An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
Published in FolkWorld with friendly permission of the Irish Music editor

The Light on the Shannon

Micheal O Súilleabháin

Seán Laffey meets Micheal O Súilleabháin, musician, recording artist and academic; the very man who holds the prestigious Chair of Music at the University of Limerick.

Micheal O Suilleabhain The University of Limerick occupies a green field site on the south bank of the river Shannon about 10 kilometres upstream from Limerick City centre. There is an openness in the layout of the University, the buildings feature imaginative but functional architecture, the space between them allowing their characters to develop into the next millenium. Clearly a young University that is confident and forward thinking.

I met Micheál O'Súilleabháin in the Foundation Building, from where he runs one of Ireland's music and performing arts faculties. The central atrium is watched over by a life sized maquette of a Leonardo Da Vinci flying machine, complete with man the imaginative engine. The lift which took me to Micheál's office, is a glass cube, allowing a view from all sides of the flying machine. This short journey, neatly sums up the philosophy of the University, art, science, technology, all having an integral role in the life of the mind.

From his Spartan office, overlooking the Shannon and the distant hills of Clare, amid books, academic papers, a table covered by a map of proposed new developments, the floor scattered with various ethnic and exotic instruments, we settled down for an hour of talk. Micheál has a number of projects on the go, being both an academic and a performer might be a problem, but no, he's actually thriving on the workload.

Michael for twenty five years was involved with Music at UCC; he moved to Limerick in 1994 to set up the Irish World Music Centre. Had he any difficulties in making the switch? Certainly he says it was an emotional wrench to leave UCC after so long, and at a time when his work at Cork was going so well. His wife (Noirin Ni Riann) has strong family links with Limerick. During his latter days at UCC they rented a house in Glenstall , this involved commuting between Cork and the lush Limerick country side. Away from the job, he's a private person , and I get the feeling the family always comes first in his world view. Moreover, Micheál's work with the monks of Glenstall , during a sabbatical year in the 80s, allowed him to make the emotional shift from Cork. He says of the move, " It wasn't one of those decisions that come down to a rational choice, I just had to go with my gut feeling.”

Micheal O SuilleabhainThe move proved beneficial for all, and there is now a growing community of Post Graduates working in both Universities. From a National perspective the increase in music courses and the widening of access routes into them, has all been for the good. Limerick is currently developing Masters courses in Ethnomusicology, Ethnochoreology , Classical String Perfomance, Music Therapy , Dance and Plainchant Performance. The IWMC is the leading in service centre for Ireland's music teachers, something which happened "almost overnight” ; in response to the recent and welcome changes in the Leaving Cert Music curriculum . Micheál's day to day work is centred on the supervision of post graduate students and PhD researchers. There's also the added burden of the bureaucracy that University life entails. He admits to missing the "performance element " of teaching whilst enjoying plenty of time for composing.

Blas allows people from all musical background a taste of Irish traditional music and dance.

Last year the University ran a Summer School. Blas ( literally a taste or flavour) which will be repeated again this July (13 -24). Micheál says the concept goes back to summer programmes offered by the late Seán O'Riada at UCC in 1969. The tutors for this year's Blas read like a who's who of traditional players and dancers, Andy Irvine, Mel Mercier, Lillis O Laoire, Matt Cranitch, and many others. Nomos will be the resident band for the ten days, and of course there's Micheál himself. "Giving a few key note speeches, attending openings and launches. And teaching piano accompaniment and harmony in traditional music”. The school is actually run by his capable and very talented assistants Niall Keegan and Sandra Joyce, he modestly adds.

The Blas philosophy is to open the doors of the University to anyone who is genuinely interested in the music. Michael sees this as a strength, "We don't put any music on a pedestal, we don't' say classical is better than traditional. We treat traditional music as a music worthy of respect and students are encouraged to bring their own ideas with them. Last year it was a wonderful experience, great friendships were formed, and the last day was a powerful musical and emotional event.”

Micheal O SuilleabhainAre there dangers of becoming an ivory tower? He thinks it is not really possible with ethno-musicology. He can't lock the office door and pretend that traditional music and dance don't exist; that it is all academic and abstract. He still plays the music himself, he meets players, the music is living and the tradition is healthy. As for the University being distanced from the locality, well yes this can be a problem, however, the University Concert Hall provides a social focus for Limerick. "It's a commercial concern, we don't get first choice of the plum slots, Christy Moore and Daniel O'Donnell are the money makers for the Concert Hall and that's how it should be.” He considers the question a little more. "It's not an elitist music centre, sure the University has to connect with other Universities, to see the universal in what it is doing, but it also has to be grounded just as much in the local. I don't see the place as an Ivory tower, more of a crystal through which the light from both local and international communities passes and is focused.”

Micheál is set to release a new CD Becoming in early April (Virgin records). It's a work for piano and orchestra, and was recorded in matter of three days last summer in Dublin's Windmill Lane studio. Micheál says he is enjoying working with classical musicians, and in future he thinks any traditional players in his work will fit into the fabric of the music in a seamless and creative way. He considers Becoming, the most even and balanced piece he's written to date. He has always performed his own work, very much in the tradition of jazz or big band leaders. "I write the parts for the other instruments, whilst adding piano in a semi-extemporsied way. It's funny, but I rarely write down the piano section of the score, which means of course it's difficult if someone else is going to play the music. Now the ICO are firmly established I'm writing pieces for them, which they will perform without me, and that is a new challenge.”

The central section of Becoming is music to the 1925 silent film, Irish Destiny. Although the work itself is more than simply a soundtrack album. The film, was made shortly after the civil war, and is essentially a love story set against the violence of the period. How did he go about writing the music? "I had a TV and Video on a moveable stand next to the piano and would watch a snippet of the film, play a few bars, mess around with ideas, until I got the feeling right. For some of the film sequences I deconstructed the National anthem. It's not a tune I'm too fond of, it's musically very spiky, it has the feeling of a British military band march, which of course many post Colonial anthems do. Deconstructing the tune and rebuilding it, looking and listening for new possibilities and finding strange new directions between the lines was very rewarding.”

The central theme in the piece Irish Destiny is built from a deconstructed National anthem.

Micheal O SuilleabhainHe sees the future being taken up by more and more classical composing. "Classical music, fascinates me, for all sorts of reasons, chiefly because it's written. Once you begin to write down the notes it allows a freedom , players are no longer restricted by their memories, and of course group work becomes more complex. Then there's the strangeness of reading the music, I don't know what it is , how it affects the brain, but once you read as well as hear it, the music changes. The more I look into ethnic musics, whether they be Irish traditional or something exotic from South East Asia, the more it strikes me that classical music is the weirdest and strangest music of them all.”

There's a bright light on the south bank of the Shannon and Micheál O'Súillleabháin has many ideas through which that light will shine.

Enquires for the Masters Programmes, or the Blas summer school should be made to the IWMC on Limerick 00353 61 202565 or by email to

Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around. The article was published in Irish Music's April '98 issue; © Sean Laffey.

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