Micheal O Suil­leab­hain

Mu­si­cal gi­ant who com­bined aca­demic prow­ess with bril­liance as a com­poser and per­former, writes Liam Collins

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Deaths And Obituaries -

AS THEY walked to­wards a re­cep­tion, fol­low­ing a con­cert at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, phi­lan­thropist Chuck Feeney tapped Micheal O Suil­leab­hain on the shoul­der, and, al­though the mu­si­cian had no idea at the time who the bil­lion­aire was, Feeney told him, “we will be talk­ing later about do­ing a bit of fundrais­ing”.

Their col­lab­o­ra­tion re­sulted in the €20m Ir­ish World Academy of Mu­sic and Dance at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick (UL), which opened in 2011 with O Suil­leab­hain, one of the most tal­ented aca­demics, key­board play­ers and com­posers of his era, at the helm.

The Academy has drawn stu­dents from all over the world and O Suil­leab­hain, who was Pro­fes­sor of Mu­sic at the univer­sity from 1994 un­til his re­tire­ment in 2016, has con­tin­ued to ac­tively pro­mote what is now re­garded as a world cen­tre of ex­cel­lence.

His de­ci­sion to leave Univer­sity Col­lege Cork (UCC), where he had suc­ceeded the leg­endary Sean O Ri­ada as Pro­fes­sor of Mu­sic, arose out of an in­vi­ta­tion to lunch in Jan­uary, 1991, from Ed Walsh, the am­bi­tious founder of the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick.

Walsh asked O Suil­leab­hain if UL es­tab­lished a ‘chair’ of mu­sic, would he and his then wife, the singer Noirin Ni Ri­ain, join the univer­sity.

They said they would, but then UCC put in a counter of­fer. “I can­not tell you how happy I was when he opted for Lim­er­ick,” said Walsh in his mem­oirs. “He and his wife bought a fine house near New­port (Co Tip­per­ary) and he lost no time in putting for­ward an am­bi­tious plan for mu­sic at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick.”

With a €500,000 do­na­tion to his new Mu­sic Depart­ment from Tim Ma­hony of Toy­ota Ire­land, “Michael now had the re­sources to trans­form his vision into re­al­ity,” said Walsh.

“His high in­ter­na­tional stand­ing and the quality of his work were demon­strated read­ily by the large num­ber of in­ter­na­tional stu­dents com­ing to Lim­er­ick on his pro­grammes.”

He also per­suaded the Ir­ish Cham­ber Orches­tra, with whom he of­ten col­lab­o­rated, to re­lo­cate to Lim­er­ick.

“Poach­ing pays,” con­cluded Walsh.

In get­ting O Suil­leab­hain, Walsh was not only get­ting one of the fore­most aca­demics in his field, but a man who com­bined the­ory with bril­liance as a mu­si­cian, com­poser and per­former.

“It was a young univer­sity of course, hun­gry for new ideas... I found an amaz­ingly fer­tile at­mos­phere, a univer­sity that was good at fundrais­ing, a very bright and snappy young univer­sity, ready for new ideas, ready to prove it­self and com­pete at an in­ter­na­tional level... the idea of a chair of mu­sic was ac­cepted as some­thing cen­tral, so that was great,” he later told the Lim­er­ick Leader news­pa­per.

Micheal O Suil­leab­hain, who died at the Milford Care Cen­tre in Lim­er­ick af­ter a lengthy ill­ness last Wed­nes­day at the age of 67, was born in 1950 in Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary, where his par­ents had a gro­cery shop.

He re­peated his Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate to avail of the new free third-level ed­u­ca­tion in­tro­duced by Donogh O’Mal­ley and was the first of his fam­ily to go to univer­sity.

He stud­ied mu­sic un­der Sean O Ri­ada and Aloys Fleis­chmann at UCC where he met his wife Noirin Ni Ri­ain. He grad­u­ated with an MA in 1973 and the cou­ple moved to the Ring gaeltacht in Co Waterford where they worked as teach­ers and learned Ir­ish. He re­turned to Cork to join the Mu­sic Depart­ment of UCC in 1975, where he even­tu­ally be­came Pro­fes­sor. He did a PhD (1987) in Queen’s Univer­sity, Belfast.

He was a vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at Bos­ton Col­lege in 1990 and founded ar­chives of tra­di­tional Ir­ish mu­sic in Amer­ica and Bri­tain and recorded with his wife, other mu­si­cians and a variety of or­ches­tras at home and abroad over the decades.

“I am any­thing but a main­stream, iden­ti­fi­able com­poser, so there­fore I don’t al­ways fit into the nec­es­sary boxes,” he told The Ir­ish Ex­am­iner in an in­ter­view last year, be­fore em­bark­ing on a se­ries of con­certs. “There is a nat­u­ral de­fault po­si­tion in the sys­tem — I spent my life in uni­ver­si­ties, so I know all about them — whereby ev­ery­body wants to tidy up ev­ery­thing, it is eas­ier to have ev­ery­one in their own lit­tle box.”

It was cer­tainly dif­fi­cult to put O Suil­leab­hain into any par­tic­u­lar box. Among the fore­most aca­demic mu­si­cians in Ire­land, he was also a multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist and is best known for his dis­tinc­tive piano and key­board in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Ir­ish tunes and his own com­po­si­tions, which con­tained Ir­ish tra­di­tional idioms, com­bined with jazz and clas­si­cal in­flu­ences.

“From my early 20s, once I re­alised that I was kind of stuck with the piano, that was my in­stru­ment, in a way I used it to al­low, al­most like a cul­tural cross­roads, lots of dif­fer­ent voices to in­ter­act with each other,” he ex­plained.

His first record, Ce­olta Eire­ann, was re­leased by Claddagh Records in 1976 and, with Gael Linn, Virgin and EMI, he fol­lowed this over the years with The Dol­phin’s Way, Phoenix Ris­ing, Celtic Joy and var­i­ous col­lab­o­ra­tions with the Ir­ish Cham­ber Orches­tra and the RTE Con­cert Orches­tra. He also played with Van Mor­ri­son, The Gloam­ing and many other tra­di­tional mu­si­cians. Among his most recog­nis­able com­po­si­tions is the haunting tune Wood­brook. He also recorded tra­di­tional mu­sic in the Shet­land and Cape Bre­ton Is­lands as well as in Bri­tain and Amer­ica. Over the years, he re­ceived a se­ries of hon­orary doc­tor­ates and other aca­demic and mu­sic awards.

Micheal O Suil­leab­hain of­fi­cially re­tired in late 2016 af­ter 22 years at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, but con­tin­ued to hold the ti­tle of Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Mu­sic and he con­tin­ued to per­form un­til con­strained by ill­ness.

“If you look into your heart and body and you find you are car­ry­ing this talent and you have a pas­sion to go with it, you have to fol­low your heart, your in­stinct,” he said.

Micheal O Suil­leab­hain and his wife Noirin Ni Ri­ain had two sons Eoin and Michael (Mo­ley).

They di­vorced in the late 1990s and his for­mer wife, who now lives with the monks in Glen­stal Abbey near the cou­ple’s home in New­port, was among the wed­ding guests when he mar­ried Pro­fes­sor He­len Phe­lan in July, 2017. They have one son, Luke.

His fu­neral will take place in St Se­nan’s Church, Kil­rush, Co Clare, to­mor­row at 12.30pm.

GE­NIUS: Micheal O Suil­leab­hain’s mu­sic had a time­less quality

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.