He couldn’t play a note of music, yet his contribution to Irish traditional music was invaluable. Ciaran Mac Mathuna was for over 50 years “the voice of Irish traditional music on Irish radio”. In the words of Christy Moore: “His work over the years saved the music of hundreds of players whose unique style and phrasing would have been lost without the recordings he organised.”
He was born in Limerick in 1925, one of six children. His mother Christine died when he was a year old. His father Seamus was a school teacher, an Irish language speaker and active in the Gaelic League. He used to visit their father’s village in Co Tipperary. “They never bothered changing the clocks when the new time came,” He told Eileen Battersby for the Irish Times in 1996. “It was as if it was a different place from the rest of the country and the people wanted to keep it that way.”
He won a scholarship to university and after a year doing engineering (where he said he was “found out”) he graduated from University College, Dublin, in modern Irish and Latin. He went on to do a masters in Irish on the subject of the themes in Irish folk songs. After college he worked as a temporary teacher and later with the Placenames Commission.
He first joined Radio Eireann as a producer in 1954. One of his first jobs was to travel around the country in the company of a mobile recording unit gathering material for RE’s traditional music archive, mining a vein previously worked by Proinsias O Conluain, who had began working on the project in 1947, Seamus Ennis and Sean Mac Reamoinn.
In 1955 his work took him to Ardrahan in Co Galway to meet with Martin Fursey who had a great store of folklore. He also met Dolly, Martin’s daughter and an accomplished folk singer in her own right. They married and had two sons and a daughter.
He found recording and presenting A Job of Journeywork very enjoyable work, travelling around Ireland and many parts of America, England and Scotland recording traditional music and songs. Beginning in1955, A Job of Journeywork featured recorded music and song. The recordings started in Clare. “From that we got a lot of the programmes.” From there he moved on to the music of Kerry and then to Antrim, Galway, Mayo, Donegal, Leitrim and so on.
He was conscious that the programmes were providing information and education as well as entertainment. They also covered music festivals across Ireland, all the while collecting and compiling valuable archival material.
In 1962 they went to America collecting music, calling the programme American Journeywork. During that trip he came across recordings by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and on his return to Ireland started broadcasting their songs for the first time on Radio Eireann. He also made rare recordings of box player Joe Cooley in Bridie Lafferty’s house in Dublin with fiddle player Joe Leary. Those recordings make up the bulk of Cooley, the only album featuring the iconic Galway man’s music.
His gentle, slow manner of talking help put nervous musicians and singers at their ease. He told the Irish Times that being neither a musician nor a singer proved an advantage in that it gave him an element of professional detachment. “There were fewer distractions for me, I was not going to be asked to sing or play a tune. It was easier for me just to listen.”
He started the Mo Cheol Thu Sunday morning programme in 1970 and it became one of the longest running programmes on radio. To celebrate its 25th birthday, RTE issued an album of selected recordings.
Other programmes he presented were A Job of Journeywork, Ceolta Tire and The Humours Donnybrook.
He won two Jacobs Awards, in 1969 and 1990 and received the Freedom of his native Limerick in 2004. He also received honorary doctorates from University College, Galway, and the University of Limerick.
He held that radio was a better medium for music than television. He once said: “Even though I did television, radio is a better medium for music. There are no pictures to distract your attention.”
Ciaran Mac Mathuna died on December 11, 2009, exactly one week after the death of Liam Clancy, marking the passing of a generation which did so much to celebrate and conserve Irish music. At his funeral, the poet Seamus Heaney likened Ciaran Mac Mathuna’s distinctive soft voice to a tuning fork that resonated with musicians and music lovers across the country.