John Arnold: Seán Ó Riada rekindled Gaelic fire and his spirit lives on in autumn air

Seán Ó Riada was an enigma wrapped up in the cloak of a genius, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: Seán Ó Riada rekindled Gaelic fire and his spirit lives on in autumn air

GREAT LEGACY: The statute to the late Sean Ó Riada which was unveiled in Coolea in 2008.

LAST Monday, with the help of grandchildren, I collected blackberries, rosehips and sloes to make the last of the autumn jelly.

As September ends, the abundant blackberry crop has faded, leaving only a few good berries, here and there, on the brambles.

The gloriously coloured rose hips are still in abundance and the bitter sloes with their purple tinge are also to be gathered easily.

Well, do you know the way one thing leads to another though - as the great Joe Dolan used sing ‘if sometimes my mind should wander - to a suddenly remembered yesterday’ - well, often different ideas, smaointe and memories come together and I’m off on a fantasy journey!

You might well ask what have autumn jelly and the tune Bartlemy Fair and West Cork, Coolea in particular, all got in common? Maybe on first glance not a lot, but let me give ye an insight as to how my mind can meander along the boreens and paths of thoughtfulness.

Last Sunday at Mass, we heard of how riches and wealth and money should be no man’s sole occupation in life - all these will pass of course. It reminded me of a verse by Thomas Grey

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, 

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, 

Awaits alike the inevitable hour. 

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

It’s a bit sombre but nevertheless pure true and thinking about the coming autumn as we picked the fading berries tends to make one, not melancholy but a bit reflective.

We still had some glorious sunshine this week, but as they say, the evenings are pulling in and the pace of everything slows a little - and that’s right and proper too, we cant’t be frantic and frenetic all the time.

Getting back to my litany of random memories and observations, ‘twas on Wednesday night, January 15, back in 1975, that I called to Johnny and Jerry Roche. I had become a full time farmer only a few months earlier – by accident more than by design, but one way or another I was involved in the local branch of Macra na Feirme. They used call Macra the ‘Young Farmers’ grouping, though many of its members were neither farmers nor young!

Well, around that time, doing projects to involve the local community was a big thing with Macra. We decided to do a project on parish history and got people like Tom Scanlan and Mick Browne involved - they were both great about all the history of all things local to our area.

I was researching the story of our National School, built about 70 years earlier. Two bachelor brothers, Johnny and Jerry Roche, lived in a little house at a crossroads in Ballyda. In former times their home had been a shop, selling bread, tea, sugar, tobacco, eggs and other basic foodstuffs. Later they farmed but by the mid-1970s they were both retired.

Johnny, the taller of the two, was born in 1897, his brother Jerry in 1886. As a teenager, Jerry had worked as a labourer for Coffeys of Midleton when they built the ‘new’ school at Hightown, Bartlemy, in 1903/04.

So, on that Wednesday night 46 years ago, armed with a battery-powered tape recorder, I walked the two miles over to the Roches homestead. The brothers lived frugally in their old home, though they had by then purchased a television set. It was covered with a jute bag the night I was there and was only turned on to see the news.

I asked plenty questions about the school building and then Johnny said he’d play a few tunes on the accordion. Jerry had been a sweet player but arthritis in his hands meant he could no longer do so.

Johnny tapped his foot on the flag floor as he played Miss McCloud’s Reel, The Stack of Barley, Kevin Barry, The Boys of Wexford and many more tunes. Then, with a fag hanging out of the corner of the mouth, he said to Jerry: “What’s that tune Martin Murley used to play, he called it Bartlemy Fair,” and off he went with a sweet air I’d never heard before.

Johnny Roche died later that year and Jerry not long after, so I never got back to record more tunes. 

I’m so glad I ‘got’ Bartlemy Fair as no one else ever knew of it or saw it written down. When was it composed and who was the composer? Questions that can’t be answered now, but at least that one tune is preserved, collected and available for musicians to play in 50 or 100 years time.

That was in January, 1975, and sure twas only three and a half years before that when Seán Ó Riada died. I’ve collected and ‘saved’ one single tune but Ó Riada in his short 40 years did more than anyone else to make us proud of our musical heritage. He lifted up our spirit and rekindled that Gaelic fire that was nearly gone out.

More than anyone else, he showed the nation that Irish music and song could be both traditional yet modern at the same time. 

That seems a contradiction, but then Sean was an enigma wrapped up in the cloak of a genius.

In National School, I was lucky to have as a muinteoir Donal O Liathain from Coolea, where O Riada spent his last years. After a dozen years trying to put smacht into the youngsters in Bartlemy, Donal went ‘home’ to Coolea in 1968 and himself and Saen were the greatest of cairde. Is minic, I saw Donal with the Coolea choir long after Sean’s death when Peadar took over.

Poor Sean got only four decades ar an saol seo, but lads, he knocked a fair amount of ceol, craic and fun out of it.

Donal died back in 2008 at the age of 74 and whenever I’m back around the Coolea area, I call to say a prayer and have a chat and a laugh too with a pair of great men.

I knew Donal well and though I never met Seán, he still gives me inspiration. Often I might be lag tuirseach and I sitting in front of the laptop ologoning and ne’er a screet a thought in my head about what to write. All I need do is put on Mise Eire and yerra I’m away for slates.

O Riada tapped into the well and fountain of Irishness and Gaelicness in Coolea when he came to live there. Half a century later the ripples from the pebble he thew are still reverberating in my mind.

On Tuesday morning, after the cows, I was jarring up the jelly. We always keep jars of every kind - jam jars, big ones and small one. Long ago we’d have the one pound crock of jam but nowadays ‘tis smaller vessels are mainly used.

The O Lionaird family of Coolea make a fantastic range of products under the ‘Follain’ brand - the literal meaning of the word is ‘wholesome’ and wasn’t it into Follain jars I poured the jelly mix on Monday. Wholesome food from Bartlemy in the jars of a wholesome product from Coolea. So the jelly and the tune and Donal and of course Sean are all things I’ll be thinking about this week.

The jelly leaves a pleasant aftertaste on the palate. The tune lingers on the autumn evening air. Sean and Donal and Follain and Coolea - could anything else be more spiritually nourishing and wholesome?

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