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Connecting with a cultural icon

Doireann Ní Ghlacáin tells Jessica Quinn about her documentary on the life of her grandfather Sean Ó Riada

FIFTY years after the death of influential Irish composer Seán Ó Riada, his granddaughter the musician and broadcaster Doireann Ní Ghlacáin has explored his enormous legacy as part of a brand new TG4 documentary which will be broadcast on St Stephen’s Day.
Originally from Clontarf but now living in Clare with her partner, Doireann says the programme ‘Seán O Riada – Mo Sheanathair’ is the result of an “all consuming labour of love over the past two years”.
The documentary sees Doireann investigate her own heritage by charting her grandfather’s life and times, uncovering the true Ó Riada in a moving tribute to this giant of Irish cultural life.
The programme, the first feature length documentary by Táin Media, is directed by Feilimí O’Connor and produced by Dónal O’Connor.
It was co-written by Doireann and Feilimí in collaboration with executive producers the multi-Oscar nominated Jim Sheridan and Neil Martin.
The idea for the documentary came about while she and Dónal O’Connor were working on presenting TG4’s Gradam Ceoil in Belfast just before the pandemic.
“We started chatting about my grandfather’s upcoming 50 year anniversary and it just grew from there.
“Dónal and Feilimí are brothers and had recently finished a documentary on their mother, the great singer Eithne Ní Uallacháin, so they had an understanding of how to approach something so personal to me and my family.
“I had total confidence in them throughout the whole process and I think that really shines through. This is such a raw and emotive programme and I think the lads managed to draw that honesty out of me. There’s great friendship and trust there. I’m very proud of what we have produced.”
Explaining what she hopes to achieve from making the programme, she tells us, “I’ve been working in TV now for five years and anytime I was doing any promo work people would always type me up as ‘granddaughter of Seán Ó Riada and TG4 presenter’ which I was uncomfortable with because obviously you’d like to stand on your own two feet and not be defined by someone you’re related to.
“But I think Seán has given me a lot, certainly without him I wouldn’t have inherited such a strong sense of identity and I wouldn’t be speaking Irish, so I wouldn’t be waking up every morning doing a job I love working with the people I do.
“So I thought it was only right that I tip the cap to him and do something to commemorate his anniversary.
“I think this is a really honest portrayal of Seán’s life and achievements and I have definitely learnt a lot personally but also professionally and creatively doing this.
“These days folk and traditional music has a massive platform and Seán has a lot to do with that. I hope a new generation gets an insight into his contribution. The whole point of this is to a shine a light on him.”
Doireann moved to Clare when the pandemic hit, and credits her love of music with making the transition easier.
“My partner is a proud Clare man and it didn’t look like I would get him to Dublin any time soon, so when the pandemic hit, I up and moved sticks! From what I can gather, I’m not the only Dub to do so in Clare!
“Thank God for the music because it means I’m meeting people all the time so that’s definitely made it easier.
“Seán Ó Riada’s father actually came from Kilmihil and his first cousin, Mary Reidy is living in Ennis and has been very good to me since I moved down. She’s my best friend here in Clare.”
Despite moving away, she continues to have a strong bond with her family.
“I have a I have a very close relationship with my mother and father and that’s such a privilege. I’m on the phone to them several times a day and I get home usually every week which is great. I’m very open with them and they are a great support.
“I am very close to my brother and sister too and I think the music has no small part to play in that. We’ve been travelling up and down the country going to festivals since we were small so we have a lot of the same friends and spend a lot of time socialising together.
“My mother’s family in particular are very close. I have a lot of cousins and we always go to the Oireachtaisí and comórtas péile na Gaeltachta together and make a big effort to meet for family occasions.
“Even though we’re spread all over the country there’s a real band of us there, it’s very tribal!”
Working with Jim Sheridan on the documentary was a “dream come true” for Doireann.
“He is such a larger than life character and just fascinating to listen to. On my first meeting with him he told me he thought Ó Riada was one of the most important cultural figures Ireland had ever seen and I remember that’s probably when the penny first dropped with me. I thought to myself, ‘oh, we’re onto something here’!”
