Cork's Greatest Records: Seán Ó Sé on his classic hit, An Poc Ar Buile

B-Side the Leeside: As he gets ready to celebrate his 85th birthday, Seán Ó Sé tells the inside story of his 1962 hit that was also the first Irish-language song to make such an impact
Cork's Greatest Records: Seán Ó Sé on his classic hit, An Poc Ar Buile

Seán Ó Sé. Picture: Denis Minihane

Gathering dust in an attic or buried in an old cardboard box, there may still exist a reel-to-reel tape recording of three people singing together the song that formed a celebrated musical bond between them.

The song was ‘An Poc ar Buile’ and the trio comprised its composer Dónall Ó Mulláin, tenor Seán Ó Sé, and Seán Ó Riada, whose band Ceoltóirí Cualann had with Ó Sé recently enjoyed what has come to be regarded as the first pop record ‘hit’ in the Irish language.

Recorded at Ó Mulláin’s home near Cúil Aodha, Co Cork, shortly after the 1962 release of the Gael Linn record ‘An Poc ar Buile’ which propelled Ó Sé to fame, the tape was made just for the fun of it by the three men, who took turns singing the verses and joined together for the rousing “ailliliú, puilliliú” chorus.

“One evening Seán Ó Riada and myself went up to [Ó Mulláin’s] house in Screathan and on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder we recorded it, each of us taking verses, the three of us singing every third verse and we did the chorus together, just for the fun of it,” says Ó Sé.

“It was very shortly after the record came out and I don’t know what happened it. It [the tape] was in my possession and to this day I have this feeling that it’s in the house somewhere and I can’t find it.” The song’s exuberant refrain no doubt reflected the trio’s mood as ‘An Poc ar Buile’, Ó Sé’s first recording with Ceoltóirí Cualann (later spelt Chualann) became an overnight success.

“The minute it came out it became a hit,” says Ó Sé. “There was no official top 10 on any of the radio stations but it was certainly the first hit in the Irish language.” Nearly 60 years later, Ó Sé is still affectionately known as ‘An Pocar’ in reference to the song he has sung in venues from Shanghai to Moscow and which formed the title of his 2015 biography.

His association with the song goes back further still, to his days as a pupil at Coláiste Íosagáin in Baile Mhúirne, where he first heard ‘An Poc ar Buile’ performed.

The lyrics, detailing the exploits of a puck goat, were written by Ó Mulláin in the 1940s, rejuvenating an older song relating to a man or ‘buck’ and called ‘An Boc ar Buile’. This concerned an incident involving a local landlord’s attempt to exercise the ‘right’ of ‘droit du seigneur’, which allowed feudal lords to have sexual relations with tenants’ brides on their wedding night.

Ó Sé recalls his first encounter with Ó Mulláin and his song: “I went to Coláiste Íosagáin between 1949 and 1953, and every Oíche Shamhna [Hallowe’en] local people would come in to entertain us, people like the legendary Peáití Thaidhg Pheig Ó Tuama, another very fine singer called Diarmuid Ó Riordáin, and who came with them was Dónall Ó Mulláin. That was the first time I saw him.

“I heard Dónall Ó Mulláin sing it. It’s a very catchy song and it remained in my mind.” Ó Sé did not learn all its verses, however, until years after leaving Coláiste Íosagáin, when having entered the teaching profession, he also begun pursuing a singing career.

“There was a group there at the time called Cabaret Gael Linn and we used to travel around to all the Great Southern hotels and we’d be entertaining all these up-market yanks,” he recalls.

“I was singing for the Gael Linn cabaret and there was an office of Gael Linn in Cork at the time and the man who was at the head of it was called Paddy Tyers, famous because he played in goal for Cork in 1956.” It was Tyers who suggested he make a demo tape for Gael Linn and, says Ó Sé: “I was wondering what song I would sing and then it suddenly occurred to me. I said ‘why not ‘An Poc ar Buile’?

“I went out to Cúil Aodha, to Dónal Ó Liatháin, who was a pupil in Coláiste Íosagáin two years ahead of me, and he got me the words of five verses of it and I went about learning it and recorded it.” His demo, accompanied on harp by Deirdre Ní Fhloinn, found favour immediately with Gael Linn, whose co-founder Riobard Mac Góráin invited Ó Sé to his home for what was to be his first meeting with Ó Riada.

