a temple of official Ulster, the sanctum of posh, potato-in-the-mouth, British-not-Irish types … and here was the fior-Ghael  (‘mere Irishman’) on the rampage, one night in bainin (white collarless jacket) with his own session men, and the next in black tie and in charge of his own baton, conducting the province’s finest.

Heaney focuses on the figure directing Northern Ireland’s best (conducted the Ulster Orchestra) holding the musicians in tight rein like a mid-Ulster cattle-dealer (drover with an ashplant), a Catholic on very Protestant territory (herding them south).

Watching from the audience (behind) Heaney zooms in to Ó’Riada’s conducting style: jack-in-the-box (springy); dressed for the occasion (formally suited); whirling his conductor’s musical wand (black stiletto) for effect (quill flourishing itself); hyper-active (quickened) and middle-ageing (whitened).

When once the two came face to face in the Cork Gaeltacht Ó’Riada confessed he was not working as hard as he might: doing sweet nothing (just lie out) away from the action (ballast in the bottom of the boat), drinking in natural melodies (listening to the cuckoo).

Time has intervened – that the rowing boat’s listening rowlock (gunwale’s lifting ear) overheard Ó’Riada’s confidence in reading his musical score by sight (trusting the gift), performing under-rehearsed (risking gifts undertow)  is irrelevant – Sean is dead (unmanned now).

How did they get on? Heaney pursues the metaphor of two men in a boat barely large enough for them and their reputations (deep in both our weights). Heaney confesses he was a touch ill at ease (awkward on the thwarts) as, allegorically, one fished and the other propelled (taking turns to cast or row) anticipating droves (mackerel shoaled from under) of awestruck fish (conjured retinue) more than pleased to be reeled in by such famous men (fawning upon our lures).


Ó Riada was altogether too nonchalant (sprezzatura) to make an angler – interested in image rather than graft (more falconer than fisherman), thinks Heaney (unhooding a sceptic eye) , coy about the messy side of preparing fresh fish (mackerel’s barred cold) and immediately distracted by incoming sounds (pry whatever the cuckoo called).

Prime Irish musician? Oh yes! Capable of active performance (stepped and stooped to the keyboard) that made him champion of the Irish Catholic cause (our jacobite), as apparent as any heir (our young pretender), walking on water (marched along the deep), an aristocratic (plumed) blend of musical tempo and refined touches (slow airs and grace notes).


That , O Seán Ó Riada, is how I found you – histrionic and voracious metaphorical sea-bird-musical arranger (gannet smacking through scales) – hyperactive and evanescent (minnow of light), a wetland stalker (wader) of harmonic variation (assonance).


  • Seán Ó Riada (1941-1971) was a classically trained (piano and violin) Irish composer and arranger at the core of 20th century Irish traditional music revival during the 1960s. He was able to switch in concert from classical violin pieces to the traditional fiddle tunes he had been brought up with in Limerick. The job he landed in 1957 as music director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre provided him with the ideal platform. He became a household name in Ireland through his participation in Ceoltóirí Cualann an Irish traditional band that dressed very formally and included many of the founding members of The Chieftains (Ceoltóirí is the Irish word for musicians, and Cualann is the name of an area just outside Dublin where Ó Riada lived). He continued to work in larger musical forms and was renowned for film scores perhaps the most familiar of which was Mise Eire (I Am Ireland).

        Sensing perhaps that his health  was deteriorating as he approached 40 (he is said to have suffered from a long-standing alcohol addiction), O’Riada recorded a solo harpsichord piece, “O Riada’s Farewell” in 1970.

