Diarmuid Ó Cathasaigh – Singer, Musician, Béaloideasóir
News of the passing on 15 November of Diarmuid Ó Cathasaigh, Uachtaráin, Howth Singing Circle, was quickly echoed around Ireland and beyond. He was a much-respected singer – go háirithe amhráin i nGaeilge – and dramatic deliverer of recitations. Few will forget those occasions when the lights suddenly vanished at a session as Diarmuid announced that Dangerous Dan McGrew was firing two shots and – to accompanying screams of terror and excitement from a shocked audience – a cannily concealed Dave O’Connor twice fired Diarmuid’s starting pistol!
Diarmuid dedicated much of his life to preserving and carrying traditional Irish culture. He was closely associated with singers and musicians in every county. The itinerary for his job as a salesman was calculated to coincide with Fleadhanna, seisiún or calling on some musical pal. His knowledge of songs in Irish and English was immense, having often gathered information direct from the songwriter, composer or those most associated with the piece. He delighted in variations of songs or tunes, contrasting a Conamara version with that heard in Sliabh Luachra or Antrim Glen. For years Diarmuid was a stalwart at An Góilín Traditional Singers’ Club but his voice was equally recognisable in Gaoth Dobhair, An Rinn, Ros Muc or Corca Dhuibhne.
Diarmuid was passionate about Gaelic literature, serving for many years on Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge and Áisíneacht Dáileacháin Leabhar (ÁIS) (Books Distribution Agency). Once in a bookshop in Kemper (Quimper) in Brittany, the bookseller asked me where I was from. When I said a fishing village north of Dublin, he replied, ‘Ah – Howth! Ensuite, vous devez connaître Diarmuid Ó Cathasaigh!’ The book dealer knew Diarmuid through Celtic language book fairs and exchanging books in Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
A favourite singer of Diarmuid’s was Darach Ó Catháin. Once, at the Meath Fleadh, Diarmuid won the seán-nós competition. Darach, then living in Rath Cáirn, was runner up! Nuair a míníodh an toradh, dúradh le Darach gur ‘toisc go raibh a fhuaimniú bocht’ (when the result was explained, Darach was told it was because ‘his diction was poor!’). Diarmuid told this story against himself as he held Darach in the highest respect. In Howth, Diarmuid lay the foundations upon which Stiofáin Ó hAoláin and Daire Ó Baoill developed an annual Oíche Gaeilge. Is léir an grá atá ag Diarmuid don teanga agus a dhíograis i leith amhránaíocht seán-nós. Is cúis áthais dom ní amháin a chuid amhránaíochta féin a chloisteáil ach féachaint air agus é ag éisteacht go géar le hamhránaí, bileog súile, ag bualadh gáire.
Diarmuid always gave a welcoming, encouraging hand to singers and musicians, particularly young performers or those clearly unused to or unsure about performing. When Howth Singing Circle appointed a Young Singer in Residence, Diarmuid enthusiastically provided great encouragement to Ruth Clinton and Cathal Caulfield. A tireless generator of new ideas and projects, Diarmuid’s energy and enthusiasm were unbounded. For years, Diarmuid ran events in the Holybrook Hotel where singing, dancing and music were of the high class order. He collected anything to do with Howth and knew many of its celebrated residents like Colm Ó Lochláinn. Originally from County Louth, Diarmuid and his wife Áine contributed hugely to the Howth community. Active in the Church where Diarmuid sang and played harmonica on regular occasions, he was a key figure in the Howth Peninsula Heritage Society.
Diarmuid’s skill in delivering recitations – like Robert Service’s Yukon adventures or Florence M. Wilson’s The Man From God Knows Where – held audiences in stasis as he changed the mood with a drop in his voice, that familiar flick of the head, an emphasis that caught listeners by surprise. Even if a story had been heard umpteen times before, like his pal Micil Ned Quinn from Mullaghbawn, his delivery was always fresh and exciting. Diarmuid was well travelled from Alaska to Brazil, Scandinavia to Beijing, Russia to New York, yet the pity was, in C.J. Boland’s words, that he oft recited, that – as they were never in Mullinahone – he could not say he had ever travelled at all! Diarmuid’s reciting and singing can be heard on the ITMA’s Góilín Song Project, https://www.itma.ie/goilin/singer/ocathasaigh_diarmuid.
As Diarmuid left the church in Howth, friends sang The Parting Glass as he had done at the close of virtually every Howth Singing Circle session for twenty years. They were gathered to celebrate his achievements, his amazing energy and commitment, his informed perspective on traditional music, and his generous spirit. Slán leat, Diarmuid, agus go raibh maith agat as an oiread sin a thabhairt don oiread sin daoine.
Of all the comrades that ere I had, they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that ere I had would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call, good night and joy be with you all
Howth Singing Circle