Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin – Grounded With Vision

Micheal 2

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. Photo credit: www.nch.ie

I was honored when Emeritus Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, holder of the inaugural Chair of Music and Founding Director of the Irish World Music Academy at the University of Limerick, agreed to do an interview with me for my blog a few weeks back.

I was even more delighted that he agreed to do the interview this week before his debut with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra tonight, September 8th, at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. I interviewed Mícheál in 2003 for a special edition of ‘The Irish Entrepreneur Magazine’ published in Sept/Oct that year. I heard him play on occasions since then, in small venues, one of which was at Damer House Roscrea. I really respect him.

The night is destined to be a special one, with some familiar names featuring who have worked with Mícheál over the years, such as sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird;  Brendan Power on harmonica; Kenneth Edge on saxophone, and an amazing piper I saw perform live recently, Pádraic Keane. Of course, the performance would not be complete without Mel Mercier on bodhrán. Sinéad Hayes conducts.

We are heading there this evening so this will be a really memorable occasion – a night Mícheál describes as being about trans musicality – the ‘bridge’  between traditional music and classical, which has been an obsession of his, all his life.

This interview touches on Mícheál’s early years growing up in Tipperary; his strong sense of rootedness in the soil of Ireland; his vision and universal capacity to think, in short his superior intelligence. His use of language,  understanding of people, and his musical and educational achievements are testimony to this innate intelligence.

Early Years in Clonmel


Clonmel. Photo credit: Irish Walled Towns Network

Mícheál grew up in Clonmel – and still sees himself as very much a ‘Clonmelite’. His parents ran a grocery shop opposite the Town Hall at the end of Mitchell Street and he and his brother grew up there.

Clonmel is a Garrison town, a powerful town with town walls and a culture that reflects this history. Mícheál talks warmly about the walks he took in childhood by the river Suir, and the old bridge area over the Suir, which is actually in Co. Waterford – a place to which he also has strong connections. Interestingly, he says North Tipperary appeared to people from South Tipperary as ‘the dark side of the moon’ in terms of culture and ambiance in those days, something I suggest may have changed somewhat with the amalgamation of the two County Councils and more proactive networking between the two regions today.

From a musical point of view, Mícheál was more exposed as a child and young teenager to pop music, classical music, light opera and choral singing than he was to traditional music. There was no Comhaltas branch in Clonmel and traditional music was, at this stage (in the 1950s), more associated with the rural hinterlands than the towns like Clonmel. His first immersion in traditional culture and the Irish language was in Ring in Co. Waterford. Time spent there made a big impression on the young Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.

When I asked if he was encouraged musically as a child at home, he talked about his parents and their having been denied the education they deserved, like so many of their generation. Mícheál’s mother, however, strongly encouraged him educationally, if not specifically musically. The educational revolution then – of the 1960s, 70s, 80s in Ireland, in particular the Lemass era, where educational attainment became more the norm – opened up avenues for people and so his generation and those who followed were able to access educational structures .

“There was a great grá and respect and time for the educational process written into the Irish psyche,” says  Mícheál.  “people have seen how it has pulled people out of enclosed circles and opened up new worlds and new careers.”

His mother understood this.

Seán Ó Riada – A Cultural Inspiration

So where and when, then, did this musical talent emerge?

Up to the 1960s, the Irish were not that proud or outspoken about either their traditional language or their traditional music culture – reflecting no doubt both the colonial and civil tensions of the previous decades. But, Mícheál explains, with the emergence of Radio Telefís Éireann, Gael Linn, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and other such organisations, a new energy was coming to life.

Mícheál left Clonmel to study in UCC and, at that time, the figure of Seán Ó Riada was also gaining recognition nationally. So, while Mícheál did not grow up in a rural locality where traditional music playing was commonplace (he describes himself as a ‘townie’), or in a home where he was pushed musically, it was this influence of Ó Riada at UCC that brought out what he describes as something that was latent in himself, something that had not been extracted from his earlier environment in Clonmel.

