Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Matthew Allen

Professor of Music Matthew Allen, who is currently submitting his first film, Seán Ó Sé: A Life In Song and Story, to film festivals, talks about the project.

Giving voice. Seán was the lead singer of the most important 1960s Irish folk group, Ceoltóirí Chualann. In that decade his brilliant tenor was at the heart of the revival of folk music, heard throughout Ireland and the UK in concert, radio and television, but today his is an untold story. He is an important voice in Irish music history and the world needs to know about him.

Weekend entertainer. By the end of the 1960s, the other members of Ceoltóirí Chualann wanted to go full time professional. While they eventually became the Chieftains and went on to world fame, Seán Ó Sé stayed at home and fit in his musical gigs among his responsibilities as a National School teacher. Teaching is in his family’s blood – it was the profession of his parents and had helped the family to stay in Ireland after the Famine, when so many others had to emigrate.

Celtic culture. I met Seán while teaching on a Fulbright Fellowship at University College in Cork in 2002 and we’ve met many times since then to talk and play music. I’m hoping through the movie to share with people what I’ve learned about Irish history and culture from dozens of long conversations driving to his shows down the back roads and through the small towns of West Cork and Kerry.

Lyrical fidelity. Apart from his teaching, music and family, his love of the Irish language is just about the most important thing in his life. For Seán preserving the Irish language is a very important issue; every child is required to learn it in school, but it’s not spoken all that much in other settings, and generation by generation, fewer children grow up as fluent speakers. A member of the Irish Senate told me that as an entertainer Seán does more for the Irish language than a dozen language teachers because he can sense “how much Irish an audience can take” – how much Irish speech to mix into his stories, and whether to sing one of the great Munster Irish language ballads or a lighter macaronic (mixed English and Irish) ditty at any given moment. The Senator told me that Seán’s audiences leave his performances elated that their understanding of Irish is so much better than they had thought!

Listening closely. As a long time follower of Irish traditional music, before meeting Seán I was aware that many other forms of popular entertainment existed in Ireland, such as the variety concerts, cabarets and ceili bands, but I never took them seriously. Thirty years ago, I would have said that these forms weren’t good, that they weren’t authentic. My travels with Seán have shown me that all these genres are legitimate and important forms of art. One friend told me he sees Seán today as “the people’s singer.” What’s so important about all these forms of entertainment for me is that they are social, community-building activities. Seán’s singing and storytelling brings people together and creates community. That is very important work.