This much I know: Musician, composer and academic Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin

I’ve always been excited by musical sounds. My earliest memory is playing a little toy piano with the black keys painted on.

I discovered that if I played a note and then skipped one and played the next, that created a sweet sound. Whereas when I played two adjoining notes, the sound was sharp, or sour.

I began piano lessons when I was eight. I was quite an introverted child. I was born in 1950 and by my teens I was playing guitar and forming groups. Music was a saving grace as I wasn’t outgoing sociallly.

My mother and father had a small grocery shop in Clonmel. My brother John became an insurance broker.

I went to the local Christian Brothers school. I didn’t even know that music was a subject in the Leaving Cert, until it was almost too late. I went back to repeat my Leaving so that I could benefit from the introduction of free university education. Today, I’d be refered to as an Access student — someone who is the first in their family to attend third level — both establishing and breaking a tradition.

I went to University College Cork which was exotic and foreign to me. I was very fortunate to be taught by Aloys Fleischmann and Seán Ó Riada. I walked into the forcefield that existed between them.

I’ve always been confident in my music making.

After college Nóirín (Ní Riain) and I got married. We met in music class. As a 60s teenager I had railed against the Irish language and the green package foisted on us at the time. That kind of nationalism, that seemed happy to exclude others, never appealed to me. But when we moved to Ring, as teachers, we began to learn Irish. When O’Riada’s job at UCC came up, at a junior level, I got it and moved back to Cork where I spent the next 20 years building up the curriuclum.

When I’m not working, I read a great deal. Mainly poetry and philosophy. I don’t read much fiction, which is a failing.

I believe that performance should continue to be put to the fore in music. At some point, the theorisation of music nearly took over and the playing of the damn thing became almost secondary. I think kids want to perform, to get inside the music first, before they can get hooked into it.

My two sons are musicians. I’d always hoped they’d end up in some aspect of the arts because my own life has been so enriched by the many actors, performers, poets and writers who have walked in and out of it.

I very much believe in the power of quietness, although I meditate less regularly than I’d like to. Solutions to all kinds of problems can be found in silence, if you can let it take over.

My idea of misery is boredom. When there is no passion and when no questions are being asked.

I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself.

My biggest challenge so far has been handling relationships. The angst surrounding relationships, and how they change, can be painful and dangerous and difficult.

I’m in a wonderful long-term relationship now with Helen Phelan, a professor of music, and her 11-year-old son Luke is a pure joy.

I believe in an afterlife. The main evidence for which is nature. When I sit and look at something as lovely as the autumnal light streaming through the window of the living room of my house in North Tipperary, as I am doing now, it is ridiculous to think there isn’t a presence behind it. The notion of some sort of continuity after physical death is a no brainer.

The biggest lesson so far is that the best things come from honesty. Traditional values such as dignity and respect for the self and others are the foundation upon which anything sustainable is built.

The traits I most admire in others are honesty, high ethical values and trustworthiness. Those are not common qualities. When I find people with those qualities, I’m immediately drawn to them.

Elver Gleams, A Celebration of the Music of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and special guests. Tuesday November 22, 8pm at the University Concert Hall Limerick. Phone: 061 331549 or

Micheál plays with his sons Owen and Moley at The Grainstore, Ballymaloe, Thursday December 29, 021 4652531


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