Under the guidance and mentorship of Ó Riada, Mícheál’s flair – indeed genius – in traditional music and his ability to combine it in so many innovative ways with other musical genres, likes classical, started to emerge.

ORiarda with Bodhran

Seán Ó Riada. Image Credit: www.digwithit.com

Mícheál describes this time in his life and this emerging movement, renaissance almost, that revitalised the Irish language and traditional music culture as follows:

“It blew the music up and out, in a way, of its rural base, without disturbing the roots of it – that was the revolutionary aspect of it. It wasn’t dragged up and pulled up like you’d pull up some plant to be transplanted into a pot somewhere else… the garden had changed, but the roots of the culture were incredibly important.”

This is a Heaneyesque style of language that emerges at several points in the interview. Indeed, he tells me in a subsequent email how important Heaney was to him and how often they would exchange messages via fax machine if Mícheál wanted to use a phrase or word of Heaney’s.

He continues with the horticultural metaphor to explain this period of time in Ireland:

“The garden was changed but the roots of the culture were incredible important to him [Ó Riada].  His approach was revolutionary: ‘post-modern’, before the concept was understood or spoken of – in that he had an instinctive sense of the possibility of bringing together the local and the global.”

Ó Riada’s vision and un-contrived intelligence, he tells me, was “something he was, rather than something he thought about”.

I don’t think one could be given a more  simple and powerful acknowledgement than this.

Post-Modernity: the Possibility of Bringing Together the Local and the Global

Mícheál worked side by side with Ó Riada in the first two years of his postgraduate life, the last two years of Ó Riada’s short, if astonishingly important, life – in terms of Irish cultural identity.

He was living in Cúil Aodha in the West Cork Gaeltacht and this place became “a Utopian Camelot, Irish-language Camelot”, says Mícheál. A creative culture and energy was growing around this inspirational figure, which, sadly, collapsed soon after his death. However, Mícheál and another person strongly influenced by Ó Riada, Iarla Ó Lionáird, (who as a young boy was part of a local choir in Cúil Aodha that Ó Riada fashioned) have developed a programme that brings the spirit of Ó Riada to the stage, and they continue to perform together, in this spirit, to this day.

Amazingly, Ó Riada’s biography has not been written yet – Mícheál feels there is a huge human-interest story here. Myself, I was thinking as he spoke about his mentor, what a fascinating book could be written about the impact of these two men on Irish traditional music culture  – it would make for riveting reading.

The Force Behind a Musical Movement

I suggested to Mícheál that everything he had outlined in our chat about the influence of Ó Riada on his life and, indeed, Ó Riada’s philosophy in life and education (breaking down the local and the global, breaking down space almost) would appear to have informed Mícheál’s own vision when he was appointed the inaugural chair of Music at UL in 1994 and went on to establish the Irish World Music Center.

He agrees.

He talked to me about spending 18 years of his teaching life in UCC before moving to Limerick where he then spent 22 years teaching. Mícheál is very concerned to explain to me that he never saw UCC and UL in competition with each other after he took up his position in UL. Rather, he talks about the students that came through UCC in the years he was there, and those whom he taught in UL, as representing a ‘movement’ – sparking a debate about our traditional music and performance culture – and these are the people who will invent and reinvent Irish traditional music and dance into the future.

So, looking back, while he was working on developing a conic formula in his music, piano-playing and orchestral writing during all this time  (addressing local and global issues, issues of Irish identity, in the same vein as Ó Riada) he was also facilitating, through his teaching, the continual emergence of a movement that was bigger than either of the institutions involved, bigger than his vision – bigger than Ireland.

Mel Mercier

Mel Mercier

Following an international search, on Mícheál’s retirement, Mel Mercier  (a former mature student of his from UCC)  was appointed to the Chair at UL.  Mel’s appointment enabled  Mícheál’s  vision – that wonderful spirit of reaching out from what is right under our feet, and looking at the bigger global picture, as it relates to music and dance  – to continue.

Mercier is also continuing to open up new channels between Cork and Limerick, continuing to build on this movement initiated by Seán Ó Riada .

