Seathrún O’Casiade & Gaeltacht Kilkenny
Dr. Seathrún O’Casiade was born in a village, An Luinneach, north of Gweedore, northwest Donegal. He vaguely remembers the day he left - he was about 5 years of age, the youngest of ten as they moved to live in Dublin.
Their dad played fiddle, wrote and arranged music and was a choirmaster all his life. His mother played the piano and the organ .They had a love of the Irish language and it continues to be the language used to this day in Seathrún’s house here in Kilkenny, where he lives with his six children and wife Neasa.
Seathrún says his childhood move from Donegal to Ranelagh was a great adventure. They really stuck out - their next door neighbours on both sides had to put up with fiddle and pipes all day long, with football and hurling all the time on the road. The gate was the goal and there were windows broken by the soccer mad Seathrún!
Music was always in the house and Na Casaidigh traditional family group started one summer when Seathrún was 12, on a family holiday in Knightstown, Valentia. The family was asked to play in the Royal Hotel and ended up with a residency playing to big crowds every night all summer long. Then they would go back to the house with half the pub for a session!
Here is a glimpse into Seathrún’s world…
You must have great memories the summer the band was formed?
There were no parents around and it was a wild summer - swimming by day, gigging by night. My mother was from the island, and when she made it down at the end of the summer there was war.
I was still in primary school. It was some education. Wouldn’t happen today.
What was your home in Ranelagh like growing up?
The home in Ranelagh was a wonderful open type of house, where all kinds of colourful characters would come and go, usually with a musical instrument in tow.
I remember when a German TV crew visited the group at home in Ranelagh, they were talking in German, unaware that my sister had fluent German. They described the place ‘like a busy train station’, and found it amazing how everything suddenly stopped when the music started. “Chaos to calm”, you could say.
You had some wonderful musical childhood friends too, who today are great artists?
One of those characters was Steve Cooney - by a fluke, he was living across the road from us in Merton Drive. I remember playing the piano and looking out the window at this exotic Australian individual, tanned with dreadlocks and barefoot, sitting on the wall and swinging his legs to Carolan’s Concerto. That was his first day in Ireland. We’re friends ever since.
My brothers and I were fortunate to go to Coláiste Eoin - effectively a music academy for Irish music based in Stillorgan. Davy Spillane, Hothouse Flowers, The Bonny Men, Kila and ourselves all at school together!
Been in the school band was the coolest thing. I had a huge problem as I played piano and that wasn’t going to get me into the band - so I picked up the Mandolin, played night and day and made the school band in first year. I was by far the youngest, and we won the All Irelands that same year in Galway. I met Iarla O Leonard in Galway, who won the singing that year too. He’s also been a friend since and I can’t wait to catch up and enjoy the legends Steve and Iarla in Kilkenny’s Set Theatre on St. Patrick’s day.
It wasn’t long when the family’s trad band was recognised all over the world?
Regarding Na Casaidigh, I suppose we got really busy in America after playing for Ronald Reagan and Nancy, a gig that was shown all over America. It opened doors and we played the length and breadth of USA - every State but Hawaii, in the following years. I didn’t keep a diary, but I can remember great occasions and big Irish nights in St. Pats Cathedral, Radio City, Massey Hall Toronto as some highlights, and of course meeting amazing people such as Tip O Neill, Senator Ted Kennedy, and the legendry Pete Seeger whom we had a jam with in Philadelphia.
We later played for Bill Clinton on College Green. I was fortunate to get to chat to him - he said he enjoyed the music and reminded me his mother was a Cassidy.
It wasn’t just in America that the Na Casaidigh’s were a big hit, you also played for President Gorbacev and a Pope?
Michael Gorbacev was very friendly, although he hadn’t a word of English! We also played for Pope John Paul in the Vatican who tapped along to Brian Borus March.
What was your most memorable moment in the band?
An extraordinary moment in time was standing at the monument in Mexico City to honour the hundreds of Irish who died defending Mexico from the American invasion. They were St Patricks regiment ,'Los Patricios' made up of Irish men who deserted and switched sides, having been alienated by the barbarity of the Americans, and a realisation that there were similarities between the plight of the Mexicans and their homeland.
The Mexicans told us how they fought until the end, they were the last to be captured and were then killed mercilessly. Yet they were described by an American General as the fiercest and bravest soldiers they had encountered.
We were there with President Mary McAleese, whom we hugely admired. It was on her first state visit, and we sang 'Dochas Linn Naomh Pádraig 'in four parts, which my father had arranged. I will never forget the emotion on the faces in the Mexican crowd. To have Los Patricios honoured by an Irish President in this way meant so much to them, and I will never forget it.
I had hardly heard of these Irish soldiers, but the emotion amongst the few hundred Mexicans standing around, who were visibly moved, has always stayed with me.
The band also made history with your albums?
We made a few albums - one of them went to number 1 in the album charts - Óró back in ‘98. It was entirely in Irish with the songs we learnt in school. Getting to number one was a first for an Irish language album. We got a great kick out of that.
You also fulfilled a lifelong goal combining your two passions – sport and music?
Just once, my two biggest passions in life came together when I watched Ireland beat England in the European championships in Stutgart in 1988. I was there, just behind Peter Shiltons goal - so near I could almost hear the net move. Afterwards I went back with two of my brothers to the team hotel where we were asked to play for the team who were having a few pints. It turned into the best singsong - ever!
Is the band still together?
The band still plays occasionally, and we’re very proud of the next generation with The Bonny Men and Sibéal blazing a trail.
What do you like about living in Kilkenny?
I moved to Kilkenny 20 years ago and started working in a busy GP practice. It was eventually to become Ayrfield Medical Centre on the Granges Road.
My wife Neasa, and I landed in Burnchurch by sheer chance, and we love it here. There’s nothing more enjoyable than the long summer evenings at Danesfort Hurling Club, where the kids all play hurling and camogie, and where we feel we belong to a great community. I have helped with mentoring one of the camogie teams for a few years.
Music is a never far away and you have brought together a bunch of Kilkenny kids to form a band. It’s like history repeating itself?
I get a great kick out of working with a bunch of seriously talented Kilkenny teenagers who call themselves Gaeltacht Kilkenny. They come from all over the county and are real free spirits - anything goes from blues to jazz to rock and trad, but it all works.
They just draw people in like something I’ve never seen. They packed 400 people in the gorgeous Set Theatre and raised the roof recently. A live album was recorded, which will come out in the summer. They write their own music, though I sometimes chip in. People might have seen them performing on ‘Up for the Match’, singing Dubh agus Omra (black and amber) in honour of the Kilkenny team. Incidentally, when I wrote 'Dubh agus Omra', I was with my whole family in a pub in Valetia. I wrote the piece on a black of a beer mat after watching Kilkenny beat Limerick in the semi-final!
The future sounds bright for these kids?
They will go far. They are going to give 3 shows in one morning in the Set during Seachtain na Gaeilge to cater for people their own age, and of course will be so honoured to open for two legendary performers, Steve Cooney and Iarla O Leonard, again in the Set Theatre on St Patricks night. (Since cancelled)