Back in the day when hitchhiking students were a common sight across Ireland, Cormac Sheil attached little significance to the spins home from school he received from sean-nós singer Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin.
The two were, after all, both frequent fellow travellers on the road to Cúil Aodha, Sheil’s family having recently moved to the Cork Gaeltacht village from Dublin.
The memories of those small kindnesses, of clambering into the back of Ó Súilleabháin’s car and of the chat that ensued, stayed tucked away in the back of Sheil’s mind.
They endured, long after his schooldays were over and he had established his career as an artist and sign-writer, and long after Ó Súilleabháin’s death in an accident in 1991.
They were recalled recently, however, when Sheil and fellow artist Denis O’Reardon were tasked with creating a mural for an outside wall of the Ionad Cultúrtha arts centre in Baile Mhúirne.
The pair had previously painted murals on the same building, depicting both the poet Seán Ó Riordáin, and the local Cumann na mBan.
When they were given a brief to represent the Múscraí Gaeltacht’s cultural heritage in a third mural, it wasn’t long before Ó Súilleabháin’s name came up in discussions and Sheil had no doubts but that the singer was the perfect choice of subject.
“The brief was to celebrate the musical and cultural heritage of the area; to try and make it as local as possible. We were going to put a whole range of musical instruments on the wall,” said Sheil, “but what came out was that singing was synonymous with the area.
“I would have known him [Diarmuid] to say hello to and that helped with the choice.
“I’m a blow-in and we moved down when I was 11 or 12 to Cúil Aodha. I would have been at secondary school when I was there in the ’70s.
“He was a lovely guy. I remember being picked up by him when I was hitching home from school sometimes, so it’s nice to be able to do this mural.”
Work on the project took five weeks from drawing to completion and the portrait now looks down from on high on those entering the Ionad Cultúrtha.
It will watch over proceedings this weekend during Éigse Dhiarmuid Uí Shúilleabháin, the festival founded 26 years ago in honour of the broadcaster, journalist, and singer, amid the community’s grief over his loss.
In a weekend of music and song, the mural’s official unveiling Saturday will be followed by a screening of a documentary film by Doireann Ní Bhriain, Hand me Down, featuring the songs of Ó Súilleabháin and his description of the handing-down of the sean-nós tradition of Múscraí.
Its title assumes added significance since this year’s Éigse marks a turning point for the long-running festival.
The committee of friends and extended family of Diarmuid which has run the Éigse for over a quarter of a century is to retire and hand the festival’s organisation down to a new generation.
The handing-down of the tradition, meanwhile, continues at the Éigse, which this year extends its reach to the youngest of pre-school children.
UCC’s music department facilitates a workshop in music and rhythm for parents and toddlers, while tutors at the Éigse’s music workshops will also participate in a composition session, setting poems for pre-school children to music.
This year’s emphasis on the next generation will be reflected at the launch of the Éigse tomorrow, when young singers from various Gaeltachtaí, including Múscraí, will come together to perform a show, Sean-nós na nÓg, produced by Síle Denvir.
While Cormac Sheil’s fleeting boyhood connection to one of the bearers of Múscraí’s sean-nós tradition has helped enshrine the legacy of Diarmuidín in tangible form, the young Éigse participants, under the watchful eye of his portrait, may become the embodiment of that tradition in the years ahead.
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