“Looking back,” Mícheál tells me of his career, “it was all so interconnected”.

What is Fusion?

I love music and I particularly love innovative styles of music and Mícheál’s compositions are clearly that. I am interested to know what he understands fusion to be – is it a ‘genre’?  The response to this question intrigues me.

Instead of positioning himself on the musical map to answer the question, as I expected he might, he talks about something else: Information Technology. He describes how fortunate he was, growing up, in that “by the time I was in my 20s and 30s, the world was coming to visit you, through the new technology”.

He continues: “It is changing at such a rate, we are in the Stone Age era in terms of its development”.

For Mícheál, new technologies made it “increasingly possible, spatially and geographically, to hold your ground… possible to stay standing and hold your ground, as the world was spinning around you” (another beautiful metaphor).

So what must have seemed unimaginable a few decades earlier suddenly became real as the world became a smaller place. This technological revolution, and the boundaries it dispersed with, made it possible for Mícheál to achieve great things with his compositions.

He tells me he felt no sense of restriction or claustrophobia working in Ireland or within the ‘boundaries’ of traditional or classical music because his work is really – and here is the key word – a ‘process’, reflecting what is happening in the world around him. So to answer my question then: what is ‘fusion’?  The answer is, that it is ‘a process’. Of course, that makes total sense to me now!

I quote this next piece in full because his use of language is so beautiful:

“The more you dug into traditional music, certainly in my time, the more you dug into the local soil, the more you came up in some other part of the world. In other words, studying traditional music in any one area – let’s say it is West Clare fiddling or something – suddenly and, particularly through academic disciplines like Ethnomusicology and the study of traditional music in different cultures, suddenly you are going, ‘Oh hang on a minute, that is the way they do it in Africa or certain people in Asia do it’ . So there is a process here. You were actually releasing yourself into a global form of music-making, in other words, what we would call playing by ear, which is the global norm of the classical tradition of playing by ear and by eye – [it] is exceptional and is only a tiny minority of what World music does.”

“It is that connection of the feet and the head, of being grounded and at the same time having a vision, all of that of course, through the energy of the human body, resurrected or standing on the earth itself, suddenly becomes more and more relevant, more and more powerful, not just a symbol, but an actual manifestation of whatever actually is emerging in our own times.”

I know my readers will want to read and reread that to grasp all that is captured in those movingly and lyrically articulated lines.


Owen and Moley.jpg

Mícheál’s sons, Owen and Moley. Image credit: www.owenandmoley.com

Mícheál has two sons with his former wife, Nóirín Ní Riain.

I asked him about their style of music and their band, Size2Shoes.  They also work broadly in fusion – combining rap and folk among other things. I really like their work. He tells me they are both now in the States  – Owen in New York and Moley in Seattle, though Moley is back and forth more often to Ireland. “They move around, as people do in these times,” he says, “the possibility of being anywhere and being everywhere”.

They still work together but increasingly apart.  Mícheál tells me they are developing individual pathways. It was “not a musical meeting between them whereby all their eggs are in that combined basket – increasingly, that particular joined basket, in a way, remains there, but it reduces in importance as each finds their individual feet because they are very, very different people”. He continues: “They are like chalk and cheese – which makes, of course, the fact when they perform together, there is a certain oneness in the actual physical performance that is wonderful and that belies that difference – but in fact that is part of the strength of it – hearing it come together in sound.”

He laughs and suggests that is not mirrored when they walk off the stage. ‘They do not live in each other’s ears, he tells me, “nor would want to, because they are such different people”.

What Will I Play for My Guests From Your Work?

I ask Mícheál next a question that, unlike the others, makes him ponder.

“If I were to play one of your compositions for my guests here at Greenville, what would I play and how would you want me to describe it?”.

“Ah,” he says, “That is interesting”. He explains not all his work is recorded and we would have to pick something that is commercially available on disc.

