Seóirse Bodley – first composer to be elected a Saoi of Aosdána was a hugely inspiring figure in Irish music

An Appreciation

Seóirse Bodley, who was born on April 4th, 1933, and passed peacefully away on November 17th, 2023, was a composer of formative and decisive significance in the development of art music in Ireland. More than any other composer of his generation, Seóirse Bodley sought to reconcile within his own prodigious catalogue the rival claims of Irish traditional music and the aesthetic challenges of European modernism. His absorbed enchantment with both was lifelong. As a student at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and subsequently at University College Dublin, where he studied with John F Larchet, he made his first serious forays into composition. His artistic self-awareness was consolidated in Germany, where in the late 1950s he studied composition and conducting at the State Academy for Music and the Performing Arts in Stuttgart. He joined the staff of University College Dublin in 1959 under Prof Anthony Hughes, and taught in UCD until 2004 – an astonishing record of service by any standards. Appointed to a personal chair in 1984 (as Associate Professor of Composition), he counted among his students Raymond Deane, Gerald Barry, Rhona Clarke, Michael Holohan, and Michael McGlynn, all of whom subsequently attained prominence as composers of distinction in Ireland, Britain and further afield.

Prof Bodley’s public contribution to music in Ireland did not rest within the borders of UCD: in 1969, he became the founding chair of the Dublin Festival of Twentieth-Century Music (which was to feature many of his own compositions), and in 1970, he likewise chaired the newly-established Folk Music Society of Ireland. He was also a founding member (in 1981) of Aosdána, Ireland’s Academy for the Arts, and became the first composer to be elected a Saoi of Aosdána in 2008.

Throughout the unfolding of his art, many of Prof Bodley’s original compositions transpired as landmarks in the history of 20th-century Irish art music. His seven symphonies (including two chamber symphonies) were frequently written for public occasions of national significance and were expressly commissioned on that account. His second symphony, for example, entitled I Have Loved the Lands of Ireland (1980) commemorated the centenary of the birth of Pádraig Pearse; his third, Ceol (1981), was written for the opening of the National Concert Hall in Dublin; and his fifth, The Limerick Symphony (1991) commemorated the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. Other of his orchestral works, including A Small White Cloud Drifts over Ireland (1975) afforded strikingly original configurations of traditional music through the medium of a textural impressionism that Prof Bodley himself located in his encounters with Japanese music.

In his song cycles and vocal-orchestral works,he collaborated with several Irish poets, including Brendan Kennelly (A Girl, 1978), Mícheál Ó Siadhail (The Naked Flame, 1987 and Earlsfort Suite, 2000) and Seamus Heaney (The Hiding Places of Love, 2011). One of his earliest such settings was of WB Yeats (Never to have lived is best, 1965). He also made extensive settings of Goethe, George Russell, Thomas MacGreevy, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Seán Ó Riordáin and many other writers, as well as settings of his own texts. Many of these settings were written for distinguished artists with whom Prof Bodley worked closely for sustained periods of time. These included Bernadette Greevy, Aylish Kerrigan and Sylvia O’Brien.


As a writer of works for piano, he significantly enriched the repertoire of contemporary Irish keyboard music. Leading exponents of the instrument, including John O’Conor, Anthony Byrne, Hugh Tinney and Dearbhla Collins, frequently featured his music within their recital and concert programmes. Works such as The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1976) and Aislingí (1977) broke new ground in their meditations on Irish history and experience, and also in their generic inventiveness. Bodley’s chamber music was likewise constantly alert to Ireland as the prevailing subject-matter of his musical discourse, albeit through the agency of novel and often stringently modernist textures and techniques.

To a wider public, Seóirse Bodley was perhaps best known for his congregational settings of the ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass, which hundreds of thousands of people will have sung throughout Ireland, and also for his film music, including his scores for From Ireland’s Past (1978), James Joyce: ‘Is there One Who Understands Me?’ (1981) and Caught in a Free State (1984). His very early orchestral arrangement of the Irish traditional air “The Palatine’s Daughter” enjoyed enormous popularity as the signature tune for the long-running Irish television drama series The Riordans (1965-1979). He made over 100 choral and orchestral arrangements of Irish airs, many of them in the earliest phase of his career, and remained a student of the tradition throughout his life. His scholarly writings on the transcription of seán nós (slow) airs, which date from the late 1970s and early 1980s, remain of valuable account to the present day. As a pianist and conductor, Bodley was perhaps best known as a professional accompanist in recitals of his own music, and as a choral conductor, notably of the Culwick Choral Society and the UCD Philharmonic Choir.

His students in UCD will remember him above else for two constants in his teaching. The first was a quietly-voiced but unmistakable passion for contemporary art music, at a time when this repertory otherwise rarely featured in the university syllabus; the second was an absolutely fastidious sense of craftsmanship which he conveyed through the example of his own arrangements and settings for chamber ensemble as a teacher of compositional technique. In later years, his lectures on orchestration came as a revelation to many, not least on account of the impeccable scores he gently and skilfully elicited from those who participated in his seminars on this subject.

Despite his exceptionally prolific and widely-acclaimed achievement in composition, Seóirse Bodley was withal a very modest and self-effacing person whose retiring demeanour stood in contrast to the visionary courage and passion of his musical imagination. During the past two decades, his wife, the distinguished musicologist Prof Lorraine Byrne Bodley (also a graduate of UCD) was his constant advocate and companion, and published extensively on her husband’s work. To those who knew Lorraine and Seóirse personally, Seóirse’s deep affection and gratitude on that account (to say little of their supremely happy home life together) was always and everywhere apparent. His passing marks the end of an era in Irish musical modernism.


Professor of Music, UCD