Irish harpist and composer
1670 – 1738
Turlough O’Carolan’s role in the history of Irish music was a real turning point. The epitome of that 17th century stereotype “the drifting bard”, travelling the country composing tunes and gaining notoriety, he was the last of his kind before the baroque of Europe started to obscure folk music forever.
Carolan1 was born near Nobber2, County Meath in 1670. The family moved to the Roscommon-Leitrim area when Carolan was 14, where his father John, originally a farmer, found employment as a blacksmith under the MacDermott Roe family. Mrs MacDermott Roe took an immediate liking to the boy, offering him an education and encouraging his intelligence and interest in music. It was at the age of 18 that Carolan contracted smallpox and lost his sight.
With thoughts of his bleak future, and sensing the young man’s aptitude, it was Mrs MacDermott Roe who suggested Carolan try his hand as a musician – as a testament to their growing friendship, she bought him a harp and he began studying with a relative of hers straight away. Over three years the eager pupil greatly impressed his teacher, and at 21 he was given a horse and some money and set off to make his mark as a minstrel.
When he visited the nearby county of Leitrim, a patron named George Reynolds encouraged him to try composition. Assured, Carolan produced his first tune, Sheebeg and Sheemore, and his popularity grew immediately.
From around 1692 onwards Carolan led a convenient, enjoyable life. He would travel from town to town, attending aristocratic gatherings as a guest and leaving as a friend. He began composing tunes as presents for his wealthy supporters; soon the upper class were competing for his attention, delaying functions until he was available to play.
As he moved around Ireland, Carolan wrote many tunes - 214 survive today. Airs, reels, planxties and laments, they appear frequently in tune books and provide the backbone of many a record – tunes like Lord Inchiquin, The Dark Plaintive Youth and Ode to Whiskey (he was very fond of the drink, which provided inspiration for more than one song). His best known tunes bear his name – Carolan’s Rambel to Cashel, Carolan’s Dream, Carolan’s Receipt (an air on his abstaining from and swift re-welcoming of alcohol). There’s not a fiddler that doesn’t know Carolan’s Concerto, the dazzling reel that caused composer Francesco Germiniani to label Carolan “a true genius of music”. The tune is supposedly tinged with the influence of Arcangelo Corelli; it’s easy to see the increasing importance of baroque music at the time.
Eventually, Carolan felt his nomadic nature and lifelong energy waning. In 1720 he married a young girl named Mary Maguire and they settled in Mohill, Leitrim. She had six girls and a son who in 1747 published a collection of his father’s works. Carolan’s wife died in 1733. A few tunes followed, but Carolan grew steadily weaker. In the spring of 1738, 60 years after the illness that turned him blind and sealed his destiny, he returned to the Roscommon home of his old friend Mrs MacDermott Roe and prepared for his death.
Calling for one last cup of whiskey, he picked up his harp and played out a beautiful air, Carolan’s Farewell - to drink, to music and to the people that supported him throughout his life. He died a few days later, and Ireland wept.
- Generally, sources refer to O’Carolan in his full name, and Carolan when using his surname alone. There’s a brief explanation at http://www.contemplator.com/carolan/carlnbio.html#name.
- Some sources cite Newton, Meath as Carolan’s birthplace.
English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes
This excellent compendium of about 120 tunes, compiled by The Incredible String Band’s virtuoso fiddler Robin Williamson, introduced me to Carolan and fiddle music in general. It includes several of his songs, complete with entertaining, informative asides, nostalgic anecdotes and a 13-track CD too. I can’t recommend it enough.
An informative site with a useful Amazon-linked discography.