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, 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.
Micheál 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 ground-breaking 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.