Carla Marie Music


29 Jan 2016

Turlough O’Carolan - A Biography

A brief account of the life of the blind Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan.

Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin, to give him his Gaelic name, was born in Newton, near Nobber, County Meath in 1670. At the age of fourteen, when the family moved to Ballyfarnon, Carolan met the MacDermott-Roe family, which proved to be a significant and fortuitous occasion. Mrs. MacDermott-Roe instantly saw promise in the young Carolan and provided him with an education, until tragedy struck when he reached eighteen and was blinded by smallpox. Mrs. MacDermott-Roe arranged a three-year harper’s apprenticeship for the boy, following which she provided a harp, a horse and a guide and set him on the road as an itinerant musician, as was customary for those in his situation. Carolan soon learned he had a creative gift and began to compose music for wealthy patrons.

The life of an itinerant harper was a surprisingly comfortable one, and despite being a fervent Catholic, Carolan was an honoured guest of both Protestant Squires and the old Catholic aristocracy, immortalising their names in his song titles. Within these circles he discovered the Italian Baroque style of Corelli, Vivaldi and Geminiani, whom he greatly admired, and began incorporating similar elements into his own music. Despite his blindness, Carolan appears to have been content: contemporaries report that he was eminently skilled in backgammon, and when not roaming the countryside, he settled on a small farm with his wife Mary.

Carolan’s style skilfully weaves continental sophistication into a distinctively Gaelic musical language. There are clear hints of the Italian concerto and giga, the French menuette and gigue, the Renaissance branle and the medieval estampie, amid the subtly irregular phrase lengths, which are a hallmark of his music. He is known to have created the melodies first, adding words later, and there is evidence that Carolan composed on horseback during the journey to his next host. The wide range of his melodies, many of which span two octaves, enables the harpist to contrast tone colour by changing register. This, the gapped scales, and the modal cadences, swinging between the flattened seventh and tonic, rather than the dominant tonic of the European tradition, are decidedly Celtic, whilst the complex and elaborately decorated melodies are reminiscent of Italian divisions and French-influenced ornamentation.

Over two hundred of Carolan’s compositions are still in existence. Many of these are a favourite with musicians of all instruments and nationalities and characterise both his disregard for European harmonic rules, and his sympathies with Irish instrumental traditions. Though his Laments are not outstanding when compared with the great body of Irish eulogies, and he composed no lullabies, he excelled in the ‘joyful’ styles of music. His animated ‘Planxties’ in jig rhythm are quite bacchanalian in nature, and were often published as unaccompanied melodies, so as to distinguish then from more formal compositions. Given such scores, instrumentalists would improvise their own ornaments and variations in the typical Irish style. This led to significant transformations in both melodic and harmonic elements, as shown by three versions of Tá mé ‘mo chodladh. The two settings collected by the amateur flautist William Forde do not even agree on the mode of the piece, and both differ significantly from Edward Bunting’s delicately ornamented version.

Carolan first attempted composition during his stay with George Reynolds of County Leitrim. Perhaps as a result of having come to the harp later in life, Carolan’s fingers were not as nimble as they might have been, and Reynolds suggested he try composition, even proffering the battle between the fairy hosts of two neighbouring hills as a suitable subject. The graceful song that resulted, Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór, was the start of his highly successful career as a harper-composer.

The extent to which he drew on traditional Irish music for inspiration is difficult to assess, but was probably considerable. Not only his first composition, but also pieces such as Carolan’s Cup and Carolan’s Quarrel with the Landlady among others are all derived from older Irish melodies. He is also known to have drawn on Scottish airs to some extent, as in the song Carolan’s Cap, which is based on an old air from the Lowlands. Like most Irish folk tunes, Carolan’s music was usually in binary form, containing unusual twists and turns, and many were so popular that they have become part of the Anglo-Irish song tradition: Bumper Squire Jones, O’Rourke’s Noble Feast, The Saucy Arethusa for example. The Italian influences are freely acknowledged in Ple raca na Rourkagh, ‘Ye Irish Wedding improvised with different divisions after ye Italien manner with a bass and chorus by Sigr. Lorenzo Bocchi’: essentially an imitation of solo bravura style. His admiration of Corelli is abundantly evident in the interchanges between the treble and bass, as seen in Carolan’s Concerto, Madam Bermingham, Lady Blarney, Colonel O’Hara and others.

Carolan’s music provides a clue to the man himself. One of his earliest attachments, to a girl named Bridget Cruise, resulted in four airs, as well as a number of poems for which the melodies do not survive. His familiarity with his patrons is seen in Tobias Peyton, in which he is confident enough to criticise Toby Peyton’s Ale. The extent of his travels is also evident: pieces written for and entitled Mrs. O’Neill, Lord Massereene, Mrs. Cole, Mrs. Maxwell and many others show the range he journeyed and his popularity with his hosts. His Lament for Charles displays his sense of humour, and was written after an episode in which his friend Charles MacCabe dressed as a peasant and announced his own death to Carolan. Finally his Farewell to Music, written on his return to Ballyfarnon before he died, reveals the enduring friendship between Carolan and Mrs. MacDermott-Roe.

From the potentially bleak prospect of life as a blind itinerant musician, Carolan became a harper, poet, and the most famous Irish bard of the early modern period. This was in spite of the decline of the harping tradition, caused by the Anglicisation of Irish culture and the inability of the diatonic harp to play the accidentals required by Dublin’s fashionable classical music. On his return to Ballyfarnon near the end of his life, he was nursed by Mrs. Macdermott-Roe, to whom he wrote his final piece Mhairé a chroidhe Nic Gearailt. He died on Lady Day, 1738, and was buried in the church of Kilronan. Some years later, his skull was disinterred and laid in a recess in the chapel. After some adventures it is now purported to be on display in the National Museum of Ireland.

Though within a hundred years of his death the Irish harping tradition was almost extinct, Carolan’s melodies survived, being handed down by aural tradition until the early nineteenth century when the English Cleric, Edward Bunting, notated O’Carolan’s tunes as played by the harper Arthur O’Neill, and published them in 1840. Carolan’s music straddled the divide between popular and formal composition, and was taken up by many traditional Irish instrumentalists. The 1970s saw a revival, after his songs were popularised by the Irish band The Chieftans, and in the last few decades of the twentieth century, interest in the Celtic harp was also rekindled.  Thanks to Carolan’s music, performers such as Derek Bell, Alison Kinaird, Anne Heyman and Patrick Ball have revived a centuries-old musical tradition that has been an important source of pleasure for many generations. As John of Salisbury remarked, in his memoirs of the crusades,  ‘had it not been for the Irish harp, there would have been no music at all’.

Supplementary reading:

Armstrong, R.B., ‘Portrait of Turlough Carolan’in The Irish and Highland Harps, (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1904), [public domain image].

Ball, Patrick,  Celtic Harp Volume IV: O'Carolan's Dream. (Tucson, AZ. Fortuna Records, 1989),[Compact Disc].

Lawrence-King, Andrew, Carolan's Harp, (Valkkoog. BMG Music, 1996),[Compact Disc].

O'Sullivan, Donal, Carolan: the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper (Cork: Ossian Publications Ltd., 2001 [1958]).

Weiser, Glen, Celtic Encyclopaedia: fingerstyle guitar edition (Pacific MO: Mel Bay Publications Inc., 1999).

Weiser, Glen, Celtic Harp Music of Carolan and Others for Solo Guitar (Fullerton CA: Centrestream Publishing, 1995).

Woods, Sylvia, 40 O'Carolan Tunes for All Harps, Second edn (Montrose CA: Sylvia Woods Music & Books Inc., 1993 [1985]).