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

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.

Wide vision

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.

Exploration

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. 

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.