Trad/roots: A tribute to Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin – the Belfast gig he never got to play

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin performing at Clonard Monastery in Belfast in 2004. Picture by Niall Carson
Robert McMillen

In August of this year, I spoke to one of Ireland's greatest musicians, the incomparable Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin about what was then his upcoming concert at the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street as part of Féile an Droichead.

As usual, Mícheál was entertaining and erudite and warm and passionate about the Irish music he was to play at the Fleadh Cheoil in Drogheda and the gig in Belfast.

Sadly, although he did play at the Fleadh, the Tipperary man never made it to Belfast as a few days after we spoke he was taken to hospital and he passed away on November 7.

It's still shocking to me that his talk with The Irish News was probably the last big interview Mícheál ever did. Here is a revised version of that interview in homage to a man who has left an indelible mark on the music of Ireland.

THERE was a time when the soundtrack of our household was Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin's The Dolphin's Way. Its slow airs and its jigs and reels and planxtys helped us wind or unwind as the mood took us.

This was Irish music but not as we knew it. It was played on a piano – an instrument you don't see at your average session – but the track titles gave you the glad eye as you put the gleaming CD into your player and all of a sudden you were hooked.

From Oíche Nollaig's jazzy inflections through Magh Luirg and the beautiful Eibhlí Gheal Chiúin and the jaunty An Seanghé Liath – and that's just the first four tracks.

It was obvious that Ó Súilleabháin is a big fan of Turlough O'Carolan, the Irish composer whose works were played by many of the harpists at the Belfast Harpers Gathering at the Assembly Rooms in 1792, and these in turn were notated by an Armagh teenager called Edward Bunting.

Ó Súilleabháin, O'Carolan, Bunting and Belfast (were to) get together at the First Presbyterian Church in the city as part of Féile an Droichead, the four-day musical tour de force organised by Claire Kieran at the Irish language venue in Cooke Street, off the Ormeau Road.

I caught up with Ó Súilleabháin before he went to play at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Drogheda last week and he told me that the Belfast gig would be a celebration of the work of O'Carolan.

“This is something new for me where I am attempting to go back into the sources of O'Carolan's music.” he said. “A lot of those can be found in the Bunting manuscripts which are held in Queen's University in Belfast and in other 18th century printed collections and in manuscripts. My aim is to look at the original sources again and to pull out a kind of improvisation.

“My intention in the O'Carolan Celebration – which is about an hour and 10 minutes of continuous piano music so it is quite a feat for me to take on – is to get inside O'Carolan's head but to take the audience with me on a musical journey through the cultural environment in which he thrived and to see what that means for any of us.”

(The O'Carolan Celebration was to be part of a tour where Mícheál was to do solo piano recitals in smaller venues this year into 2019.)

Ó Súilleabháin's own journey started in Clonmel in Co Tipperary, so, like every traditional musician that has ever lived, did he start off playing An Ghaoth Aneas on the tin whistle? Nope, he started on the electric guitar!

“I was born in 1950 and traditional music was invisible then,” he recalled. “Clonmel was a town rather than a city but by the 1960s when I was a teenager, the winds of change started to arrive.

“The first musical genres I came into contact with were classical music via a local piano teacher which seemed to be a strange and exotic experience because there wasn't much in the culture of the town that would let you hear a string quartet.

“But then I got together with some friends at school and we set up a rock group doing Beatles numbers and so on.

“But then, the 'third voice' that I heard was when I went to University College Cork, where Seán Ó Riada was teaching, and that introduced very dramatically a kind of epiphany in regards to Irish culture that allowed me to get over older models and concepts of the tradition and to see somehow, through his eyes and ears, the possibility of some kind of visionary future through the music – and this has actually come about."

And when you look around at what is happening in the world of 'trad' you can see his point, where Tommy Potts and others are held in new esteem but at the same time, The Gloaming and Jiggy and Notify and the olllamh and Navá are doing all kinds of extraordinary things with traditional music, fusing it with other genres from everywhere from the Middle East to South America and Asia and creating a musical diversity, but one where Irish music is always beating at its heart.

(Ó Súilleabháin and Ó Riada are no doubt having a great session from their heavenly resting place.)

Ó Súílleabháin told me that he himself had grown as the tradition grew but his cultural approach had been not to leave the other forms of music behind, and that is certainly true of his recorded works.

He played piano with a brass section made up of British jazz musicians from the late 60s on Van Morrison's 1990 album Enlightenment; Oileán/Island is a work for

traditional flute and strings, Templum is a piece for soprano saxophone and orchestra.

Who knows what Ó Riada might have achieved had he not died when he was only 46 years old but the answer might be found in Ó Súilleabháin's groundbreaking work.

While most musicians would be happy to be recognised and remembered for their oeuvre – music performance is by its nature an ephemeral thing – Ó Súilleabháin has got bricks and mortar which will always be a testament to his vision, the Irish World Academy in the University of Limerick, founded in 1994. The academy sees itself as the centre of academic and performance excellence.

“These in turn are informed by innovative community outreach and artist-in-residence initiatives that take the academy to the wider community while attracting a wealth of international performance and scholarly expertise,” he said.

This is a long way away from the opinions of half a century ago when the very thought of traditional music being taught in a university would have sent a Milltown Malbay session into apoplexy.

“There was the feeling that traditional music had never needed the assistance of these institutions so why should they bother it now? But there was something in me that would have railed against that notion,” Ó Súilleabháin said, going on to connect the cultural with the political.

"I felt that people had for long enough, thrown stones at the citadel from outside because they had not been given their rightful place inside.

"Now that the gates were wide open, some people would have preferred to stay outside throwing stones instead of walking in [he laughed] and saying I am part of this place and to take an ownership of society, of this new emerging society, and to take cognisance of a new vision that was opening up as [change] happens very often in the first place in the cultural arena rather than the political arena and the political arena can follow, because cultural movement is one which of necessity comes from the heart.”

He added: “What better movement is there to actually create new ways of thinking, new ways of being together, new ways of tolerating difference than being in a particular kind of space which, by its very nature, does not tolerate demarcations, does not encourage unnecessary barriers or walls."

For that alone, we should all mourn the loss – but, more importantly, celebrate the genius and the openness of spirit – of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.

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