Gifted com­poser whose work strad­dled clas­si­cal and Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic Ro­bust di­a­logue and ar­gu­ment was some­thing he had no dif­fi­culty in han­dling

The Irish Times - - Obituaries - Mícheál Ó Súil­leab­háin

Born: De­cem­ber 10th, 1950 Died: Novem­ber 7th, 2018

Mícheál Ó Súil­leab­háin, who has died af­ter a long ill­ness at the age of 67, was a mu­si­cian who showed ex­cep­tional gifts as a leader and com­mu­ni­ca­tor in a ca­reer that en­com­passed per­form­ing, com­pos­ing, broad­cast­ing, record­ing (both as per­former and pro­ducer), eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion.

His suc­cess in all of th­ese un­der­tak­ings was aided by an un­usual gift for see­ing the pos­i­tive in the peo­ple he en­coun­tered and the sit­u­a­tions in which he found him­self.

When writ­ing about the com­poser Aloys Fleis­chmann, un­der whom he stud­ied at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Cork, he quoted Vá­clav Havel’s dis­tinc­tion be­tween “op­ti­mism as the con­vic­tion that some­thing will turn out well, and hope as the cer­tainty that some­thing makes sense re­gard­less of how it turns out”. He saw Fleis­chmann as some­one who had moved from op­ti­mism to hope. But his own life and achieve­ments showed how con­struc­tively both can co­ex­ist. He was born in Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary, and from 1969 to 1973 stud­ied mu­sic at UCC, where he also came un­der the di­rect in­flu­ence of Seán Ó Ri­ada. Like Ó Ri­ada, his in­ter­ests strad­dled the worlds of clas­si­cal mu­sic and Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic.

Ir­ish iden­tity

Un­like Ó Ri­ada, he never es­sayed large-scale work in a purely clas­si­cal style. But his ca­reer path fol­lowed that of Ó Ri­ada, as the pull to­wards the tra­di­tional proved much stronger than the mag­netism of any other style or form. The strength of his feel­ing for tra­di­tional mu­sic can be gauged from his 1999 de­scrip­tion of it as “a sonic en­cod­ing of the dy­namic of Ir­ish iden­tity it­self . . . a swirling gy­ro­scope of Ir­ish cul­tural life in its gen­eral sweep”.

The first no­tice of his work in mu­sic in this news­pa­per came in 1972, when Geral­dine Nee­son praised his con­duct­ing of the Col­lege Choral So­ci­ety, writ­ing that he “ob­tained a lively re­sponse” from the young singers. In 1975, he be­came a mu­sic lec­turer at UCC and, in that same year, his first LP, ti­tled sim­ply Mícheál Ó Súil­leab­háin, was re­leased by Gael Linn.

He com­pleted his PhD on in­no­va­tion and tra­di­tion in the mu­sic of Tommy Potts un­der eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist John Black­ing at Queen’s Uni­ver­sity, Belfast, in 1987. That same year he was one of the first artists to be signed to Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin Ven­ture la­bel. A string of col­lab­o­ra­tions with the Ir­ish Cham­ber Orches­tra fol­lowed, in­clud­ing Oileán/Is­land, Casadh/ Turn­ing, and Tem­plum.

Lu­men, his work for the in­ter­val of the 1995 Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test fea­tured, among oth­ers, Brian Kennedy, the Monks of Glen­stal Abbey and the RTÉ Con­cert Orches­tra, was is­sued as a sin­gle by Vir­gin.

In 1994 he de­parted UCC for the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­er­ick, where he was ap­pointed the uni­ver­sity’s first pro­fes­sor of mu­sic and founded the Ir­ish World Mu­sic Cen­tre, which was later re-named the Ir­ish World Academy of Mu­sic and Dance.

His 1995 seven-part tele­vi­sion se­ries for RTÉ and the BBC, A River of Sound: The Chang­ing Course of Ir­ish Tra­di­tional Mu­sic, sparked an in­tense de­bate about what could and could not be re­garded as tra­di­tional.

Ro­bust de­bate

That de­bate was in­ten­si­fied at the 1996 con­fer­ence Cros­b­healach an Cheoil (The Cross­roads Con­fer­ence), at­tended by over 300 del­e­gates, at which he was the key­note speaker.

