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Tribute to Turlough
by Bridget Haggerty
When Turlough O'Carolan died at the house of his patron Máire MacDermott Roe in 1738, his former music-pupil Charles O'Conor 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."
Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin was born 1670 near Nobber, County Meath.
In English, his name was Terence Carolan. Some sources say his father was a blacksmith (An iron founder according to Britannica), others say he was a farmer (New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). Whatever his trade - perhaps he was both farmer and blacksmith - John Ó Cearbhalláin moved his family to Ballyfarnon to take employment with the MacDermott Roe family. His son, Turlough, was 14 years old.
Mrs. MacDermott liked the boy and saw to it that he was educated. Observing that he appeared to have a talent for music and poetry, she also arranged for him to have lessons on the harp. When he was about 18, he was stricken with smallpox which left him completely blind. However, this handicap did not stop his studies, and after three years, Mrs. MacDermott gave him a harp, a horse, a guide, and the money to launch a career as an itinerant harper, playing for patrons throughout the Irish countryside.
His first patron was George Reynolds of County Leitrim who suggested that Carolan - as he was known to himself and his friends - try his hand at composition. With this encouragement, Carolan composed "Si Bheag, Si Mhor," which means "Big Hill, Little Hill," and refers to a site in Co. Meath where, according to folklore, two battling giants were turned by a wizard into two hills. To this day, the tune is still closely associated with Carolan, the composer. Thereafter, Carolan composed tunes for most of his patrons, usually putting them together on his journeys.
But what of the man himself? Various sources say that he was cheerful and gregarious, enjoyed ludicrous stories, practical jokes and, according to one biographer - Donal O'Sullivan - he was an excellent backgammon player. As with many harpers of the time, he also drank a great deal, and he had a temper.
Several anecdotes gleaned from our research colorfully illustrate these characteristics. A doctor advised Carolan to stop drinking for a period of time. Carolan began to feel worse instead of better. He then found a doctor who gave him the opposite advice, whereupon Carolan spirits immediately became "lively and cheerful". He composed the following verse, translated from the Gaelic:
He's a fool who give over the liquor,
It softens the skinflint at once,
It urges the slow coach on quicker,
Gives spirit and brains to the dunce.
The man who is dumb as a rule
Discovers a great deal to say,
While he who is bashful since Yule
Will talk in an amorous way.
It's drink that uplifts the poltroon
To give battle in France and in Spain,
Now here is an end of my tune-
And fill me that bumper again!
Among the more than 220 compositions still played today, "Farewell to Whiskey" is about the aftermath of the one doctor forbidding him to drink anymore, and "O'Carolan's Receipt" is about getting a prescription from the other doctor to go back to drinking whiskey again! According to the biographers, he stayed up all night with the doctor and wrote the tune in his honor.
In another anecdote, it was said that David Murphy, who was harper to Lord Mayo and once played before King Louis XIV of France, told Carolan his tunes were like "bones without beef". Carolan thereupon dragged Murphy kicking and screaming through the room. While Murphy screamed, Carolan remarked, "Put beef to that air, you puppy."
Carolan composed music and verse for some of the greatest families in the country. While a product of Gaelic Ireland, to a remarkable degree he appealed as much to the Gael as to the Planter. The names of those for whom he composed included Coote, Cooper, Crofton, Brabazon, Pratt, in addition to O'Hara, Irwin, Betagh, Stafford and Blayney, all of them Protestant. But, he also composed for well-known Papist families.
His poem in praise of Eleanor Plunkett of Robertstown highlights her descent from the renowned Plunketts of Ardamagh. He addresses her as "a ghaoil na bhfear éachtach O Ardamacha bréige" - "0 relation of the men of great deeds from Ardamagh of Bregia." The Plunketts had long held the stronghold of Castle Cam in Ardamagh. Yet the poem goes on to observe that now only Eleanor of all her relations survives in the area. The Plunketts, as with many other Papist families, lost their lands in the Cromwellian plantation.
The Cruise family, too, figures prominently in his works. He is said to have fallen in love with Brigid Cruise in whose honour he composed no less than four songs of praise. Legend has it that many years later, on a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, he recognised her by the touch of her hand.
