I woke up on Thursday to the news that Micheál Ó Súilleabhán was dead.
Micheál Ó Súilleabhán was an iconic musician in the Irish world of music. He worked his way through academia – not a route commonly followed by musicians operating in the trad genre, and he pushed the music forward in ways which I’m sure shocked many people at the time. He put out some iconic albums – for me the Dolphin’s Way was life changing.
Most of the piano players operating in trad world at the time were pretty much background fulfilling the role of a base/percussion filler. Vamping, we called it and it’s all over albums from the 1960s, 1970s, any classic céilí band album. The first person really to do anything to bring the piano to the front and centre; to make it an instrument of melody was pretty much Micheál Ó Súilleabhán. At home alone, I could not really get the hang of vamping and I didn’t see why I should. I played the piano accordion and that was a melody instrument, so why not the piano also? I’m not saying I’m groundbreaking – I wasn’t. But I did things that I heard no one else doing.
The Dolphin’s Way changed all that. To my mind, it is one of the most influential albums of Irish music of all time, and the person behind it was Micheál Ó Súilleabhán. While the Dolphin’s Way was purely piano, he had also done some work with harpsichords on earlier albums.
The piano still isn’t really a central focal point of Irish music. Maybe in a way it is too classical, and most of the training in Ireland certainly is. But the thing is, people came after Micheál Ó Súilleabhán. Caoimhín Vallely for example. And Micheál Ó Súilleabhán pushed the forward and promoted them.
He is an awful loss to music in Ireland, and he was very young when he died. I was deeply shocked by the news.