Sean Ó Riada’s importance within the Irish cultural landscape is under continuous debate. There might be consensus that he brought Irish traditional music from the margins through arrangements for his group Ceoltóirí Chualann, orchestrations for film scores like Mise Éire and Saoirse? and radio broadcasts for Radio Éireann. But there’s bitter divisiveness over the importance of that legacy.
To some, often branded as the Dublin elite, his compositions are un-noteworthy and the “Irish Bartók” label overstates his music’s originality and the extent to which it reinterprets and casts a new light on tradition forms. It’s also argued that his re-scoring of traditional music for the instruments of Ceoltóirí Chualann – a reaction against popular céilí band schlock – was already taking place in bars in London.
For others he is a poster-child for musical democracy. After moving from Dublin to Cúil Aodha in West Cork, he set up a male voice choir Cór Chúil Aodha, and its success is often forefronted within community music circles. Earlier, the symbolism of bringing Ceoltóirí Chualann from the relative wilderness of Galloping Green into the Shelbourne Hotel (for the 1960 Dublin Theatre Festival) resonates with both casual champions of the underdog and academic proponents of a cultural World Systems Theory who see the local heavily influencing the global. And Ceoltóirí Chualann provided a springboard for Ireland’s most successful tradition group, The Chieftains.
Rian is likely to be similarly debated. Liam Ó Maonlaí’s eponymous album is inspired by Ó Riada’s 1969 concert, which was recorded and released posthumously as Ó Riada sa Gaiety. Choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan’s interaction with that music (played live) promised an exploration of the “tension and harmony between Irish traditional music and modern dance” and “a response to the current seismic changes in Irish society.”