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The Irish Times 11.10.2004 Cuid a haon
The Outgoing Type

Éamon de Buitléar, broadcaster, musician, environmentalist - oh, and fisherman - talks to Paddy Woodworth.

'I hope," says Éamon de Buitléar at the end of a two-hour interview, "that I haven't bored you to tears." It is typical of the natural modesty of this most accomplished man that he should make such a comment. I would have very happily spent another two hours listening to him, not just for the pleasure of his infectiously vibrant company, but because you learn something new from him every few minutes.

De Buitléar seems to have more stories, about more subjects, than the Bible. He acknowledges that this must have posed a problem for the editors of his new autobiography, A Life in the Wild. "Did I put this one in the book?" he asks repeatedly during our conversation, and the answer is usually no.

Often he will think that he did, but then remembers that he wrote a lot more than was actually published. There is only so much that can be packed into 215 pages, and it is much less than the whole of an exceptionally full life. Or perhaps that should be "lives", because the book could equally well have been titled A Life in Music.

There is also plenty of material on film-making, politics, and the Irish language, not to mention the galaxy of fascinating and talented people who throng through his life. There does not seem to have been a moment when De Buitléar was not in good company.

Many of us will remember him first as the man who, as a self-taught film-maker with the brilliant but difficult Gerrit Van Gelderen, pioneered the ground-breaking wildlife series Amuigh Faoin Spéir for RTÉ. That partnership ended abruptly when Van Gelderen told him, in the course of a conversation with their accountant, that: "I could be making better films if you were not part of the team."

From then on, De Buitléar has worked alone. However, he repeatedly and warmly acknowledges the invaluable assistance of a host of first-class technicians, such as the late lamented sound engineer, Pat Hayes. He still does some of his own photography, but most of it is now done by his son Cian, who has also distinguished himself as a cinematographer for feature films.

Eamon de Buitléar also gives full credit to the many scientists who have advised him, including Richard Collins and Rory Harrington.

He remembers Van Gelderen's multiple talents - photographer, naturalist, illustrator - with great admiration, and recalls their parting now with mild amusement, some regret, and no rancour. "I saw us working together forever, but he was quite jealous in some ways." In the tiny pond of Irish wildlife film-makers they inevitably stayed in touch, "but we weren't what you would call real friends after that".

In his parallel life as a musician, De Buitléar had a close relationship with another brilliant but notoriously eccentric man, Seán Ó Riada, and this friendship lasted last right up to the latter's death. In many ways, De Buitléar was Ó Riada's representative on earth, during the period when he embarked on a historic project of musical innovation, the creation of Ceoltóirí Cualann.

To hear De Buitléar tell it, his life has been a series of happy accidents, and he claims little credit for his own talents. That life started in an exceptional family. His parents were both Irish speakers, but of the kind who consider the language their natural heritage, not as a flag to be waved or a badge to be worn. Nevertheless, at least one of their neighbours in Bray seems to have thought the children suffered from some kind of speech defect.

"Excuse me, mam!" this woman exclaimed to his mother, hearing the children chattering along the street, "but were they born that way?"

De Buitléar and his wife Laillí have made sure that their five children were "born that way", too, and several of them are now passing the language on to a fourth generation. He recognises, however, that the future of Irish, in a world in which the computers all speak English, is going to be even more difficult.

He remembers his mother as "an out-and-out nationalist who knew all the rebel songs". She cherished a medal for service against the Black and Tans, about which he is gently sceptical. But she was equally at home in the very west British atmosphere of the RDS Horse Show of the 1930s and 1940s. The family's entry to that world was through his father, an army officer who liaised with the foreign showjumping teams, which were then mostly military.

His father also gave his children a rare insight into a new Irish institution, since he was aide-de-camp to the first President, Douglas Hyde. The young Éamon, who had learned to fish in the Dargle river which ran along the bottom of the family garden in Bray, remembers hooking rudd in a pool at Áras an Uachtaráin, and presenting a tactfully appreciative Hyde with his catch.

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The Irish Times 11.10.2004

Cuid a dó
He also recalls that Hyde used to invite the Áras gardener, an Irish-speaker like most of the staff, into his rooms for whiskey and a chat. The top civil servant at the Áras, who could not speak Irish and reflected the snobbery of the new middle class, was outraged, and protested to De Buitléar senior. "He is the President," retorted the aide-de-camp. "He can do what he likes."

This episode chimes well with a core principle of his obviously formidable mother's, which was simply that "we were at least as good as anyone else".

