Poetry and music combine in reimagining of works of Seán Ó Riordáin and Séamus Ó Céilleachair

Poetry and music combine in reimagining of works of Seán Ó Riordáin and Séamus Ó Céilleachair

Fiona Kelleher has set some of the works of poets Seán Ó Riordáin and Séamus Ó Céilleachair to music, writes Pet O'Connell

Finding the poetry of Seán Ó Riordáin on the shelves of Baile Mhúirne library could be considered unremarkable. The popularity of the composer of ‘Cúl an Tí’ and ‘Fill Arís’ is undiminished 40 years after his death, not least in his home Cork village, where multiple volumes of his work are available for loan.

But when singer-songwriter Fiona Kelleher walked into the village library in search of inspiration for children’s songs, what she found was the poetry of an entirely different Seán Ó Riordáin.

The work of this poet, nicknamed An Creagar and otherwise known as Jackie the Tailor after his trade plied in Midleton, Fermoy, and Lisgoold, was featured in collections from bardic poetry school Dáimh Scoil Mhúscraí Uí Fhloinn in the 1960s and ’70s. His Irish language poems, along with those of Múscraí-born teacher Séamus Ó Céilleachair, were uncovered by Kelleher thanks to then-librarian Eibhlín Ní Laoghaire.

“I was living in Baile Mhúirne and I started to do a bit of research on children’s songs. I work in early years music and I was looking for material that was Irish language and children-based, that hadn’t had a light shone on it for many years, and Eibhlín was instrumental in finding that,” said Kelleher.

Ó Céilleachair’s poetry, she said, “took me in a different direction because the work I was looking for specifically was for children, maybe to find some lyrics to set to music, but actually what I found were these beautiful lyrical poems that were inspired by the natural beauty of the area and were quite lonely and vulnerable”.

Though Ó Riordáin and Ó Céilleachair were mid-20th Century contemporaries, she found the two “very different stylistically”. Poems such as Ó Riordáin’s ‘Ciúineas’ were “more minimalist, more defined and very descriptive but very narrow in terms of lyrical features”. Ó Céilleachair’s were “darker and more lonely; there was a fragility about them, a disconnection”.

Kelleher began to set the works of both poets to music in the form of children’s lullabies or suantraithe, but they remained unfinished for several years until she received a Traditional Arts Project bursary. This facilitated a collaboration with film-maker Dónal Ó Céilleachair, and pianist Caoimhín Vallely, whom Kelleher had worked with on projects including her children’s album I am a Little Boat.

I had an idea about coming together to try and honour the [poetry] and I thought the best way to do it may be to bring a visual element to the work and work on some recomposing and trying to set these poems in a way that made sense, as a bigger and longer work with more substance.

Ten poems were set to music, with Ó Céilleachair’s film, created in response to the songs, shot in Cork’s Múscraí area and featuring Cúil Aodha teenager Alohi Feachem.

The result is Do Chuala Ceol (I heard music), described by Kelleher as “a crossover between reality and dreams”.

Ó Céilleachair, whose Camino Voyage won film of the year at last month’s Oireachtas na Gaeilge, had worked with fellow Macroom native Kelleher on his previous films, including ‘Ó Dhúthaigh Mhúscraí’ and ‘Tadhg McSweeney, Painter’.

He returns to a familiar landscape for ‘Do Chuala Ceol’, which follows the course of the River Sullane, marrying the scenery with the poems of his namesake Ó Céilleachair and Ó Riordáin, while adding elements of animation.

“It’s a 45-minute piece with the music, poetry, and visuals all coming from Múscraí,” says Dónal. “Since they are lullabies we decided it would make sense to make the film like a dream. The young girl falls asleep and dreams the landscape. She finds a magic stone on the road and it’s about hanging onto something that comes out of the landscape. The stone is her point of entrance into the other world, the dream world.

“There’s a lot of layering of images,” he added. “It’s a bit like when you dream and all these different images come to you. Images from your childhood come back, then images from something that happened last week, and it’s like a montage as you get deep into the dream.”

Ionad Cultúrtha an Dochtúir Ó Loingsigh, Baile Mhúirne, Co Cork, hosts the premiere of Do Chuala Ceol, a screening with live music score, on November 22, admission free. ionadculturtha.ie

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