  • conduct: direct the performance of a group;
  • drove: drive livestock to market:
  • ashplant: walking stick fashioned from a tree;
  • herd: gather cattle in an orderly group;
  • springy: in sprightly, lively fashion;
  • stiletto: short dagger with narrowing blade;
  • quill: hollow shaft of a wing feather:
  • flourish: wave around to hold attention;
  • quickened: both moving around more quickly and stimulated;
  • ballast: materials deposited to ensure balance;
  • gunwale: upper edge of a boat’s planking;
  • lifting ear: allusion to rowlock an ear-shaped fitting into which the oar is set;
  • trust: have faith in;
  • undertow: underwater current; under tow: trailing behind
  • unmanned: the oar and therefore the rower has been removed:
  • awkward: both ungainly in physical position and ill at ease in company;
  • thwarts: crosspieces forming a seat for the rowers;
  • cast: throw out a baited line:
  • mackerel: marine fish good to eat;
  • shoal: fish swimming together on large numbers;
  • retinue: people accompanying an important person
  • fawn: show slavish devotion, act in a servile way:
  • lure: attractive ‘bait’ that tempts a creature to snap it up;
  • sprezzatura: deliberately careless style of music, creative arts; MP 165: (Italian word that first appears in Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it
  • falconer: person who trains and manages birds of prey;
  • unhood: remove the hood from a falcon; raise an eyelid;
  • sceptic: truth-doubting;
  • barred: the backs of mackerel display prominent stripes;
  • pry: examine closely (for wrong notes perhaps)
  • keyboard: set of keys ordered as on a piano;
  • jacobite: supporters of the deposed James II in his claim to the British throne after the Revolution of 1688, drawn historically from Catholic Scottish clans; by extension aggrieved, disgruntled person;
  • pretender: person laying claim; claiming legitimate ownership;
  • young: historically Bonnie Prince Charlie; without upper case is probably an allusion to style – audacious, reckless, self-believing;
  • deep: noun referring to sea, ocean
  • plume: decorated as if by feathers;
  • airs and graces: affectations of superiority, superciliousness;
  • grace note: musical embellishment not essential to harmony or melody;
  • gannet: large seabird that hunts fish by diving into the sea;
  • smack: drive forcefully
  • scales: both the bony plates of a fish’s skin and musical notes arranged in ascending or descending pitches;
  • minnow: tiny freshwater fish that gather in groups
  • wader: tall, long-legged wading bird; by extension tall person following a a musical narrative with the energy it requires;
  • assonance: to do with sounds that resemble each other; by extension perhaps the dynamics of a musical score;


  • Heaney fills in the Seán Ó Riada background chatting to DOD (224-225): Ó Riada definitely had a touch of genius; he was a generous host: I’d met O’ Riada (in the 60s) in Ballydavid, in Kerry, when Marie and I were down on our holidays. He occasionally turned up in Begley’s public house; and I remember him dancing Kerry sets, going at it for aII he was worth. His wife Ruth was there too and that summer they invited us over to visit them in Coolea, in the Cork Gaeltacht ; he burnt the candle at both ends: They’d moved from Dublin, some years before, and Sean at that time was constantly on the go with the musicians, hitting the road and hitting the bottle, striding out like a prince among his people; O’Riada acknowledged he neglected his classical side: there was sudden, naked honesty, when he as much as said he wasn’t working as he should be. I put one little part of our exchange, word for word, into the poem in memory of him;
  • Heaney retains a certain reserve at the personal level (DOD 225): There was a histrionic streak in him, he swanked a bit, but at the same time there was piercing intelligence and a readiness to probe and provoke. I remember that morning, when he took me into his workroom, he came on not so much as a musician as a grey-Connemara-c!oth type of Yeatsian man, drawing attention to his guns and his fishing rods.


  • nine quartets (Q) in eleven sentences (+ two dashes) ;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines goes in phases and determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities; final quartet a series of short tributes;
  • variable line length between 4-10 syllables; the concluding line of 12 syllables sets it out as a glass-raising toast
  • little or no rhyme ; occasional assonant echoes or alliterative effects around final syllables;
  • Q1 comparison between rural Ulster stereotypes (reminder of father Patrick Heaney) and the Catholic musician impacting on the North; Q2 description of conductor’s technique designed to reveal character and personality; use of participles that link the instant ‘trembling’ to the ageing process; Q3 record of an actual conversation and direct quotation; boats and water imagery introduced; Q4 ingenious and moving metaphor links boat, individual and in memoriam; Q5 (heavily enjambed) extended metaphor introduces differences of male attitudes and expectations within the back and to of uneasy conversation; Q6/7 further extension seeks further to reveal O’Riada’s personal qualities using fishing as the measure; italicised Italian further underlines the swanky nonchalance that irked Heaney; Q 8 (sentence 9 totally enjambed) provides a historical context to sectarian differences revealing Heaney’s quiet glee that the Southern Irishman’s musical enthusiasm and upper crust image put stuffy Protestant attitudes in their place; Q9 uses vocative form of address (O); three short sentences combine natural life forms and musical labels to provide thumbnails of the particular traits that O’Riada brought to Irish musical revival;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • alliterative effects: the final two stanzas are strongly impacted by alveolar plosives [t] [d] and [l], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z], front-of-mouth breathy [w] and aspirate [h] plus bi-labial plosives [p] [b] alongside velar plosives [k] [g];

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