However, the question leads him into talking about the performance on September 8th at the NCH. He tells me he is playing one piece that dates from the 1980s – ‘Flowan’ – which is the old English word for ‘flowing’. It is recorded on an album called ‘Becoming’, which was used for the silent film ‘Irish Destiny’. Without going into the details, he says this is the first time he has hit on a particular voice – “quite different to what people would associate with me”. It is not based on traditional music and does not sound like traditional music. “It is more kind of angular and I would not know the words to use to process it.”

That particular musical “germ or motif”, as he calls it, has led to other musical pieces, such as the piece he is ending the first part of the concert with – a piece called ‘Gellan’, another Old English word meaning ‘yell’ or ‘sing’. This piece uses the same kind of musical language as ‘Flowan’.

It is clear from listening to him here that Mícheál  is constantly searching, constantly innovating.  And I can’t wait to hear them performed tonight!

We talk briefly about the collapse of record companies. He explains they are not backing studio expenses anymore. “In times past, a record company would express an interest and put up a certain amount of money and recoup the money later as royalty, so there was a give and take” he says.

It is more difficult now to bring things out on CD. However, on the positive, the performance at the NCH this evening will be broadcast live, so there will be a professional recording of the event. He explains this acts as a useful ‘calling card’ and he anticipates some of these pieces will be available down the line on CD.

Are the Arts Still a Second-Class Citizen in Ireland?

My second last question relates to where the Arts are positioned on the curriculum in Ireland today.

“Are the Arts still very much a second-class citizen?” I ask.

“No question about that,” he replies. Again, I quote him at length here:

“There is a courage needed to actually grasp the possibility of how artistic expression can lead to personality engagement and development. The problem for the educationalist, and the political aspect of all of this, is that it is difficult to measure and it isn’t short-term gain, so you can’t easily show how such and such a number of art classes (regardless of which art is involved) leads to a certain outcome”.

He continues: “But there are plenty of instances of very happy children in school when they are presented with a really brilliant curriculum and a really fabulous teacher. It ultimately comes down to the quality of the teacher. If you are an eight-year-old, sitting there in the class, everything pales into insignificance in the face of that relationship you have with the person at the top of the room.”

He explains that educational policies, the building you’re in, the facilities you have – all these material things have a place, but pale into insignificance relative to that fundamental relationship between teacher and student.

Education is a Relationship

“Education is not a commodity, it is not a service. Education is a relationship,” Mícheál says.

“I think if we go back to that, and go back to looking at the relationship between the teacher and the student, because it is in the middle, between the two of them, that something can happen. So anything that can facilitate the increased status and attention to the profession of teaching will impact on this. You have to have an Arts curriculum and more arts in there – it is possible to do that without throwing out numeracy, literacy, etc. Inspirational educational movements like Steiner and others have always placed art and artistic expression at the heart of what they do.”

Tipperary: How Has It Informed Your Life and Work?

My final question is probably the most obvious one: “How has Tipperary informed you life and work?”

This leads Mícheál back to the words and sentiments of the late and great Seamus Heaney.

Mícheál explains: “He wrote about and spoke about what he called ‘First Place’. We are used to the notion of a first language, for example, that we can understand, that we can grow into – you grow into a first language as easily as breathing.”

Heaney’s notion of ‘First Place’ suggests – and I quote Mícheál – “that no matter where you go in the world afterwards, you might go to Australia or America – but the impact of the first place… particularly if that impact is a positive one, is what I would point to. So, in terms of the influence of Tipperary on me, Tipperary is my first place”.

Seamus_Heaney_Photograph_ from Wikipedia

Seamus Heaney. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

He says, as he gets older, the spacial impressions of the Comeragh mountains, Slievenamon, the river, nature – South Tipperary which is his neck of the woods – is so extraordinarily beautiful with the Golden Vale, the valley of Clonmel itself positioned where it is, the richness of the land, the whole topography of it, is imprinted on his mind.


“That is a very, very deep influence and a very, very deep love that I would actually have and am drawn to when I think of where I was born and where I grew up.”

The last words go then, to Seamus Heaney, and to a quote Mícheál refers to during the interview:

“We should keep our feet on the ground to signify that nothing is beneath us, but we should also lift up our eyes to say nothing is beyond us.”


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