Ómós: Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin

Ó Súilleabháin marbh – but his legacy is immense

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin: born December 10 1950 – died November 7 2018

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin – musician, composer, academic and artist – died recently after a long illness. Like many musicians before him, he has left a wonderful catalogue of audio and video recordings of his inspired performances of both traditional airs and new compositions. But, uniquely his legacy includes the realisation of his panoramic cultural vision in the form of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance on the campus of the University of Limerick.

Mícheál’s genius was in not only having this vision – but in also having the personality, the courage and the organisational skills to make the vision a reality – and to continue to develop it by encouraging others to share in the ownership of the project.

Since its foundation in 1994 under Mícheál’s leadership, the academy has achieved an international reputation as a centre of global excellence in teaching and research into traditional music and dance – attracting students and faculty members from around the world, supported by many outstanding professional performers as mentors.

Describing Mícheál as the driving force behind the development of the Irish World Academy, its current director, Sandra Joyce, added that his colleagues were “swept along by his incredible energy, joie de vivre and vision.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – his musical and academic talents, Mícheál was profoundly democratic. For example, even after Mícheál became Director of the Irish World Academy, he continued to see the value of his trade union membership, though no longer perhaps in terms of any specific employment benefits for him, but more as a declaration of his inclusive and solidaristic approach to music and society.

In UCC, he had developed a much more inclusive approach to admission to third-level education, as one former student – and now Professor of Music in the Irish World Academy, Mel Mercer, noted: “He was the first to open the door for traditional musicians into the university. I walked through the door [at UCC] with a bodhrán and bones in my hand, and it seemed a terribly unlikely thing to have the opportunity to do.

“At that time we imagined that to study music at university you needed to have a classical instrument or repertoire. Mícheál began his work of elevating the status of traditional music at UCC, where he did the groundwork. He shepherded and nurtured the first generation of traditional Irish musicians in third-level education.”

His friend, Donal Lunny, who worked with Mícheál many times over the years, summarised his achievement: “Mícheál was always a presence in my life, as a prolific force on the Irish music scene. It was undoubtedly Mícheál’s vision and enthusiasm which propelled the World Academy to its brilliant realisation.”

Beyond his monumental achievements in the worlds of music and academia, Mícheál’s personal legacy will endure in the joyous memories of his family, friends and colleagues – but none more so than his wife, Professor Helen Phelan and their son, Luke; and his sons by his first marriage, Eoin and Mícheál and their mother, Nóirín Ní Ríain.

“His music and outstanding work will forever be enjoyed by countless people, celebrating his humour, his fearless sense of exploration and his talent for harmony, joy and mobilising the peerless power of music.”

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

“It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be doing this today if it wasn’t for his constant inspiration and enthusiastic support. He opened my eyes and ears to ways of thinking about traditional music and its relationship to the rest of the world and his spirit will always be with me.”

Concertina player and composer, Niall Vallely, who began his music studies with Mícheál in UCC in 1988

“Many years ago I was privileged to record a video clip of Mícheál playing Idir Eatharthu in a rehearsal studio at the University of Limerick. It was to be part of a video for SIPTU (Mícheál was a proud trade union member).

“As we only had one camera, we did three takes from different camera positions. Not only were the three takes perfectly synchronised with each other. They were also played at the exact tempo of the CD recording: his internal metronome was faultless.

“But beyond his exceptional musical mastery, I was struck by his complete engagement and his remarkable generosity with his time to ensure that we got everything we needed for the video.

Séamas Sheils, Editor of Fonn

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin at his piano, 2000 (Photo: Paul McCarthy)

Exploring the river of sound

Nicholas Carolan reviews the career of his friend

Recognised from an early age as a talented musician, Mícheál went on to perform to acclaim throughout Ireland and Europe, and in the United States and Asia, on his chosen main instrument, the piano. He created a unique piano style which fused elements of Irish traditional music, classical music and jazz, and these same elements informed his work as a composer.

The recipient of frequent commissions, he composed mainly for solo piano, for voice and piano, for piano and orchestra, and for traditional instruments and orchestra.

