The audience members taking their seats at Cork’s Savoy Cinema on September 30, 1959, may not have known it, but they were about to become witnesses to a turning point in Irish cultural history.
A film score which to this day “rivals the national anthem in the affections of Irish people as an expression of national pride” was premiered at the Cork International Film Festival, the effusive response from audience and critics indicative of the wider public reaction to come.
“Ireland’s Sorrows and Heartbreaks,” read the headline in the Cork Examiner the next morning.
“The story of the heroism and martyrdom of her sons, the story of the momentous years of her greatness in defeat, of her resurrection in the years following 1916 – such is the gigantic canvas offered by Gael Linn in Mise Éire.”
George Morrison’s pioneering film, the first full-length feature movie made up of actual footage of real events, had been born and “the music of the people had been elevated to the status of full orchestra”.
The early years of Ireland’s revolutionary period, from late 19th century to beyond the Easter Rising, were presented to its people for the first time on film, the fervency of national pride stirred anew by Seán Ó Riada’s musical score as its clashing cymbals resonated with the turbulence of the time.
Its emotive horn solo was a hit on the streets of Cork within hours of its film festival debut, according to Ó Riada’s eldest son Peadar.
Peadar’s grandparents, then living on Dorgan’s Rd in Glasheen, declined Seán’s offer to attend the premiere as guests as “they were too afraid that he’d make a bags of it”.
“It was an afternoon matinee and my grandfather was probably praying the rosary all the time, but my grandmother was getting frustrated and eventually she couldn’t stick it any longer and at 3 o’clock she got her hat, stick, and gloves and got the number 11 bus down the Glasheen Road,” Peadar relates. “When she got to Patrick Street she heard the Echo boys whistling the theme of Mise Éire so she turned round and got the next bus home and told Himself, ‘the boy’s done well’.
The boy had indeed done well, and for many who did make it to the premiere, it was a seminal moment.
Among those audience members was Louis Marcus from the Mardyke. He had worked as an editing assistant on Mise Éire at the start of a career that was to lead to Academy Award nominations and a role as director of An Tine Bheo, a 50-year commemoration of the Easter Rising, for which Ó Riada composed the score. He also collaborated with Ó Riada on the documentaries Rhapsody of a River (1965) and Pobal (1970).
Of Mise Éire’s premiere, he says: “The audience was bowled over. I don’t think anybody expected that impact. The material in itself was fascinating, to see de Valera, Michael Collins, all of these figures in action, but allied to Seán’s music it was just overwhelming.” Marcus, who describes his role in the film’s production as a “mechanical job with no creative input” was “just the technician who had to edit the bits together according to how the director, George Morrison, had instructed”.
“I knew the images inside out but I wasn’t there for the recording of the music,” he says, adding that when he saw the finished film at the Savoy. “I was amazed. The way the music was wedded with the visuals was astounding.”
His part in the making of Mise Éire was not, however, what had brought Marcus to the film festival. His work in Dublin on Morrison’s film done, he had returned to Cork to make his own film The Silent Art on the sculptor Seamus Murphy, which he showed to Gael Linn’s Riobard Mac Góráin and Dónall Ó Móráin at the Savoy that day, paving the way for his later work with the organisation.
Flashback to Glasheen Rd, over a decade before Ó Riada’s mother Julia made her bus trip to Patrick St, and music had already caused the paths of Marcus and Ó Riada to cross.
“Before he went to college [Seán] learnt the violin from Willie Brady in his house in Glasheen Rd,” says Marcus. “By a strange coincidence I was the lesson after Seán. He was older than me but when Seán would come out of his lesson he’d pass me sitting on the chair in the hall and give me a kind of nod. I was very impressed because my teacher said that John Reidy, as he was known then, was very talented indeed and I was rather overawed by this older figure.”
Fast-forward to Ó Riada’s days as a student at UCC to glimpse the origins of his association with Gael Linn, which led to him composing and directing the musical score of Mise Éire, the first feature-length Irish language film.
“When Seán went to UCC he became very friendly with Riobard Mac Góráin, the head of the cultural activities at Gael Linn,” Marcus explains.
“When Gael Linn began to issue 78s and then long-playing records, Seán was involved. He arranged tunes for light orchestra and he also did a wonderful LP with Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, of piano accompaniment and songs in Irish.” That 1958 album with Doneraile-born baritone Ó Súilleabháin, was Ceolta Éireann, Gael Linn’s first LP.
