If you’ve heard or played harp music, it’s rather likely that you’ve heard music by the blind Irish harpist, composer, and singer called Turlough O’Carolan (also known as Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin in Irish and Terrence O’Carolan by some biographers. I’m choosing the middle—and most common—road here). Although he was never known as a master harp player, he’s still considered Ireland’s best harper, in that he wrote prolifically and cleverly, with a very diverse melody-base.
He was born in 1670 near Nobber, in County Meathe, the son of an iron founder (or possibly a blacksmith or farmer—biographers disagree) named John O’Carolan. The family moved to Ballyarnon in County Roscommon in 1684, when John took a job there. The McDermott-Roe family, who owned the business, took a liking to young Turlough, and they gave him an education at their own expense.
When he was just 18, he was blinded by smallpox. This was a game-changer, as most trades were no longer an option for him. Mrs. McDermott-Roe had seen something in him, though, and sent him for harp lessons. When he was good enough, she apprenticed him to a harper and in 1691, she gave him a horse, a guide, and some money to start his career; he set out to travel all over Ireland and compose songs for patrons. His first patron (if we don’t count Mrs. McDermott-Roe) was George Reynolds of County Leitrim. Turlough continued to compose and travel for the next 50 years.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were three musical traditions in Ireland: art music, folk music, and the harp tradition. The harp tradition served as a link between art and folk music and was the main conduit for the oral tradition of storytelling, which is still a big thing in Ireland today.
Turlough combined the three art forms and then added elements inspired by Italian Baroque music, which was also popular in Ireland at the time. He admired Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, whose music he would have heard in the homes of his wealthy patrons. “Carolan’s Concerto” is said to have been the result of a compositional challenge from his friend Francesco Geminiani, another big deal composer of the time. He met many nobles and famous people, including the writer Jonathan Swift, on his travels to Dublin. He and Swift seem to have been friends and translated a poem together.
Said to be cheerful and talkative, he enjoyed things that were ridiculous, especially stories from folklore, and a good practical joke, and stories have it that he was a wicked backgammon player.
He’s also thought to have drunk to excess and to have a quick temper. At some point, a doctor advised Turlough to drink less, but when he began to feel worse (withdrawal?), another doctor prescribed the opposite. Turlough immediately began to feel better and wrote two witty songs about it accordingly (“Farewell to Whiskey” and “O’Carolan’s Receipt”).
In another story, another professional harper named David Murphy said that Turlough’s music was like “bones without beef.” Turlough is said to have dragged Murphy across the room kicking and screaming, saying, “Put beef to that air, you puppy.”
Another story has Turlough challenging his old friend Charles McCabe to a drinking contest, saying that the first to get drunk had to pay for the drinks. After some serious drinking, McCabe fell silent. When he asked someone why (remember, Turlough was blind), he was told that McCabe was sound asleep. He had his friend wrapped in a sack, and when McCabe woke in the morning, he was annoyed but forced to concede that he’d lost the bet. They sent a series of scolding poems to each other in the years to come.
Another story involving McCabe is that McCabe disguised himself as a peasant (I don’t understand why, as Turlough was blind) and announced his own death to Turlough. Turlough improvised some verses in genuine grief, but stopped when McCabe revealed himself as the peasant. McCabe’s first name (Charles) translates into Irish as Cathoir and also means “chair,” Turlough wrote funny songs to or about his friend using the word. McCabe wrote a touching eulogy to Turlough upon his death and was considered his closest friend.
Like many other composers, Turlough wrote both lyrics and melodies, as well as purely instrumental music. He’s thought to have composed the tune first while he rode from patron to patron, and added the words when he needed them, once he arrived, adapting to each situation. Many of the tunes attributed to him may be older traditional melodies that he improved or lengthened and more of his poems were documented than tunes.
He was first published in John and William Neal’s “A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes” in Dublin, around 1726 (although some biographers say it was more like 1721 and others say it was 1742. It’s possible that the later date is that of a copy made by Turlough’s son). The only surviving copy is kept in the National Library of Ireland.
There are at least 220 tunes attributed to him, although few were published or even written down during his lifetime. They survived via fiddlers, pipers, and the last of the old Irish harpers, and were collected and published in dribs and drabs during the 18th and 19th centuries. A proper collection was made by Dònal O’Sullivan in 1958, but few lyrics were included. Some tunes were edited to make them fit comfortably within a higher voicing, perhaps for flutes or pipes, and also possibly for smaller harps. With only one exception where Turlough wrote in English, all songs are in Irish when there are lyrics. He wrote many planxties (tributes) in honor of a particular person or event.
Although his lyrics are seldom still performed, his melodies are still quite popular (and in my case, constitute the majority of the pieces I can play on the harp). Weddings and funerals were often delayed, waiting until he arrived to perform at them—he was the rock star of 18th century Ireland!
His music features a mix of traditional (secular or folk) and classical (Baroque in particular) elements, using all the popular musical forms, especially jigs and minuets. Although the forms the music took were typically French, the text was distinctly Irish in its subject and wit.
In 1840, an English cleric named Edward Bunting transcribed a bunch of Turlough’s music from performances by traditional players. Until then, the tradition had been largely maintained aurally. As was traditional during the Baroque period, only the melodies were written down, with a sort of outline for accompaniment and ornamentation. The poems were documented separately and, in some cases, are all that remains.
He composed mostly for Protestant families as he traveled around, but there were a few Catholic families thrown into the mix, although they had lost their lands to the Cromwellian plantation system, where Irish lands and buildings were settled by English immigrants.
Other than his late-in-life marriage, he doesn’t seem to have fallen in love much, except for one young lady, to whom he wrote four songs, called Brigid (sometimes Bridget) Cruise. Many years later, he was said to know her again only by the gentle touch of her hand.
Turlough married Mary Maguire in 1720 (he was 50), and his first family home was a cottage near Mohil in County Leitrim. They had seven children (six daughters and a son). Little is known about the children, although a daughter, Siobhan, married someone called Captain Sudley, and the son published a collection of Turlough’s tunes in 1747. The son reportedly had an affair with a married woman that ended badly, and he fled to London to be a harp teacher.
Turlough’s wife died in 1733. About five years later, Turlough fell ill and returned to the home of his first friend and supporter, Mrs. McDermott-Roe, and wrote a poem to her (calling her Mary Fitzgerald, presumably her maiden name). The final composition of his life was to the butler, Flinn, who brought him his last drink.
His wake lasted four days, and I’m just guessing, but the music was probably pretty good. Turlough was buried in the McDermott-Roe family crypt in Kilronan Burial Ground near Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon. There’s still an annual harp festival there.
Oliver Goldsmith wrote his biography in 1760, some of his songs were arranged by Beethoven in 1809 or thereabout, and he appeared on the old Irish 50-pound note. In 1986, a bronze monument by Oisin Kelly was erected at the market square in Mohil and was unveiled by then president of Ireland, Patrick Hillery.
But perhaps the best legacy of all is that if you think of Irish music, the odds are, you’re thinking of a tune by Turlough O’Carolan.
“Carolan: The Life, Times, and Music of an Irish Harper,” Dònal O’Sullivan, Ossian Publishing, 1958
Encyclopedia Britannica Online
Liner notes from the album “Carolan’s Harp” from the Harp Console, written by Andrew Lawrence King