Traditional Irish singing legend Seán Ó Sé is 80 years old. However, he has no intention of letting age slow him down.
When Feelgood spoke to Seán, he was preparing to drive from Cork to Dublin and then fly to Brussels, where he has four days of performances.
Over the summer, he is appearing at the West Cork Literary Festival and at events in Skibbereen, Bantry, and in the Catskills Mountains, New York. He has also signed up for performances in Boston.
“When I was growing up, anyone who was my age was written off,” says Seán. “They accepted it back then. But I’m blessed with good health and I want to enjoy life for as long as I feel able.”
He attributes his good health to several factors. His wife Eileen is one.
“She has always looked after me,” he says. “We eat a good simple diet and all of the credit has to go to her.”
His daily exercise routine is another. “One of my cardinal rules is that I walk for 40 minutes every day,” he says. “It’s an appropriate form of exercise for someone my age and I think it keeps me trim.”
The final factor is lots of socialising with people of all ages.
“When musicians or singers get together, it’s all about the music,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a generation gap. I mix with a lot of young musicians and I think they keep me young.”
Seán may currently be in good health but he has had health scares in the past. In 2011, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
He is thankful to the medics who saved his life, especially his GP, Séamus Looney.
“I was in his surgery one day when he remarked on my pallor,” says Seán. “He decided to carry out some extra tests and, had he not done so, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.”
Seán learned from that experience to pay closer attention to his health.
“It’s something Irish men are bad at,” he says. “But, having had that experience, I now encourage everyone to see their doctors on a regular basis, particularly if they feel that there is something wrong.”
He also learned to live every day to its fullest.
“When you come through something like that, it increases your desire for life,” he says. “You make the most of life afterwards.”
Some would say Seán always had that sense of joie de vivre. Born in Ballylickey near Bantry, he grew up in a musical family where everyone sang songs. Music came naturally to him and it played an important part in his life from the very beginning.
However, it wasn’t the only important thing in his life. Teaching was his vocation.
“I come from a teaching family,” he says. “My mother, father, sister, aunts, and uncles all teach. It put bread and butter on our table. My singing added a little bit of jam along the way.”
He has many fond memories of life in the classroom, particularly from the 1980s, when he was appointed as principal in a newly opened school in Knocknaheeny on the north side of Cork City.
“It was a huge school with more than 900 students,” he says. “I spent 13 years there and loved being part of such a vibrant community. They were struggling economically at that time, with up to 80% male unemployment but they fought against the odds.”
He has lots of stand-out moments from his musical career, too. There was his time collaborating with the composer Seán Ó Riada.
There was the success of his Poc ar Buile record. And there were the countless concerts, from performing with Ó Riada in the Gaiety to taking to the stage with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Peadar Ó Riada, and Na Casadaigh from Dublin.
Seán hopes to sing to the end of his days.
“I got four years of great vocal training from John T. Horne in the Cork School of Music,” he says. “He told me that if I took reasonable care of my voice, I’d sing until the day I died. It looks likely now that that’s what’s going to happen.”
Seán hopes to stay active too. His immediate plans certainly reflect that.
“I’m off to Brussels now,” he says. “Here’s hoping I’m back in time to mow the lawn on Sunday.”