The composer, already widely acclaimed for his score for Mise Éire, George Morrison’s 1959 Gael Linn film, had formed Ceoltóirí Cualann in 1960 as a result of his role as musical director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

“We went out to Riobard Mac Góráin’s house in Stillorgan for the audition,” says Ó Sé.

“Straight away he [Ó Riada] liked the voice and he decided there and then that we would go into a small studio at the corner of Stephen’s Green, up on the fifth floor – it was called Peter Hunt’s Studio - and we recorded a voice and piano version of ‘An Poc ar Buile’,” says Ó Sé.

Later that day, a phone call from Ó Riada assured Mac Góráin that the song should be released on vinyl and ‘An Poc ar Buile’, along with three further tracks by Ó Sé and Ceoltóirí Cualann – ‘Tórramh an Bhairille’, ‘An Spealadóir’, and ‘Amhráinín Síodraimín’ - became Gael Linn’s second extended play (EP) record.

The sleeve and 7" single of An Poc Ar Buile, by Seán Ó Sé.
The sleeve and 7" single of An Poc Ar Buile, by Seán Ó Sé.

Though Darach Ó Catháin and Seán Ó Siocháin also appeared with Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Cualann in the group’s early days, it was Ó Sé’s distinctive tenor voice that became most closely associated with the band’s recordings, concerts, and appearances on the long-running 1960s series, ‘Fleadh Cheoil an Raidió’.

Ó Sé, who credits the vocal training he received from St Fin Barre’s Cathedral organist John T Horne with extending his range to two octaves, recalls Ó Riada’s remarks following his successful audition.

“When I’d finished he said ‘thanks be to God, now we have a Cork man who will be able to sing ‘The Banks’.” Indeed in 1965 Ó Sé was to record ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’ with Ó Riada and the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra, for the Louis Marcus film Rhapsody of a River.

While ‘An Poc ar Buile’ remains the song most closely associated with Ó Sé, it is the recording of ‘The Banks’ that Ó Sé himself remembers with particular fondness.

He says ‘The Banks’, later released on disc alongside ‘An Poc ar Buile’, “was a fantastic recording because Ó Riada’s arrangement was spectacular and I’d be proud of the fact that it’s played at big Cork occasions even up to the present day”.

“Cork people are very lucky because ‘The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee’ is one of the nicest anthems around,” he adds.

While the lyrics of ‘An Poc ar Buile’ have a strong Kerry flavour, fate could have dictated that Ó Sé sang a very different county anthem. He grew up near the Kerry border, in Laharn, near Ballylickey, and says “our Ó Sés were from Kerry, from a place near Kenmare called Glanmore Lake, Tuosist. My grandfather crossed over and married a woman in Adrigole, in Beara.

“I’m very like my father’s father’s people,” says Ó Sé, who celebrates his 85th birthday on January 16. “And all the men of those [Ó Sés] up to the present time, it puts them to the pin of their collar to do [live to] 70 or 75, so I’m way ahead,” he adds, a decade after undergoing successful treatment for cancer.

“In 2011 out of the blue I got colon cancer. But there is a bonus to having cancer, if you survive it. You get a second chance and things you worried about up to then become totally irrelevant and you don’t worry about them - there’s no point.

“Every morning I wake up, I thank my maker and relish the day because it mightn’t have been.” 

New recordings

 Between Covid-19 lockdowns, Seán Ó Sé is working on a new album with Seán Ó Riada’s son Peadar on piano, with 58 tracks in Irish and English already recorded.

This is their third CD collaboration, following ‘’Dir Cúm Thóla is Cúil Aodha’ (2006) and ‘Through Banks of Mist’(2014).

With Peadar Ó Riada, he was also commissioned to perform two pieces for a War of Independence State centenary commemoration, planned for last November. The pair recorded a rendition of ‘Beautiful City’ and a new setting by Ó Riada of a Terence MacSwiney poem, which were not yet aired as the commemorations were curtailed by the pandemic.

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