Broadcaster remembered fondly in the heartlands of traditional music

AS the funeral of Ciarán MacMathuna was taking place in Dublin yesterday, the legendary broadcaster was remembered in the heartlands of traditional music where he harvested Irish music and song over nearly 50 years.

Flags flew at half mast in his native city of Limerick of which he was a Freeman. Ciarán MacMathuna was brought up in St John’s Avenue, Mulgrave Street, and received his early education at CBS Sexton Street before going on to study engineering at UCD.

After graduating in 1949, he got a job with the Placenames Commission which necessitated travelling around rural Ireland carrying out research.

During this time he began to meet with traditional musicians in towns and villages up and down the country.

Radio Éireann (now RTÉ) then decided to send out a broadcasting car to record Irish music and songs and needed somebody with a knowledge of Irish music and the Irish countryside.

Ciarán got the job and over the next 45 years went into every nook and cranny in search of music and song.

In one of his last newspaper interviews with this reporter, he recalled: “I would travel in my own car with the recording van which was in the Volkswagen van and one technician, Ned Nugent, who was a Waterfordman. I was doing a lunchtime programme Ceolta Tire on Sundays and Maeve Binchy, a great friend, used tell me that in her house it was known as the bacon and cabbage programme.”

He did his first recording using the mobile van in 1955 in Clare.

He said: “We stayed in Clare for three weeks because there was nothing in the cupboard back in Dublin. We’d return to Dublin at weekends to edit material. We started in Kilrush with Mrs Crotty. By this time we were recording on tape which had just replaced the old discs. We stayed in Ennis in the Queens Hotel and all our work was done at night. So when we arrived in a place to do a recording it was dark and it was dark when we left. I went to lovely places all over Clare in those days, but never saw them. I remember nights in Kilmaley which were great.”

His second great expedition into the strongholds of traditional music was to Slieve Luachra in east Kerry.

There Ciarán met the legendary Denis Murphy who was to contribute more to his archive than any other single musician. There also he recorded the fiddle master, Padraig O’Keeffe.

Ciarán said: “The trouble with Padraig was trying to find him when you went to Kerry. He used to go around teaching the music to children in their houses and he walked all over the country and he had his own method of teaching.”

His hugely popular Sunday morning programme Mo Cheol Thú first went out on air in 1970. Ciarán fed off all those recording he made 50 years previously from the VW van with Ned Nugent. There was national outrage when RTÉ tried to replace its slot.

He felt the fact he was not a musician helped in his work.

He explained: “It enabled me to concentrate all my energies into gathering material and it also allowed me to be neutral. We recorded all the music, but we only broadcast that which we thought was worth broadcasting. In assessing music I always worked on the principle that the musician and the music should almost be one, and not necessarily the best, technically.”

Ciarán met his wife Dolly through her father who was one of the last native Irish speakers near Craughwell in south Galway.

He said: “I went to my first Fleadh in Loughrea in 1955, the year I got married.”

He is survived by Dolly and their sons Padraig, Ciarán, and daughter Deirdre.


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