His views were pit­ted against those of the con­certina player Tony McMa­hon who played tracks from the River of Sound al­bum and de­scribed one piece as “hi­berno-jazz, scrubbed clean of roots and balls”, and an­other as a “rat­tling of bones”. Ro­bust di­a­logue and ar­gu­ment was some­thing he had no dif­fi­culty in han­dling.

His most en­dur­ing mu­si­cal mon­u­ment re­mains the Ir­ish World Academy of Mu­sic and Dance, which opened up the world of aca­demic study, and the qualifications that go with it, to a host of mu­si­cal and dance in­ter­ests not oth­er­wise cov­ered in Ire­land.

He was gen­er­ous with his time and ex­per­tise and served on many boards and com­mit­tees. He was a founder and board mem­ber of Maoin Cheoil an Ch­láir School of Mu­sic in En­nis, chair of the Ir­ish Tra­di­tional Mu­sic Ar­chive, the first chair­man of Cul­ture Ire­land, and a board mem­ber of the Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic Cen­tre, the Ir­ish Cham­ber Orches­tra and Daghdha Dance Com­pany.

He is sur­vived by his wife He­len and step­son Luke, his sons Eoin and Mo­ley (Mícheál) from his first mar­riage to Nóirín Ní Ri­ain, and his brother John O’Sul­li­van.

News of the pass­ing of Mícheál Ó Súil­leab­háin – pi­anist, com­poser, vi­sion­ary ed­u­ca­tion­al­ist and founder/di­rec­tor of the Ir­ish World Academy of Mu­sic & Dance in the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­er­ick – was greeted with wide­spread sad­ness across the tra­di­tional mu­sic and wider arts com­mu­nity this week.

Emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of mu­sic at the academy, he founded in 1994, Ó Súil­leab­háin also recorded a se­ries of vi­sion­ary solo al­bums which po­si­tioned his cho­sen in­stru­ment, the pi­ano, at the heart of Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic – while also cel­e­brat­ing the in­ter­sec­tions where clas­si­cal and tra­di­tional mu­sic could mine rich new seams in uni­son.

Born in Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary, and the first mem­ber of his fam­ily to at­tend uni­ver­sity, Ó Súil­leab­háin re­vealed that trade­mark cu­rios­ity about, and pro­found con­nec­tion with, mu­sic from the time he was a tod­dler. He em­barked on a mu­si­cal path that would bring him to UCC, where he stud­ied un­der Seán Ó Ri­ada, a sem­i­nal in­flu­ence on him, as well as Prof Aloys Fleis­chmann.

Mícheál Ó Súil­leab­háin could have pur­sued a pro­fes­sional ca­reer as a mu­si­cian, but in­stead chose an aca­demic path. His vi­sion for the cre­ation of an academy in UL de­voted to our own na­tive forms of mu­sic and dance was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Ever the col­lab­o­ra­tor, his ini­tial se­cur­ing of spon­sor­ship from Toy­ota was a ground­break­ing ex­am­ple of how busi­ness, arts and academia could col­lab­o­rate in ways pre­vi­ously unimag­ined.

Among his myr­iad achieve­ments were the estab­lish­ment of the Ir­ish World Academy, his pi­o­neer­ing tele­vi­sion se­ries, River Of Sound, and his re­lo­ca­tion of the Ir­ish Cham­ber Orches­tra to Lim­er­ick.

His evoca­tive col­lab­o­ra­tions with Mel Mercier, his fit­ting suc­ces­sor as di­rec­tor of the Ir­ish World Academy of Mu­sic & Dance, were fleet-of-foot cel­e­bra­tions of Ó Súil­leab­háin’s ir­re­press­ible mu­si­cal en­ergy, and their jointly com­posed (Must Be

More) Crispy was a rhyth­mi­cally chal­leng­ing de­light. His many and di­verse mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions re­vealed what he was: truly a mu­si­cal con­quis­ta­dor.


Pi­anist, com­poser and aca­demic Mícheál Ó Súil­leab­háin at his home in Newport, Co Tip­per­ary, in 2016.

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