Ó Riada an cumhachtach, 4/4

As a boy, Seán Ó Riada saw a strange woman when he was out walking one evening. As she passed by he noticed that she was floating above the ground. He ran home in terror and his hair began to turn white from that day on.

Such visions, or aislingí in Gaelic, are not unknown in Irish history. The 17th-century Munster poet, Aogán Ó Rathaille, described a similar encounter in Gile na Gile:
The Brightness of Brightness I saw in a lonely path,
Crystal of crystal. Her blue eyes tinged with green.
Melody of melody, her speech not morose with age,
The ruddy and white appeared in her glowing cheeks.[1]
James Fintan Lalor wrote often of the ‘island-queen’, whom he described as ‘a lady of soft heart and grateful disposition’.[2] For Yeats, such female manifestations represented the ‘goddesses of ancient Ireland’.[3] Indeed, throughout Ireland’s history under British rule, poets sometimes depicted their subjugated nation as a woman, variously known as Ériu, Aoibheall, or Caitlín Ní Uallacháin. Tempting as it is in our sceptical age to regard such characters as the product of literary licence or primitive superstition, one thing is clear: whoever it was Seán Ó Riada saw that day, he believed she was real.

When Ó Riada wrote the orchestral score for Mise Éire, he chose as his main theme the traditional Irish air, “Róisín Dubh”. According to the 19th-century Irish historian, George Petrie, both the air and the Gaelic poem it accompanies are of ancient and unknown origin. Although Petrie regarded the poem as a straightforward love song to a real person, its allegorical meaning is evident in the English translation by James Clarence Mangan.[4] For him, Róisín Dubh, or Dark Rosaleen, is Ireland herself, and he promises her that:
But yet... will I rear your throne
Again in golden sheen;
‘Tis you shall reign, shall reign alone,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen![5]
Ó Riada captured this Róisín Dubh in the two arrangements of the traditional melody that bookend Mise Éire. The first is played on the French horn and opens the film, signifying the awakening of a new spirit in Irish history. The reprise at the end strikes a triumphant note as the full orchestra celebrates the advent of freedom, Saoirse, in majestic fashion.

Although he was frightened by the vision he experienced as a boy, perhaps that mysterious woman remained with him somewhere deep in his subconscious mind, inspiring his orchestral masterpiece. Not long before he died Ó Riada told Garech de Brún that he considered his work to be done. So when he decided to bring Ceoltóirí Chualann to an end, he may have believed that his time on earth was drawing to a close. Is it fanciful to imagine that, as death beckoned, Seán Ó Riada remembered Róisín Dubh and felt that he had honoured her in the best way he could, through his music?

[1] Patrick S. Dineen & Tadhg O’Donoghue (eds.), The poems of Egan O’Rahilly, 2nd edn (London, 1911), p. 19.
[2] Thomas Patrick O'Neill, James Fintan Lalor, tr. John T. Goulding (Wexford, 2003), p. 132.
[3] W. B. Yeats, Writings on Irish folklore, legend and myth, ed. Robert Welch (London, 1993), p. 249.
[4] George Petrie, The Petrie collection of the ancient music of Ireland (Dublin, 1855), pp. 93-4.
[5] Denis F. MacCarthy (ed.), The book of Irish ballads, 2nd edn (Dublin, 1869). pp. 202-4.