Eamon de Buitlear: Film-maker and environmentalist


For anyone who grew up in Ireland from the 1960s to the present, Éamon de Buitléar was a household name. He achieved this status as a chronicler of rural Ireland and what he called "the unofficial countryside" of urban development, through his writings and the natural history programmes he made for Ireland's national broadcaster RTE.

In 1962, with Amuigh Faoin Spéir [Out Under the Skies], de Buitléar transformed Ireland's awareness of its flora and fauna, agricultural practices, habitat conservation, traditional handicrafts and environment, in the nation's first wildlife series.

De Buitléar was also a key figure in changing attitudes towards traditional Irish music. Despite the Irish Folklore Commission having sent out Séamus Ennis, among others (later the subject of de Buitléar's 1975 film profile Miles and Miles of Music), during the early 1940s to document Irish culture, many considered folk music to be backward, peasant fare. De Buitléar helped change that, especially through his playing in the Ceoltóirí Chualann [Musicians of Wicklow] in the 1960s, out of which came the Chieftains, and Ceoltóirí Laighean [Musicians of Leinster] during the 1970s.

The second of seven children – four sons followed by three daughters – born to Colonel Éamon de Buitléar and his wife Nora, de Buitléar was born in Renmore Barracks in Galway. His father was aide-de-camp to Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first President, whose English translation of the ornithology-strewn song "Cill Aodain nó Condae Mhuigheo" [Killean or County Mayo] concludes de Buitléar's introduction to his Ireland's Wild Countryside (1993).

The family moved to the Dargle Valley near Bray in Co Wicklow while de Buitléar was a boy; his father had fallen for their prospective new home on setting eyes on its salmon run. Both parents were Irish Gaelic speakers, laying the foundations for their son's bilingualism. After de Buitléar's death, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, declared him an "outstanding broadcaster in both languages".

De Buitléar met Paddy Moloney, the future mastermind behind the Chieftains, after he had moved to Dublin. By the late 1950s they were playing dance music in the Loch Gamba Ceili Band. The prodigiously gifted Moloney taught him new tunes each week, in exchange for which De Buitléar took him pigeon shooting.

While de Buitléar was working on a Raidió Éireann children's hour series about a leprechaun, he had Moloney supply splashes of music. Moloney had a day job, so he would stash his instruments with de Buitléar, go to work, then leave his office later on the pretence of going out for stationery. Since the programme was broadcast live, Moloney's superiors never rumbled him. When it morphed into a television cartoon in 1962, the year after RTÉ launched, Moloney was on hand, double-tracking uilleann pipes and whistles.

The hunting connection also brought Seán Ó Riada, music director and composer of the Abbey Theatre, into their orbit. De Buitléar was working in an angling and hunting shop in Dublin and Ó Riada was in an aspiring country squire phase. Moloney and de Buitléar (with his button accordion) were present for the formation of Ceoltóirí Chualann in 1960. The name alluded to the Slíghe Chualann, one of Ireland's ancient trackways and, by implication, a classical path, musically speaking. In his 2004 autobiography A Life in the Wild, de Buitléar relates how this folk orchestra emerged from well-lubricated sessions at Ó Riada's Dublin home. Infamously Ó Riada would publically disband the group during a radio interview in 1969.

When de Buitléar and the Dutch illustrator Gerrit van Gelderen began presenting the co-produced Amuigh Faoin Spéir, it made a huge impact on the national consciousness. Aside from revealing the glories of the Irish countryside, it was also an environmental wake-up call. Over the next decades, de Buitléar filmed in locations like the Azores and Bermuda, and with broadcasters including the BBC, S4C and STV, but it is for his Irish revelations that he will be remembered above all.

In 1987, in recognition of his environmental work, he was appointed to the Seanad Éireann, the upper chamber. Appointments to the Heritage Council and the Central Fisheries Board followed. In 2012 he donated his complete archive of film, music and writings to the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Ken Hunt

Éamon de Buitléar, environmentalist, film-maker and musician: born Galway 22 January 1930; married 1957 Eibhlín "Laillí" Lamb (one son, four daughters); died Delgany, Co Wicklow 27 January 2013.

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