By Sean Ryan - 30 July, 2017
Fr Pat Ahern was born 85 years ago in 1932 into a musical family in Moyvane, north Kerry. He learned the fiddle from the playing of his mother, Margaret Walsh, whose father – Dan Walsh – was also a noted fiddle player.
To this hereditary tradition of music in the family Fr Ahern attributes, in part, the germ of the idea that would become Siamsa Tíre; for another part he gives credit to the last of the dancing masters, Jeremiah Molyneux, who taught dancing locally, and whose unique style of dance Fr Ahern introduced to Siamsa Tíre from the very beginning.
Siamsa is home to Ireland’s National Folk Theatre and is located in Tralee Town Park. The origins of Siamsa Tíre date back to 1957 when a young curate, Fr Pat Ahern, was sent to Kerry to establish a new choir in St John’s Church in Tralee.
The success of the choir and the talents of some of the members inspired him to stage a Passion Play entitled Golgotha in 1963. The organisation grew from there. The depth of the north Kerry tradition, which formed the bedrock of Siamsa Tíre, gave it an authenticity – free from any whiff of artificiality but always open to innovation – which was recognised by all who saw it as the real deal.
Fr Ahern would go on to study organ and piano in Maynooth, and to continue his musical studies in UCC under Aloys Fleischmann, graduating with a BMus in 1962. However, he continued to develop Siamsa.
Remarkable achievements followed rapidly on those early establishment years: the TV shows for RTÉ, the first American tour where Siamsa sold out on Broadway in 1976; the many other tours that followed; the performances for then Pope John Paul II at Limerick in 1979, for the Queen of the Netherlands, for the King and Queen of Sweden, and in response to a personal invitation from Bob Hawke, the performance at the Australian Bicentennial celebrations in 1987.
This international aspect to Siamsa’s work was encapsulated by their collaboration with Bill Whelan and Maria Pages for the Seville Suite, performed by Siamsa in Spain and Dublin in 1992, and acknowledged as an inspiration for what would become Riverdance.
Speaking at Fr Ahern’s conferring, Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin, Head/Ceann of Roinn na Nua Ghaeilge in UCC said: “There is an expression in Irish that refers to a person as being lán de cheol, literally ‘full of music’. It does not necessarily mean that such a person is musical at all,” said Prof Ó Macháin, “but it indicates that he or she is an energetic, entertaining, affable and pleasant person, and that, in turn, music is associated with positive, personal characteristics. One might think that the formulation of this expression, whenever it happened, was done with Fr Pat Ahern specifically in mind, because he embodies its spirit literally and metaphorically: this modest man is lán de cheol in every way imaginable, and a more than worthy recipient of the highest honour that this University can bestow.”