Ó Súilleabháin changed Irish music

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin pictured at the National Gallery of Ireland in 2005 when he became the inaugural chair of Culture Ireland, a national agency responsible for promoting Irish arts overseas. GRAHAM HUGHES/ROLLING NEWS.IE

By Daniel Neely

The world of Irish music lost one of its most prominent leaders last Wednesday in the passing of pianist, composer, and academic Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. A champion of the serious study of traditional music who merged elements of classical and traditional musics in his own compositional work, he was the Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Limerick. He was 67 years old.

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President Higgins, an old friend, attended the funeral with hundreds of others on Monday at St. Senan’s Church, Kilrush, Co. Clare.

Ó Súilleabháin came from an impressive academic background. He earned both his B.Mus (1972) and his MA (1973) from University College Cork, where he studied with Aloys Fleischmann and Seán Ó Riada, major figures both. Upon graduating he became a lecturer at UCC, where he first invested intellectual energy into the elevation of traditional music in the academy by incorporating it into the curriculum for BA and BMus degrees.


In addition to his groundbreaking academic work at this time, Ó Súilleabháin began to distinguish himself as a performer and composer, through the albums “Ceolta Eireann" (1976), “Óró Damhnaigh (1977), and “Cry Of The Mountain” (1981), and as a producer, most notably through the albums his wife Nóirín Ní Riain made with the Monks of Glenstal Abbey.

Ó Súilleabháin completed his Ph.D. in 1987 at Queens University Belfast, where he studied with John Blacking, an ethnomusicologist and social anthropologist who worked among the Venda people of the Northern Transvaal, South Africa and who embraced an anthropological approach to the study of music; and John Bailey, an ethnomusicologist who specialized in the music of Afghanistan and who, among other things, wrote about performance as a research technique in ethnomusicology. Ó Súilleabháin’s dissertation was a stylistic analysis of the playing of fiddler Tommie Potts and is highly regarded in the field.

The late 1980s and’ 90s yielded additional notable works, including “The Dolphin's Way” (1987) and “Oileán" (1989), and included an appearance on Van Morrison’s “Enlightenment” album (1990). In 1990, Ó Súilleabháin began a stint at Boston College as a visiting scholar, where he and Séamus Connolly organized an Irish fiddle festival called “My Love is in America.” It’s success not only led to an album, but, at Ó Súilleabháin urging, to BC’s Irish Music Center, an archive patterned after the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. (He also started similar Irish music archives at UCC and UL, and was chair of the ITMA’s board 1993-1999.)

Ó Súilleabháin vision for Irish music became more concentrated in 1994, when he became the Chair of Music at the University of Limerick and founded its Irish World Music Center, which later became known as the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance. Then, in 1995, he developed “A River of Sound: The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music” a seven part TV documentary/lecture series broadcast on RTÉ and BBC that (alongside1994’s “Riverdance”) raised questions about innovation and the meaning of tradition that ultimately changed the way many looked at traditional music and dance.

More recently, Ó Súilleabháin’s compositional work included “Maranatha” for the Cork International Choral Festival (2000), the music for the DVD reissue of the silent film “Irish Destiny” (2004), “Elver Gleams” (2010), and “Phoenix Rising” with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (2015). He also served as the assistant editor of Aloys Fleischmann’s important “Sources of Traditional Music” (1999). In addition, he was the chair of Culture Ireland, from its establishment in 2005 until 2014. His substantial and benevolent influence on the world of Irish music was not only seen through his seemingly innumerable good works (most of which aren’t included here), but through the recognition of his peers, as evidenced by honorary doctorates and awards from institutions like UCC, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Boston College, Notre Dame, and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

A gifted performer, composer, academic, and leader, Ó Súilleabháin changed the course of Irish music. His passing is a staggering loss, Although he will be missed, his legacy is substantial and will most certainly continue to influence music and musicians for generations to come.