Among his larger-scale compositions are Oileán/Island (1988), Woodbrook (1992), Templum (1994), and Becoming (1997). He also scored for film, notably for the 1926 silent film Irish Destiny, which he accompanied live.

Beginning in 1975 with an eponymous LP on the Gael Linn label, he recorded and produced a series of some thirteen long-playing records for Gael Linn, for Virgin/Venture (commencing with The Dolphin’s Way in 1987), and for EMI (Elver Gleams, 2010). He also produced and played on the recordings of many others.

His numerous musical collaborators included percussionist Mel Mercier, singers Nóirín Ní Ríain and Iarla Ó Lionárd, flute players Niall Keegan and Matt Molloy, saxophonist Kenneth Edge, uilleann pipers Liam O’Flynn and Padraig Keane, and the ensembles Tiompán, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the Irish Concert Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Chamber Choir, Hiberno-Jazz, and the Abbey Quartet

Attracted to eighteenth-century Irish harp music and to classical music of the baroque period, he had lately been arranging and performing the music of the harper-composer Turlough Carolan (1670–1738).

Mícheál also led a highly productive inter-related life as an educationalist. He, himself, was educated locally by the Irish Christian Brothers; at the Music Department, University College Cork; and at the Department of Social Anthropology, Queen’s University Belfast, where he completed his PhD in 1987 on the Dublin traditional fiddle player Tommy Potts. He was particularly influenced by his teachers, Aloys Fleischman, Seán Ó Riada, and John Blacking.

Working as a dynamic and inspirational music lecturer in UCC from 1975 to 1993, he opened up university education to traditional musicians without classical music training by devising new entry requirements and courses, and he created an ethno-musicological model that has been widely imitated in third-level education.

He attracted a range of talented students from all parts of the country, and widened their horizons by involving them in the organisation of ambitious festivals, in the publication of CDs, and in the establishment of archives.

When recruited as Professor of Music by the University of Limerick in 1993 with a brief to establish post-graduate music courses and research, he founded the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, an evolving cross-cultural music, song, and dance educational institution with a concentration on global performing arts. It currently offers over 25 programmes in music, song, and dance, and in related areas such as music therapy and festive arts, and has a student body drawn from over 50 countries.

A Living Memorial: The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick.

Mícheál was the driving force in the creation of the Academy’s magnificent new building on the banks of the Shannon. Succeeded as Director by his colleague Sandra Joyce, he became Emeritus Professor of Music on his retirement in 2016.

Mícheál published numerous articles in magazines and journals, many on the subject of his PhD; he edited Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland with Donal O’Sullivan (1983); and, as assistant editor of Aloys Fleischmann’s posthumous Sources of Irish Traditional Music c. 1600–1855 (1998), he managed the last stages of the project and, with others, brought it to print.

Community Music: Mícheál and his wife, Professor Helen Phelan, attend the opening of the World Music Café in Limerick (Photo: Lylian Fotabong).

He spent periods as a visiting professor at Boston College (where he established a traditional music archive) and the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. His academic awards included honorary Doctor of Music from the National University of Ireland; honorary alumnus of Boston University; O’Donnell Chair of Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame; and honorary Doctor of Music, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

As a highly articulate and charismatic public figure, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin gave unsparingly of his time and energies. He was the Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive for two terms, 1993–99; a board member of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Dagda Dance Company, the UL Concert Hall, and the Contemporary Music Centre; Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Ard-Ollamh of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Clonmel, 2006; and inaugural Chair of the Irish arts promotion agency Culture Ireland 2005–14.

Nicholas Carolan, Director Emeritus of the Irish Traditional Music Archive

Much in demand as a conference keynote speaker, in Ireland and abroad, he responded generously to frequent invitations to launch festivals and publications and to give public interviews. He regularly broadcast on radio and television programmes, in English and Irish; a highpoint of his career as a broadcaster was, with Philip King and Nuala O’Connor, the 1995 RTÉ and BBC television series, River of Sound, which charted the changing nature of Irish traditional music.

Nicholas Carolan is the Director Emeritus of the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA). This appreciation was first published by the ITMA and is reprinted with its permission.

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