Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin put traditional music centre stage
Composer’s legacy will be his enriching and broadening of the study of music
Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin: forged an immediately recognisable keyboard style. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times
The death of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin has robbed Ireland of a giant figure. Ó Súilleabháin was an empire builder. He was one of those people out of whom ideas tumbled with profusion, a man who seemed to have an interesting response to any and every issue he was presented with.
But his ideas were not just abstract. He turned many of them into achievements, especially in the work he did at the University of Limerick after he was appointed professor of music there in 1994.
All the university said when announcing his appointment was that he would “develop postgraduate programmes in music, including a masters programme in Irish music studies”. What he created was an enduring academic – and physical – monument at the university, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, originally called the Irish World Music Centre, which is housed in its own building on the university campus.
As a university academic – he previously worked at University College Cork, where he had also studied under Aloys Fleischmann and Seán Ó Riada – he was well aware of the limited place that traditional music had in third-level education.
His vision was to turn that situation on its head and to put traditional music, in its widest sense, front and centre, and over time draw in other activities that were typically treated as peripheral by universities. That’s what necessitated the change of name to include dance, whose courses now run to ethnochoreology (the study of dance, movement and culture) and co-exist with courses on ritual chant and song, community music and classical string performance.
That vision has enabled a host of individuals to go out into the world academically qualified in areas where no such qualifications existed before Ó Súilleabháin brought them into being.
The classical component at UL is limited, but Ó Súilleabháin was instrumental in 1995 in securing the relocation of the Irish Chamber Orchestra from Dublin, where it had been a freelance operation, to Limerick, where it first put its players on annual contracts. The orchestra’s presence – now also in its own building on the campus – has been key to the classical performance degrees at UL.
Ó Súilleabháin was one of the shrewdest of operators and most perceptive observers in Irish cultural politics. I remember calling him 20 years ago to tell him about the Sligo residency of the Vogler String Quartet. He was delighted and interpreted it as a major landmark through which a public authority in Ireland was taking ownership of classical music in a new way. In a flash he moved from the news event to the significant issue that was involved.
That ability to draw connections was reflected in most of his own music. He took elements from his classical training to bear on the world of traditional music and forged an immediately recognisable keyboard style that has been credited with repositioning the piano at the heart of Irish traditional music.
A key influence on his work was the ethnomusicologist and social anthropologist John Blacking, with whom he studied in Belfast. In the introduction to his most famous book, How Musical is Man?, Blacking wrote: “This is not a scholarly study of human musicality, so much as an attempt to reconcile my experiences of music making in different cultures... my conclusions and suggestions are exploratory”. Musicality, music making and exploration were at the heart of everything Ó Súilleabháin did.