Illuminations: Turlough O’Carolan
By: J. Michael Finn
Persons who play the Irish harp are known as harpers, those who play concert harps are known as harpists. By far the most famous Irish harper was Turlough O’Carolan. In his lifetime he composed over 200 pieces of music for the harp. Even more amazing, he was totally blind. He is considered by many to be Ireland’s national composer and is often referred to as either O’Carolan or Carolan.
O’Carolan was born in 1670 in Nobber, County Meath, where his father was a blacksmith and metal worker. The family later moved to Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon in 1684. In Roscommon, his father took a job with the MacDermot Roe family. Mrs. Mary MacDermot Roe, the wife of his father’s employer, gave young Turlough an education, and the youngster showed talent in poetry. At the age of eighteen he was stricken with smallpox, a common disease in Ireland. Although he recovered from the disease, it left him permanently blind.
In those days there were few opportunities for someone blind. Mrs. MacDermot Roe apprenticed O’Carolan to a good harper. It is believed that his teacher was Ruairi Dall (Blind Rory) who was living with the MacDermot’s at the time. At the age of twenty-one Turlough was given a harp, a horse and a guide. He then set out to travel Ireland and compose songs for patrons. The patrons gave him food and lodging and in return Turlough would compose a piece of music, often naming the song in their honor. Music named for a patron is known as a planxty, a word that O’Carolan reportedly invented.
O’Carolan’s first patron was George Reynolds of County Leitrim, who suggested that Turlough try his hand at composition. With the encouragement of Reynolds, Turlough composed Si Bheag, Si Mhor, which means “Big Hill, Little Hill.” and refers to a site in County Meath where, according to folklore, two battling giants were turned into two hills by a wizard.
Turlough was not your typical classical musician. Sources say that he was cheerful and gregarious, enjoyed practical jokes, as with many harpers of the time, he also drank a great deal, and he had a temper.
A story about O’Carolan concerns an encounter he had with another harper, David Murphy. Murphy was a disagreeable fellow musician who was so mean he once threw his own mother down a flight of stairs. Murphy once told O’Carolan that his music was like “bones without beef.” O’Carolan encountered Murphy in a pub and a fight began between the two. O’Carolan eventually dragged Murphy kicking and screaming from the pub. While Murphy was screaming, O’Carolan remarked, “Put beef to that air, you puppy.”
Among his compositions, Farewell to Whiskey is about the aftermath of a doctor forbidding him to drink anymore, and O’Carolan’s Receipt is about getting a prescription from the another doctor to go back to drinking whiskey again. According to the biographers, he stayed up all night with the prescribing doctor and wrote the tune in his honor.
O’Carolan composed music and verse for some of the most famous families in the country. He was a product of Gaelic Ireland: he spoke and wrote in Irish and did not speak English very well, but, he appealed as much to the native Gael as to the Ascendency families.
The names of those for whom he composed music included Coote, Cooper, Crofton, Brabazon, Pratt, O’Hara, Irwin, Betagh, Stafford and Blayney, all of them Protestant land owners. But, he also composed for well-known Catholic families, such as the Plunketts. It has been written that often weddings and funerals would be postponed until O’Carolan could arrive to perform.
The Cruise family, too, figures prominently in his works. He is said to have fallen in love with Brigid Cruise, in whose honor he composed no less than four songs of praise. Legend has it that many years later, on a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, he recognized her by the touch of her hand.
O’Carolan’s fame came from his gift for musical composition and poetry. His usual method was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was the opposite of traditional Irish practice.
Today most of his music is played as strictly instrumental music, but O’Carolan wrote words to roughly a third of his songs. All of these were written in Irish; only one was in English. Some of O’Carolan’s own compositions show influence from the style of continental classical music, whereas others such as Carolan’s Farewell to Music reflect a much older style of “Gaelic Harping.”
O’Carolan did finally settle down and marry, to Mary Maguire. They lived on a farm near Mohill, County Leitrim and had seven children. Mary died in 1733 and just five years later, feeling ill, Carolan returned to the home of Mrs. Mary MacDermott Roe.
When Turlough O’Carolan died at the MacDermot Roe house 1738, his former music pupil Charles O’Connor recorded his passing in sadness: “Saturday, the 25th day of March, 1738. Turlough O’Carolan, the wise master and chief musician of the whole of Ireland, died today and was buried in the O’Duignan’s church of Kilronan, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. May his soul find mercy, for he was a moral and religious man.” O’Carolan’s final composition was to the butler, Flinn, who brought him his last drink. And, in a final fitting salute, his wake lasted four days.
If you would like to read more about O’Carolan and his compositions, the definitive biography is titled Carolan: The Life and Times of an Irish Harper, by Donal O’Sullivan, originally published in 1958 and reprinted in1983 and 1991 (set of 2 volumes). Another biographer, Grainne Yeats, sums up O’Carolan in an excellent tribute: “O’Carolan bridges the gap between continental art music on the one hand, and the Gaelic harp and folk music on the other.
At his best he wrote music that is distinctively Irish, yet has an international flavor, as well. It is this achievement that suggests that Turlough O’Carolan does indeed deserve the title of Ireland’s National Composer.”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.