Tuesday 17 September 2019

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin 1950-2018: Musical giant with a devotion for finding new talent to inspire


Legacy: Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin passed away on Wednesday night after a long illness
Legacy: Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin passed away on Wednesday night after a long illness
John Meagher

John Meagher

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin left such an imprint on the world of academia, and was so devoted to unearthing new talent, it is sometimes forgotten just how innovative a musician he was in his own right.

He leaves behind a bewitching back catalogue that saw him reposition his favoured instrument, the piano, at the heart of both traditional Irish music and classical.

The majesty of his work is best illustrated by 'Oilean/Island' - a serene and evocative album he released in 1989 during a period of great creative endeavour.

Ó Súilleabháin's music had a timeless quality and while it was heavily indebted to what had gone before, he was always keen to ignore boundaries and to fuse genres.

He once told an interviewer he disliked the idea of being pigeon-holed and listening to his most compelling work, it is indeed unwilling to lend itself to lazy compartmentalism.

Yesterday's statement from the Irish Traditional Music Archive captured the mercurial magic of the man's work: "He pushed boundaries from a place of deep knowledge and respect for the tradition, exploring ways to express the intricacies of the art form in both language and performance."

The Tipperary native grew up with a passion for music and he studied under the best.

He was a student of the great Irish composer Seán Ó Riada - whose death at just 40 robbed the country of one of its supreme artists - and one might imagine Ó Riada would have been proud of the way Ó Súilleabháin took traditional forms and made them relevant for a new age.

The master would surely have approved of how his student devoted much of his life towards ensuring others developed their talents to enrich our cultural world.

And in an Ireland where so much is centred on the capital, Ó Súilleabháin helped to ensure other parts - chiefly Limerick - would become centres of cultural excellence too. His role in building the international reputation of the University of Limerick cannot be overstated and he was chiefly responsible for having the Irish Chamber Orchestra relocate there from Dublin.

UL now welcomes students from more than 50 countries - and much of that is down to its strong artistic roots.

And the signs were there before he took up his post on the banks of the Shannon: he had helped elevate the status of traditional music at University College Cork.

As one of his UCC students, Mel Mercer, put it yesterday: "He shepherded and nurtured the first generation of traditional Irish musicians in third-level education."

Mercer replaced Ó Súilleabháin when he stepped down as UL's chair of music.

Last year, Ó Súilleabháin talked about what aspiring musicians had to do to be heard: "If you look into your heart and body and you find you are carrying this talent and you have the passion to go with it, you have to follow your heart, your instinct."

The man from Clonmel certainly did. His own work and collaborations with the likes of Van Morrison will live on.

And so too will the drive and determination he instilled in the generations that came after him.

Perhaps that will be his greatest legacy.

Irish Independent

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