Songs for Saturday: Turlough O’Carolan, The Blind Irish Harpist

By: Chuck Stanley

Turlough O'Carolan

Turlough O’Carolan

Some three hundred years ago, if you had the pleasure of meeting him, he would have toldyou his name was Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin.  There is only one known authentic picture of O’Carolan. Obviously, this is a painting, because photography had not been invented then

Turlough O’Carolan was born in the year 1670 near Nobber, County Meath, Ireland. His exact birth date has been lost in the mists of time. He died on March 25, 1738 in Alderford, County Roscommon. In his 68 years, he composed some of the most beautiful harp music, not only in Ireland, but in the world.

There is a lovely statue of O’Carolan in Mohill, County Leitrim, where he spent much of his life. The image is copyrighted, so here is a link to the photo.

The young Carolan had vision until he was about eighteen, at which time he contracted smallpox. The smallpox affected his eyes, blinding him. Even before he lost his sight, he had shown a talent for poetry and music.

After he became blind, he was befriended by a wealthy noblewoman, Mrs. Mary Fitzgerald McDermott Rowe, who became his lifelong patron. She was still a young woman herself, only about five years older than Carolan. She gave him a harp, a horse and some money. With that small start, the young blind man begin a career as an itinerant harpist. For the next 45 years, he traveled throughout Ireland, staying with many families who became a series of patrons. He repaid their support by composing tunes (Planxties) for his patrons.

In 1738 he began feeling ill. He returned to the home of Mary Fitzgerald McDermott Rowe in Alderford. During his last illness, she attended to him personally. She was with him at his bedside as he slipped away forever. Shortly before he died, he composed these lines for her, his first and last 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.

O’Carolan has been called the last of the great bards. The tradition of traveling harpists performing for the gentry declined during the 18th century. By the 19th Century, harp playing in Ireland had become almost extinct. Fortunately, musicologists preserved most of his music. His music was a key element in the revival of Celtic music toward the end of the 20th Century. Such groups as The Chieftains and virtuoso harpist Derek Bell included many of O’Carolan’s compositions in their recordings. Going from being nearly forgotten, Turlough O’Carolan has become one of the most famed harpists in the world, despite having been dead almost three centuries. Harp music has been called by some, “the soul of Ireland.” O’Carolan’s music lives on, loved by people all over the world.

A few years before she died, my wife and I were driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stopped at the Folk Art Center near Asheville, NC.  A lifelong crafter herself, whenever we were in the area, she always wanted to stop. One of the features of the Folk Art Center is the presence of resident artists and crafters.

If there is a visiting artist/crafter in residence, they are set up in a nook just inside the front door of the Folk Art Center. On previous visits, we had seen weavers, quilters, potters, and painters. On this visit, the featured artist was a luthier. His specialty was the hammered dulcimer. As an amateur luthier myself, I always stop and talk shop whenever I get the chance. As it turned out, he was also an expert on the music of Turlough O’Carolan. I knew one my wife’s favorite Irish tunes was Si Beag Si Mor and asked him if he knew it. He replied, “Oh, yes, of course.” With a smile, he picked up the two dulcimer hammers and began playing.

The title, Si Beag Si Mor, means “little hill, big hill,” a reference to the faerie kingdoms of Ireland. it is pronounced “Sheebeg Sheemore.”  Si Beag Si Mor itself is a simplified and Anglicized spelling. In Gaelic it is: “Sidhe Bheag an Sidhe Mhor

Here is how that featured artist at the Folk Art Center sounded as he played one of the most beautiful of all the harp tunes Carolan composed.

Turlough O’Carolan’s music has been performed on every instrument imaginable, but his own instrument was the Celtic harp. This is Planxty Irwin, one of his most famous compositions. This recording by Bill Alexander is on the Celtic harp, probably very similar to the one he carried with him on his travels. It is easy to close one’s eyes and imagine sitting in front of a warm peat fire after dinner, listening to him play.