The programme traces Ó Riada’s steps from college days in UCC to the jazz bars of Paris and back to the Gaeltacht of West Cork and Kerry. Working on the programme has “humanised” her grandfather for her.
“I knew a good bit about him before starting this. We’d always gone to commemorational events etc. And I learnt about him in school. But it was very much surface-level information.
“I think you always imagine your grandparents as very old authoritative figures. I think this process has really humanised Seán a lot for me.
“The reality was that he was such a young man when he died, only 40 and had so much life left in him. It was mad to find all his correspondence and uncover his friendships with people like Charlie Haughey, Séamus Heaney and Thomas Kinsella, big names in Ireland that I would know so much about.
“I hadn’t realised how much of a national figure he was and that was very humbling.”
Along with interviews with contemporaries such as Sean Keane from The Chieftains and Seán Ó Sé, the programme also features Doireann’s mother Sorcha Ní Riada, her aunt Rachel Ní Riada and uncle Peadar Ó Riada.
So, what was it like for Doireann to work on a project so personal featuring members of her own family?
“It was very intense. I usually go to work enjoy my day and when I come home it’s totally gone out of my head but there was no getting away from this.
“I spent a lot of time figuring out how I felt about things, experiencing a lot of grief from the tragedy of the story and worrying that we were doing Seán justice.
“I was researching this for two years, you could say and I spent a lot of time in UCC going through my grandparents’ personal papers.
“It was a joy to get to spend so much time this summer in Cúil Aodha with my family because after the pandemic it had been nearly a year and a half since I saw a lot of them. That was very grounding and nourishing.”
Of particular importance for Doireann was bringing the voice of Ó Riada’s wife Ruth to the fore.
“There was a very conscious effort to get Ruth’s voice into this documentary as much as possible. They say behind every great man there’s an even better woman and I think its case in point here.
“Ruth was born in the 1930s, had a college education, raised seven children and had a great social conscience.
“She started a local enterprise in Cúil Aodha to get traditional crafts sold commercially and was involved in several initiatives to improve conditions in the Gaeltacht region.
“She was a very fashionable woman and wore couture from Paris and London. She was fluent in French, Italian and Spanish as well as raising a family through Irish!
“Even today people remember how much fun she was. By all accounts she would be up till all hours socialising if there was a party going.
“Typical of women of her time, I don’t think she got the same opportunity as her husband to shine.
“I think that was my biggest priority in this project, to make sure people knew how great she was!”
The documentary features performances from some of Ireland’s leading musicians and singers.
“We have some global names like Barry Douglas and Iarla Ó Lionaird performing and I think that’s really important in revealing the impact Seán had culturally on Irish music.
“It’s very humbling that 50 years after his death artists are still so influenced by Ó Riada. Then we had big names from home like Nell Ní Chroinín, Cormac McCarthy, Seán Ó Sé, Peadar Ó Riada and Cór Chúil Aodha which just gave the project a lot of heart and substance. They’re all artists I massively respect and admire.”
Filming of the documentary took place last summer when restrictions were more relaxed, with a lot of outside shooting as well as mask wearing, health forms, regular temperature checks and social distancing.
Looking back on her experience of making it, she feels like her relationship with her grandparents has grown.
“I think with television and films and all the other mediums we consume entertainment by, we are desensitised to people and the past.
“This was such a strange process because I do feel like I developed a relationship with my grandfather and grandmother in a way.
“Little by little we chipped away at the 50-year barrier between life today and the life they lead and I got a real sense of their personalities and lives.
“I think I developed a lot of empathy for the human condition. Nobody’s perfect but if you lead a good life and if you do good and love people as best you can, that will always stand the test of time.”

‘Seán O Riada – Mo Sheanathair’ has been made with support from Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish Language Broadcast Fund and University College Cork and will be broadcast on TG4 on Sunday, December 26, at 9.20pm.

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