That same year, Radio Éireann opened its new Cork studio on Union Quay and, says Marcus, “the first head of the new Cork station was Seán Mac Réamóinn, an intimate friend of Riobard Mac Góráin.” Mac Réamóinn, who was to narrate the Irish language commentary for Mise Éire, also commissioned Ó Riada to compose the orchestral music for two programmes broadcast on the opening night of the Cork studio, Marcus recalls.
“One was a poetic portrait of Cork, in English, by Robert O’Donoughue, a Cork poet and journalist in the Cork Examiner; the other was in Irish, about the Gaelic poets.
“The one about Cork was a wonderful lush, romantic score, a bit like Richard Strauss, but the one about the Irish poets featured symphony orchestral settings of sean-nós in a way that I don’t think had ever been done before, including one for French horn, which was a kind of dress rehearsal for Róisín Dubh in Mise Éire,” says Marcus. “When they were looking for someone to write the music for Mise Éire, Seán was the obvious choice - he’d already proved he could do it.”
Ó Riada’s score for Mise Éire, released by Gael Linn on EP, was “hugely successful,” at the time and continues to capture the Irish imagination more than 60 years later, according to Gael Linn’s chief executive Antoine Ó Coileáin, who says: “It came out at the same time as the film and continues to sell exceptionally well, independent of the film.” The reason for its enduring appeal? “It rivals the national anthem in the affections of Irish people as an expression of national pride. It is a stirring, emotional charge. I certainly find it deeply affecting and I know that many people do.”
Morrison’s incredible “detective work” in tracking down original source material from as early as the 1890s in archives across Europe provided the Irish public with a potted history of their country’s struggle for independence, for the first time on screen.
Two years before the birth of Irish television, and with “no Irish film industry to speak of, going to the pictures meant Hollywood and British films”, says Ó Coileáin.
Mise Éire filled cinemas across the country when it went on general release in 1960.
“People queued and they were so taken with it – it brought history to life,” says Ó Coileáin. “They were looking at images of Pearse giving his graveside oration for O’Donovan Rossa, all the big players in Irish history – Michael Collins, de Valera, Cathal Brugha - were living, walking, real people. This was new ground, and was the first time that any of it was seen by most people in Ireland.”
While the film retains is popularity, ranking 13th in an Irish Times all-time roll of honour of Irish film as recently as May this year, “when you say Mise Éire to somebody they will more likely think of the music nowadays,” says Ó Coileáin. “The music has taken a life of its own and has a great affection in people’s hearts. It’s quintessentially Irish.” Ó Riada’s arrangements of traditional airs, particularly the film’s iconic horn solo, presented to the public familiar music in a previously unheard orchestral setting.
“It hadn’t really been done before, that the music of the people had been elevated to the status of full orchestra,” says Ó Coileáin.
“The tune is Róisín Dubh but the treatment is Mise Éire. Seán Ó Riada didn’t just slot in a folk tune – he embellished it and developed it and embroidered it into related airs and themes. He brings in Sliabh na mBan and other airs and they become indistinguishable because he creates new material so different from what went into it.”
Ó Riada was able to draw on both his education in classical music and the traditional music of his parents. “Western music is very intellectual, cerebral, and worked-out, with lots of rules and regulations in its structure,” says Peadar, himself a composer and his father’s successor as musical director of Cór Chúil Aodha.
“Seán had learnt all that as a student and was well qualified, but what he did with Mise Éire was that he didn’t use intellectual power, he used emotional energy.
“It was love of his nation that created this emotional maelstrom. This love came from his background,” says Peadar.
“It’s the emotional awakening that the love of one’s people and place evokes. You see it when a club wins an all-Ireland final in GAA and it’s deeply embedded in the Gaelic world. That’s what gave us our creativity.”
The Mise Éire legacy
“Mise Éire is still performed all over the world and we regularly get requests from England, Australia, or America asking permission to play it; it’s been used for soundtracks for films in the most unusual places.” * As part of 2016 Easter Rising commemorations, Mise Éire was performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the National Concert Hall to accompany a screening of George Morrison’s film. “When they’d finished, the conductor caught the score and lifted it above his head and the place erupted,” says Peadar.
“The big importance of Mise Éire was that it paved the way for everything else he did afterwards in that it brought a new respectability to Irish music.”
Mise Éire is performed as the sun rises in Cúil Aodha, Seán Ó Riada’s adopted home village, at Féile na Laoch (Festival of Heroes) held every seven years in honour of Ó Riada and other heroes.