News, Academics

“Stories of a Life in Music”: Remembering Irish Music Composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, late Professor of Irish Studies at Boston College, was a famed composer, pianist, and scholar of traditional Irish music. 

He channeled his passion into the founding of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, according to Helen Phelan, Ó Súilleabháin’s widow. 

But beyond his talents in music, Ó Súilleabháin was a trailblazer for the Irish music genre, according to BC Gaelic Roots Program Director Sheila Falls Keohane. 

“It takes courage, and it’s people like Mícheál that opened doors for so many musicians after him to explore and reach across boundaries and bring all these other cultures [together],” Keohane said. 

The life and work of Ó Súilleabháin, who died in 2018, was commemorated by his family, and colleagues on Monday night at an event premiering the new documentary Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin: Between Worlds by filmmaker and producer Maggie Breathnach.

Nóirín Ní Riain, Ó Súilleabháin’s first wife and former colleague, said both she and Ó Súilleabháin studied under the mentorship of Seán Ó Riada while at University College Cork. 

“He inspired us all in the Irish language, and we heard him speak this beautiful tongue and we said, ‘God, we’re going to do that.’”

Christian Dupont, associate University librarian for scholarly resources, said Ó Súilleabháin had a close relationship with the co-founder of the BC’s Irish Studies program, Kevin O’Neill, with whom he collaborated to create an abroad music studies program for aspiring music students. 

“Kevin recalled, ‘As [Ó Súilleabháin] worked his magic, the many different personalities became a community,’” Dupont said. “I was aware that I was witnessing a historic moment—the reconnection of strands of traditional culture that had been severed by the diaspora.” 

According to Dupont, Ó Súilleabháin’s last six months at BC were especially active. 

“He taught courses in Irish music, brought guests to the classroom, and organized the landmark fiddle festival, ‘My love is in America,’” Dupont said. 

According to Keohane, Ó Súilleabháin was a pioneer in destigmatizing music artists’ participation in both Irish fiddle music and classical music. 

““In the classical music world, I never told anyone that I played any fiddle, because you couldn’t do those things,” Keohane said. “I am keenly aware of the courage it takes to do that because he was a classical composer, but he was really connected to his Irish roots and music.”

Ó Súilleabháin’s son, Owen Ó Súilleabháin, described his father as radical and revolutionary in his field.

“What Mícheál was doing was revolutionary, actually, it was extremely radical,” Ó Súilleabháin said. “It presented itself as an extraordinary dynamic type of sound and energy.”

Owen Ó Súilleabháin said his father’s work mirrored that of the great poet Seamus Heaney, who argued that the purpose of an artist is to resolve social injustices.

“Mícheál’s redress around social justice was one of the great things that inspired me in my life,” Ó Súilleabháin said. “Seamus talked about the redress of poetry, how poetry and how art redresses injustice in society, how the artist is there to rebalance something, and that’s what great art does.”

According to Phelan, the majority of Ó Súilleabháin’s efforts were devoted to shifting studies of music away from literary techniques and toward the art of performance. 

“[It was] a radical move of removing a sight-reading test to get into a music department … it was that radical moment of revolution—he described it himself as setting off a bomb in the music department—that opened up this world,” Phelan said. 

Concluding the lineup of speakers, Breathnach said hearing stories of Ó Súilleabháin’s visit to her hometown of An Rinn, Ireland before she was born was a great source of hope and inspiration for her. 

“What Mícheál [gave me] me was an understanding—a glimmer—that maybe we had something in those green fields,” Breathnach said. “And maybe we weren’t the forgotten ones and the stupid ones that stayed at home.” 

Breathnach said hearing Ó Súilleabháin’s music also impacted the development of the rest of her career, and inspired her to become something great. 

“It’s people like Mícheál that open doors and open their hearts and their minds,” Breathnach said. “My God, did he encourage through being there and understanding that anything was possible from a small corner in the west of Europe.”

December 9, 2023