Surprisingly, at least to this writer, Carolan was never highly regarded as a performer. His fame came from his gift for musical composition and poetry and his usual method was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was the opposite of traditional Irish practice. While music had always been held in high esteem, prior to Carolan, poetry always took precedence.
In Carolan's time, there were three musical traditions in Ireland - art music, folk music, and the harper tradition. The harper tradition served as a link between art and folk music and was the main conduit for the oral tradition. Carolan created a unique style by combining these art forms, and then adding elements inspired by Italian music which was then fashionable in Ireland. He was a great admirer of Vivaldi and Corelli, whose modern music he would have heard in the homes of his noble Irish patrons, and this admiration is reflected in the melodic construction and forms of many of his pieces. In fact, it's said that his "Carolan's Concerto" was a winning response to a compositional challenge from Geminiani, an acquaintance, colleague, and contemporary.
When he was in Dublin, Carolan was the frequent guest of Dr. Patrick Delany, Professor of Oratory at Trinity College, in whose honour he composed a tune. Through Delany he came in contact with Jonathan Swift. Swift and O'Carolan collaborated in translating a poem by Carolan's friend, Hugh Magauran, "Pléaraca na Ruarcach" or "O'Rourke's Feast," for which Carolan wrote the music.
A collection of Carolan's tunes was published in his own lifetime, possibly in 1721, by John and William Neale of Dublin, an extraordinary achievement for an Irish harpist at the height of the penal laws. The National Library of Ireland has the only copy.
Definitely a lover of whiskey, women and wit, Carolan did finally settle down and marry Mary Maguire. They lived on a farm near Mohill, Co. Leitrim and had seven children. Mary died in 1733 and just five years later, feeling ill, Carolan returned to the home of Mrs. MacDermott Roe. After several days, he called for a drink and repeated these lines to his first patron:
Mary Fitzgerald, dear heart,
Love of my breast and my friend,
Alas that I am parting from you,
O lady who succored me at every stage.
His final composition was to the butler, Flinn, who brought him his last drink. And, in a final fitting salute, his wake lasted four days.
According to musician Chris Smith, "Carolan's tunes are not like other tunes in the Irish folk tradition. In them, we can hear the two halves of Carolan's personality: the inheritor of the tradition of the Irish bards, whose social prestige and respect were so great that they sat at the tables of kings, and then the wandering musicians who came later. We can hear Carolan reaching toward the Italian style, but without leaving behind the folk roots of the Irish tradition."
He was an Irish icon, written of by Oliver Goldsmith in 1760, arranged by Beethoven about 1809, and he appears on the old Irish 50 pound note. As comfortable in the raucous company of McGrattan's Pub as he was playing for the landed gentry of the grand Irish estates, Grainne Yeats sums up her biography with an excellent tribute:
"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 Carolan does indeed deserve the title of Ireland's 'National Composer'"
The Encyclopedia Britannica
Carolan: The Life and Times of an Irish Harper by Donal O'Sullivan
(unfortunately out of print)
Chris Smith at Indiana University
Portrait: The National Gallery of Ireland Painted from Life. Artist Unknown
Images: Google Images
Thu, Dec 7, 2017
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
Click for More Culture Corner.
Derek Bell recorded Carolan's Receipt in 1975, the same year he joined the Chieftains. The selections include "Sídh Beag agus Sídh Mór," the first melody O'Carolan composed, as well "Carolan's Farewell to Music," which was his last. There have been dozens of settings of O'Carolan's compositions released since these, but none have surpassed the beauty of Bell's.
Click here for Carolan's Receipt.
As famine and plague sweep across Ireland, and foreign oppressors drive the people from their land, one man's words and music spreads a message of hope and courage.
Click here for Turlough
O'Carolan is about the best composer that ever lived, it is about time that someone compiled some of his best works.
Click here for Living Legacy
All beautiful tunes by Carolan, This is one we've had for a while. First off, two planxties by Shelley Phillips (of The Fairy Round fame). All that you hope and expect are here. Eleanor Plunkett, Carolan's Concerto, Carolan's Farewell to Music and more.
Click here for Celtic Treasure.