Today, this sparkling 73-year-old's talk is imbued with genuine egalitarianism. He speaks with equal respect of salmon poachers and scientists.

The poachers taught him a thing or two in his youth, and his childhood love of nature grew comfortably parallel to a love of country people, their manner of speaking and their intimate knowledge of wildlife. "Even the people who trapped finches knew so much, and some of that is lost now." He recalls with admiration a wildfowler who could locate and shoot a wigeon by the sound of its wingbeats alone. "And he would bring it down dead, and get his dog to it, not leave it lingering the way some shooting people do today."

He sees no contradiction between fishing or shooting for the pot, and a dedication to conservation. He understands the concerns of the anti-bloodsports lobby and the eco-warriors, but he thinks their energy could be better directed at bigger issues.

"They are so concerned about the obvious, they miss some of the important things that are happening. Rivers and lakes being destroyed, and they pay more attention to getting rid of foxhunters. I'm not saying if they are right or wrong, but water is crucial."

From Amuigh Faoin Spéir onwards he has campaigned on environmental issues. Here he shows himself to be no respecter of persons in power, and is equally trenchant about the failings of Charles Haughey and Michael D. Higgins in relation to the Burren interpretative centre controversy. But he has always tried to be inclusive and pragmatic. He thinks it is vital to work with farmers, not against them, and is frustrated by the lack of co-ordination among the State and semi-State agencies which deal with what might be broadly called outdoor issues.

If this is controversial territory, the waters of the traditional music world often seem equally shark-infested. Yet De Buitléar moved among powerful personalities such as Ó Riada, Paddy Moloney, and Brendán Breathnach, and never seems to have suffered injury. I asked him about the strains which must have been evident when Moloney decided to form The Chieftains, a project which tended to clash with Ó Riada's Ceoltóirí Cualann, though the newer group brought the great man's ideas to a much broader audience.

"If there were strains we did not see too much of them. Of course, The Chieftains based everything on what Ó Riada did, and Sean didn't like it, but there was not too much he could about it, and the lads needed to make money."

De Buitléar had a high reputation as a button accordion player with Ceoltóirí Cualann, and later with his own group, Ceoltóirí Laigheann, with whom he also played bodhrán. But one has to suspect that his best instrument was the goodwill and trust which his remarkable personality engendered among a group of naturally individualistic, not to say fractious, musicians.

He remembers his time with Ó Riada as "a revolution in attitudes to traditional music. It's hard for people to imagine now how things were then. We were thrown out of a Dublin pub simply because traditional musicians were not welcome in many places, we were not respectable. Ó Riada changed all that. Of course, many traditional musicians did not like what we were doing; there was a fear we were changing the tradition too much."

This, of course, is a debate which continues to rage today, rivers of sound generating rivers of bad blood between innovators and purists. While clearly underwhelmed by the likes of Riverdance, De Buitléar characteristically has time for both points of view.

He does feel that "there is a danger where musicians who think they are traditional want to 'develop the music', as they call it, without having the real basis in the tradition first of all. That was my reason for having older musicians like Sonny Brogan and John Kelly in Ceoltóirí Laigheann: as an anchor, I wanted younger musicians to have a real link with the past."

By the late 1970s, De Buitléar finally found that he had to choose between film-making and music as his main career. He opted for the camera, but still managed to interweave his two great loves. He included Sardinian music in a film on wildlife on the island, and Séamus Ennis was the subject of a whole documentary, Miles and Miles of Music. And at his recent book launch he suddenly decided to play harmonica rather than make a speech.

Nature has predominated in his films, however, with titles such as The Cry of the Mountain, Ireland's Wild Countryside, The Land of the Wild Otter, and the partly retrospective A Life in the Wild keeping De Buitléar's aquiline features prominent on our screens over the past two decades. His most recent work has shifted ground again, with two films focusing on the sailors and boat-builders of his beloved Connemara.

Does a life so fully lived leave any room for regrets? The richly weathered and sharply alert face, the eyes which shine so readily with laughter and delight, certainly suggest otherwise. De Buitléar pauses.

"I don't think you regret what you have done," he says. "But I do regret what I didn't do ... I'd love to have been a really good painter, I do a little painting now but I should have started years ago Maybe I should have studied zoology, but then maybe I would never have made films I'm not a specialist at anything, I just like the outdoors." Long may he take us outdoors with him.

A Life in the Wild is published by Gill & Macmillan, €24.99

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