“How can we live well with each other?” Helen Phelan, newly appointed director of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick and widow of Micheál Ó Suilleabháin, describes her late husband’s philosophy of life. “He embodied the space between the worlds: the musical and cultural worlds and he invited so many conversations between these different worlds. In all these aspects of his work: musical, academic, cultural, he saw life as a crossroads. Many people come to cross it. But Micheál felt that for him it was important to get to a crossroads and stay there, and somehow maintain the tension in himself and in his music and the tension of the point of encounter, and this is a fundamental heritage.
The force of nature that was Micheál Ó Suilleabháin transformed our understanding of our own traditional arts, as well as our ability to relate them to the larger musical world. Prior to his death, Ó Suilleabháin had performed two concerts in a planned trilogy with the National Symphony Orchestra in the National Concert Hall: Elver Gleams in 2017 and Between Worlds in 2018. The third and final concert, Lumen: A Celebration of the Light , will take place at the National Concert Hall on September 2 and at the University of Limerick on September 3, and will feature some of Ó Suilleabháin’s most important orchestral works conducted by David Brophy and performed by a group of leading musicians, including sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, percussionist Mel Mercier and flautist and bagpiper Micheál McGoldrick. The National Concert Hall will also present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Micheál posthumously on September 2.
“Michael believed in communication, whether through music or spoken language,” says Phelan, recalling the qualities that propelled Ó Suilleabháin to his ultimate vision of music in Ireland. “It was always an invitation to dialogue, to an encounter with something beyond oneself.”
The intense creativity that characterized his long career continued until the end of his life. As well as founding the Irish World Academy at UL, Ó Suilleabháin conceived and wrote the groundbreaking RTÉ/BBC television series, A River of Sound in 1995, and his voice was never far from any heated debate about the role and the place of traditional arts in Irish life and in the rest of the world. The boldness inherent in the title chosen for its new performing arts center at UL, the Irish World Academy, speaks volumes in this regard. Micheál Ó Suilleabháin has traveled the world, planting ideas that were landmines to be detonated, expanding his students’ perceptions and inviting audiences to think again, to listen more carefully, to play with renewed vigor.
“Micheál had all the obvious qualities: energy, charisma, intelligence, creativity,” notes Phelan. “But there were two things: he knew it was a long game, requiring sustained commitment, and something else, more in the area of ethics. He had a deep integrity, a deep respect for other cultures. It was rooted in his soul, in his own encounters with music, whether it was the Beatles or Tommy Potts.
Micheál’s health was in jeopardy in his last years and, as usual, he prepared his own musical departure impeccably.
“He was writing himself out of the music,” says Phelan. “It was a conscious decision. When he was playing, his own music was very steeped in the traditional repertoire, but he developed what I would call a late style, much like Edward Said wrote in his book On Late Style.
“It’s not related to age, but to the life cycle. There is a point in the life cycle where there is this magical alchemy where all the learning from the previous stages of your life cycle can coalesce. This deeply affected Micheál, because he understood that at certain times in your life you can experience great surges of freedom and I think there was a freedom to withdraw from UL, from a role of public service, and he flourished in that phase for sure.”
Michael McGoldrick is a bagpiper and flute player with a long association with Ó Suilleabháin. Speaking of the Orient, he recounts his memories of a man who had a profound effect on him.
“Micheál was shaping contemporary classical music and contemporary jazz with traditional music together and breaking down barriers,” recalls McGoldrick. “I thought the man had a brilliant vision. I think he thought traditional music should engage with the classical world because, until then, we hadn’t really heard anything like that. orchestration that was in Micheál’s records. Now I’m here rehearsing with the Orchester Symphonique de Bretagne, playing Capercaille’s music with orchestral arrangements. Thanks to what he was doing 20 years ago, he helped create what we’re doing right now. He was the man who had that imagination to bring different musical forms together, without any snobbery. Music is music. If we speak a language together, we can make pretty Things.
Iarla Ó Lionáird is a singer known for his extraordinary voice and the inimitable way he inhabits the songs of sean nós. He collaborates regularly with Ó Suilleabháin.
“He had this extraordinary cartographic look at our music,” suggests Iarla. “He knew where all the secret idiomatic language was. He knew the very fine detail of the local accent and the indicators of place, of history, of memory, in the great melodies of the Munster sean nós tradition. When he did introductions to the songs, he laid the card in front of you, like an invitation to wander. As if he was handing you the stick, to show you where the path was. He just knew the music so deeply.
“At other times, he took a more tangential approach. For example, he composed an Indian ragga for An Buachaill Caol Dubh, a song about addiction and failure, which would soar within. Retrospectively, the notion of relations between the great continents of music attracts him. Seán Ó Riada had promulgated some of these theoretical relations and others too, such as [film-maker] Bob Quinn. Micheál had extraordinary powers due to his musicality and his knowledge, which made his choices very rich, and it was like a magic carpet for me.
Mel Mercier is the President of the Irish World Academy, a much-loved percussionist and composer who has known and worked with Ó Suilleabháin since they first met in 1974, when Mel was just 14 and Ó Suilleabháin was in his early twenties. . They contributed music to Tony MacMahon’s radio series, The Long Note.
“He was full of energy and full of good humor,” says Mercier. “He was bursting with energy, musical ideas and creativity. There was something about those two sides of him: the traditional musician on one side, and the classical musician on the other, and the feeling that they merged and ignited each other: a kind of electricity about it. And that was a conversation he carried on for the rest of his life, and I think that interface was where his spark was brightest. He had this very original piano style and he could always find space between and in the air. And I think he did it better on the Dolphin’s Way album.
Mercier followed in the footsteps of Ó Suilleabháin, first at UCC and then at UL where he is Chair of Performing Arts at the Irish World Academy. The duo’s live performances were a joy to behold, each bouncing off each other in a delirious helix of intricate rhythms and beautiful melodies. Their duet “Must be More Crispy” never fails to tease listeners with its inherent playfulness and wicked sense of humor.
“Micheál has always liked to leave room for others,” recalls Mercier. “His move to UL has proven to be the best thing for music education in Ireland and more specifically for traditional Irish music. One of his great legacies is that he has cultivated and nurtured very educational and cultural spaces fertile in Cork and UL When he left these spaces, those who stepped in were given the opportunity to flourish and grow.
Mercier still feels a deep sense of loss following the death of Ó Suilleabháin.
“One of the things I had to accept is the fact that I will never play with Micheál again,” he says. “This duo was one of the pillars of my musical life, and my relationship with them was central, as a colleague, a musician and a friend. But making music now is elsewhere, in the memory of the body. I will never again sit in that privileged space, his piano well, with the sound of Micheál wrapped around me. It was a sensation of his sound moving through me and into the audience. So it’s a big personal loss for me. It was a very rich space, full of fun and full of creativity and devilry.
Lumen: A Celebration of the Light is at the National Concert Hall on September 2 and at the University of Limerick on September 3