A tribute to the renowned Irish musician, composer and educator who died on 7 November 2018.
It’s almost exactly two years since I last met Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. On 3 November 2016, just after his retirement from the University of Limerick, we had arranged to meet at his house in Newport, Co. Tipperary. I wanted to interview him for the Journal of Music and talk to him about his life and music, how he viewed all the changes in Irish music that he had seen, and how he viewed his own place in that.
It was, however, also just a chance to meet and talk. Our paths had crossed many times over the preceding 25 years, but we had never had the opportunity to discuss our common interests in any detail.
We spoke for two hours over tea in his kitchen, beginning with his childhood and travelling right through his life up to his retirement, and I tried to understand how he had managed to cause such huge change in traditional music, bringing this art form into the confines of third-level education, finding a common language that made sense to all. It was clear that the educational leap in his own life was significant – he was the first in his family to go to third-level, and then, as a student at UCC, he walked ‘right into the forcefield of Fleischmann and Ó Riada’.
In the mid-70s, he became a lecturer there and set about a transformation of the status of Irish traditional music in education that continues to have repercussions to this day. The key, he told me, in the world of academic politics, was to find a precedent. While he got stuck into developing the curriculum, Ó Súilleabháin made a concurrent argument to the university authorities that they were hiring native speakers for the language department, so why couldn’t they hire traditional musicians to teach Irish traditional music?
He was successful, and Connie O’Connell starting teaching fiddle there, and by the mid-80s, he had managed to convince the authorities to develop the entrance procedures so that young traditional musicians could start doing music degrees too. Thus began a far-reaching cultural shift in Irish music. In 1994, Ó Súilleabháin established the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick, later the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, which advanced his vision even further, giving increased numbers of students the opportunity to do an entire degree, Master’s degree and PhD in Irish traditional music.
Ó Súilleabháin’s gifts as a communicator brought him into the field of broadcasting and in 1995 he presented the River of Sound television series, subtitled The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music. His ability to parse the many aspects of traditional music was inspired, but there was controversy too because the programmes emphasised music that was particularly adventurous. In a talk at the Crossroads Conference a year later, Ó Súilleabháin explained his ideas – ‘tradition is change’, he said, and we were witnessing ‘something new emerging’. This is obvious to us now, but in the fast-changing Ireland of the 1990s, it was not the popular thing to say.
His contribution did come to be deeply valued as more and more traditional musicians had the opportunity to study at third-level, and in 2011 he received the TG4 Gradam Aitheantais/Special Recognition Award. It was an important moment. At the announcement in Galway City Museum, when his name was read out, he was standing at the back and simply raised a glass, smiled and nodded to all around.
Ó Suilleabháin’s own music was inspired by Ó Riada, and from his first encounters with the composer in the 60s, he began to ‘relish the adrenalin rush in the energy field between… the classical and the traditional.’ In 2016, he was still ‘obsessed with resolving it’, but was also enjoying writing new types of work for orchestra. His music used traditional and original melodies, often played by Ó Súilleabháin on piano or by traditional musicians, with orchestra, and perhaps one of his finest recordings is Oileán/Island from 1989. His pieces Woodbrook and (Must Be More) Crispy also brought him wide recognition.
His skill and influence as a piano player was also significant. He developed a style of playing traditional tunes on the piano that was new, with incredible dexterity in his ability to play traditional ornaments. The Dolphin’s Way from 1987 was a groundbreaking recording – also featuring his long-time collaborator Mel Mercier – and contained Ó Súilleabháin’s trademark piece Oíche Nollag/Christmas Eve, which moves between classical, traditional and jazz.
The last time I was in contact with Mícheál was in the autumn of 2017, shortly after his performance with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. He was invigorated by the whole experience, and said it ‘released something in myself that I am currently negotiating with in terms of some new writing.’ He always seemed to have new plans in mind, whether music or research projects. The same year, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Ó Súilleabháin was a doer and a visionary, an exceptional musician, composer and educator who changed Irish music for the better, right at the heart of its structures, through determination, energy and an enduring sense of good will. Whenever we think we cannot overcome some great challenge in our artistic and musical life, we will always be able to look to his extraordinary example. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.