Monday, December 22, 2008

Two CDs

One of the more notorious of RTÉ’s acts of cultural vandalism over the years is the decision to wipe all TV tape of Seán Ó Riada from the archives. Now, An Spailpín is getting worried that the damage is even more extensive than we thought.

Gael Linn, as part of their policy of re-releasing Seán Ó Riada’s albums over the past few years, have released three more, as a triple CD set called Pléaráca an Riadaigh. These are three original studio recordings of Ó Riada at the height of his powers – Reacaireacht an Riadaigh, Ceol na nUasal and Ding Dong. But what’s bothering An Spailpín is a throwaway reference in the sleeve notes to a weekly radio show that Ó Riada did for RTÉ in the sixties. Reacaireacht an Riadaigh, the first of these albums to be recorded, is essentially a collection of the greatest hits of that radio series and if they’ve all been wiped since like the TV recordings – well, it’s a scandal is what it is.

With the country going down the tubes at a rate of knots this Christmas it’s good – if not vital – to be reminded of why it was all worthwhile in the first place. Why the Irish deserved independence; what separated us from the other three kingdoms. And Pléaráca an Riadaigh helps us explain part of it.

Seán Ó Riada is part of the landscape now but it’s always important to remember just how revolutionary his approach was. Irish music had no respect in the general population before him; Ó Riada’s great gift was to be able to show how the ancient airs have their place in the pantheon of world music, before that phrase was even invented. For anyone who wants to know who we are and where we came from Pléaráca an Riadaigh is an essential purchase.

Funnily enough, the sleeve notes are the most disappointing aspect of the whole presentation. Other Ó Riada releases have included full lyrics for the songs in the sleeve notes. This does not, and their loss is keenly felt. All the more so because it is Darach Ó Catháín, not Seán Ó Sé, who does the singing on Reachtaireacht an Riadaigh.

What makes this significant is the fact that Darach Ó Catháin was a sean-nós singer. Sean-nós is the diametric opposite of easy listening music. Sean-nós is hard work. The best way to approach it is to realise just how very old it is – it’s a medieval form of music, really. It’s solo chanting more than singing. It does not record well, and soft chat about sean-nós being the soul music of Ireland doesn’t cut it. It’s a terrible pity that Gael Linn didn’t see fit to print the lyrics, or the words of the pices spoken by Seán Ó Riada himself. Certain hollow men in the media like to speak of “spoken Irish”; An Spailpín is pretty sure that he is not alone in thinking it’s easier when it’s written down.

An Spailpín has not seen John Spillane’s new album, Irish Songs We Learned at School, but it will be very surprising if that isn’t comprehensively annotated. There’s no point otherwise. The song selection is good of course – these are great songs – but the decision to have actual children sing on the record is misguided. The idea is clearly that kids will respond better to kids, but the idea of having the songs sung as well as they can be sung seems the stronger notion to me. Maybe it’s a matter of taste.

Why does it matter in the first place? This is why. If that rotten Carlsberg ad of earlier this year had its protagonist say “Beidh aonach amárach i gContae an Chláir” instead of the rubbish he did come out with, they would have got their point across, got the echo of the schoolroom and shown some respect for the language into the bargain. That was a bridge too far it seems. So three cheers for John Spillane then, for doing his bit ar son na cúise in these dark and empty winter days.

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