Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Jun 2017








Professor PÁDRAIG Ó MACHÁIN, Ceann, Roinn na Nua-Ghaelige in University College Cork, on 2 June 2017, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on Fr PAT AHERN


Sheansailéir, a Uachtaráin, a mhuintir na hOllscoile agus a dhaoine uaisle, idir chléir agus tuath,


Irish medieval authors tell us that every artistic creation should be interrogated on the following four grounds: locc, aimser, fáth airicc, agus persa (place, time, cause, and originator). If these medieval criteria were applied to the phenomenon we know as Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland, we should answer respectively as follows: place Tralee Co. Kerry; time the 1960s leading up to 1974, when Siamsa Tíre came into existence formally as a company, and on to the present day; cause to provide access to Ireland’s heritage of music, song, dance and storytelling through the medium of theatre; and finally, the originator: our Honorary Graduand, Fr Pat Ahern.


Moyvane in north Kerry is Fr Ahern’s own place of origin, 85 years ago: and even today, in recognition of that important connection, a window from his family home is preserved in the set of the Siamsa Tíre production in Tralee.


North Kerry, as we all know, enjoys a well-earned reputation as a centre of artistic and academic excellence, in two languages at least: the names of Keane, McMahon, and Kennelly will be familiar to you all; so also, to some of you at least, will be the names of those from the area who have excelled academically –  the great O’Rahilly family, for example, that gave us the sibling Professors Thomas, Cecily, and Alfred, who looks down on us today as a former president of UCC –  themselves kin to the great eighteenth-century poet Aogán Ó Rathaile.


These giants of literature and scholarship did not emerge in vacuo. They were rooted in an extraordinary culture of organic creativity that went back to distant times, and that encompassed remarkable achievements in poetry, song, storytelling, music and dance.


From this background, Fr Ahern was born in 1932 into a musical family: he learned the fiddle from the playing of his mother, Margaret Walsh, her father Dan Walsh also being a noted fiddle-player. This active interest in music was transmitted also to her son Seán, Fr Pat’s brother, and we are pleased to welcome Seán and his other brother Dan here today, along with members past and present of Siamsa Tíre.


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 itinerant dancing masters, Jeremiah Molyneux, who taught dancing locally, and whose unique style of dance Fr Ahern introduced to Siamsa Tíre from the very beginning. The depth of this 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. This proved to be the priceless pearl, the unique selling point, that ensured the rapid advance of Siamsa to the professional company it is today. Siamsa had, as it were, a hotline to the deepest indigenous traditions, and this set them apart from everyone else.


Fr Ahern would go on to study organ and piano in Maynooth, and to continue his musical studies here in UCC under Aloys Fleischmann, studying piano under Prof. Fleischmann's mother, Tilly Fleischmann.  From UCC he graduated with a BMus in 1962.


While most of us are doing well if we have one vocation to pursue, it is true to say that Fr Pat has had at least two – the priesthood and the theatre – and that he has been able, through a sense of vision and purpose, to combine the two in the work that has made him famous today. His initial steps into the theatre of tradition comprised a sequence of pageants representing respectively the story of Lourdes, the story of the birth of Christ, and the story of the Passion, which he wrote and produced in Tralee in 1958, 1959 and 1963. The talent for these productions came from the locality, and it prompted Fr Ahern to begin experimenting with theatre not just as a medium for the exploration and portrayal of religious themes, but for a similar investigation and re-transmission of traditional Irish performance art, at a time when one component of that art – namely music – was beginning to come to international attention during the period referred to as that of the folk-revival.


Fr Ahern's vision was wider than that, however, and saw Irish tradition as consisting of an extended family of art forms, each with its own validity and unique set of skills, which he proceeded to assemble under the broad umbrella of theatre, and which quickly came to be called folk theatre.


Ní haon chur i gcéíll ná áibhéil é bunú Amharclann na Mainistreach thiar i dtúis na haoise seo caite a chur i gcomórtas le bunú Shiamsa Tíre i seascaidí na haoise céanna. B'fhada ó chéile an dá mheitheal bhunaitheoirí ó thaobh meoin agus aicme de, ach ní rabhadar gan chosúlachtaí ó thaobh cuspóirí agus cur chuige de. Dá chomhartha sin, tá an téarma ‘náisiúnta’ i dteideal an dá institiúid sa lá inniu.


Bunaíodh an dá cheann tráth go raibh gluaiseacht athbheochana cultúrtha fé lán tseoil: athbheochan litríochta agus theangan agus athbheochan cheoil agus dhúchais. Ceann de na difríochtaí eatarthu gur aníos agus ón dtaobh istigh a tharla gluaiseacht Thra Lí – níor ghá aon Yeats ná aon Synge chun an ceol ná an dúchas a aimsiú dóibh, mar ba leo féin cheana iad: bhíodar ginte san Athair Pat, mar atá ráite agam cheana féin, agus bhíodar ann go smior, rud a d’aithin a easpag féin, Éamonn Ó Cathasaigh, go ndéine Dia trócaire air, a thug gach aon spreagadh agus tacaíocht dó.


Rud eile a bhí agus atá i gcónaí ann ná misneach, tiomáint, agus teaspach. Aon nuálaíocht, aon réabhlóid, is gá misneach chun é a chur ar bun, agus is gá teaspach agus tiomáint chun é a chothú i

dtreo go bhfásfaidh agus go mbláthóidh. Agus anuas air sin, is gá tréithe neachoitianta pearsanta chun dul i bhfáir ar dhaoine, chun an aisling a léiriú agus a mhíniú dóibh, agus chun iad a thabhairt leat. Ní miste a rá go bhfuil na tréithe sin go tiubh san Athair Pat Ahern: misneach, teaspach, pearsantúlacht, cumas áitithe agus meallta.


It would be beyond the compass of this brief encomium to rehearse every remarkable achievement that 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 the Pope 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.


Dá fheabhas agus dá shuaithinsí iad na léirithe a dhein Siamsa Tíre ar fuaid an domhain, is é an ghné is croílár d'fhealsúnacht an chompántais ná an rud uilí agus é ag eascairt ón rud áitiúil. Tá sin le feiscint go soiléir in imeachtaí Siamsa i gcaitheamh na mblianta, an meascán idir taisteal an domhain agus taisteal na hÉireann. An beann agus an meas a bhí agus atá ag an Athair Pádraig ar thábhacht a thíre dúchais, tá sé le léamh ar chlár na n-imeachtaí ó bhliain go chéile: in aon bhliain leis an dturas go Sevilla, cuirim i gcás, thug Siamsa turas Chiarraí chomh maith. Gheofaí feachtais ar nós Seó na Scoileanna sa mbliain 1993 a chur leis sin, agus go háirithe an cur i láthair a tharla i gCnoc na gCaiseal, mí Eanair 1988.


To walk into the Siamsa Tíre complex in Tralee today is to see the tangible and lasting result of Fr Ahern's endeavours: a state-of-the-art theatre and exhibition centre, with full-time staff and a professional company. That monument conceals the years of effort to convert innovatory visionary thinking into a reality.


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, 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.



Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in utroque Jure, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.



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