Carolan’s Dream is a lullaby. Imagine being a wee bairn going to sleep to this Carolan’s Dream by Celtic harpist Mark Harmer.

Being an Irishman and poet, it should come as no surprise that he wrote about whiskey. Yes indeed, O’Carolan did like a wee nip from time to time.

Ode to Whiskey

A h- uisci chroidhe na n-anamann!
Leagan tú ar la’r me’,
Bim gan chéill, gan aithne,
‘Sé an t-eachrann do b’fhearr liom.
Bíonn mo chóta stracaighthe,
Agus caillim leat mo charabhat,
Is bíodh a ndéarnais maith leat,
Acht teangmhaigh liom amárach!

English translation:
O Whiskey, heart of my soul!

You always knock me down.
I’m without sense, I don’t know where I am!
You’d think that I’d take the warning.

My coat is all torn up and
I lost my cravat because of you.
But let all you’ve done be forgiven,
So long as you meet me again tomorrow!

This is a tribute to Irish music, poetry, and specifically to the last of the great Irish bards.

In closing, here is a medley of O’Carolan tunes by The Chieftains:

In the comments, please add your own favorite Irish music, poetry, and tales of faeries and leprechauns. If you have a favorite Turlough O’Carolan tune or poem, please share it with us.

About Chuck Stanley

Dr. Charlton (Chuck) Stanley is a board certified forensic psychologist, with interests in aviation psychology, peace officer selection and training, ethics and communication skills.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Songs for Saturday: Turlough O’Carolan, The Blind Irish Harpist

  1. I have been asked how to pronounce his first name. Turlough is pronounced TUR-low. However, if you hear an Irish Gaelic speaker say it, there is an accent that does not do well on a native English-speaker’s tongue.

    There are variations of spelling on most surnames, including everyone who reads this. Back in those days, spelling was, shall we say, rather casual. The reason was that when some document was recorded by a scribe, magistrate or priest, it was spelled phonetically, as it sounded. Many names entered in records of those times may appear to be different people, when it fact is was the same person. For example, in my research for this story, I found an astonishing number of variations on the spelling of “Carolan,” which has now become the “standard” spelling.

  2. randyjet says:

    Loved the music and I got drawn into the music of Weeks Wildcat youtube. Great sounds on both.

  3. Randy,
    Thanks. Celtic music is the foundation for bluegrass. The Irish and Scots who settled the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina, Virgina and Kentucky brought their music with them. It evolved over two hundred years into what we now call bluegrass music.

    One piece I like particularly is Irish, but not by Carolan. More modern. It is a tribute to an Irish revolutionary of the 20th Century. Peadar O’Donnell died in 1986 at the age of 93. I am amazed that the Government didn’t hang him when he was most active. This video is truly international in scope. Japanese guitarist Kawamura Seiji plays A Tribute to Peadar O’Donnell on his Weissenborn Guitar. The Weissenborn is a unique instrument designed by German immigrant Hermann Weissenborn about a hundred years ago. I have one of them myself.

  4. Oh Chuck, you made me laugh. Surely you meant “As [fill in the blank] myself, I always stop and talk shop whenever I get the chance.” Lovely post; I enjoyed the history and the music.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is one of my favorite collections of Turlough O’Carolan’s compositions.

    BTW: an Irish speaker might pronounce Carolan as Carlin. My great-grandmother’s last name before she married my great-grandfather was Carolan, but I’ve been told that she pronounced it Carlin.

  6. Carlyle Moulton says:

    Gene, what has happened to Mike Spindell? It seems all his posts and even his gravatar have vanished?

  7. Carlyle,
    See the Suggestions page starting at this comment at the link below. Formal announcement forthcoming later.

  8. Carlyle Moulton says:

    Thanks Chuck.

    Regards Carl.

  9. Meant to include this in the story itself, and may update later. The Contemplator has a great website, Contemplations from the Marianas Trench. Lesley has a whole section devoted to Turlough O’Carolan–just follow the link with the Celtic harp icon.

  10. pete says:

    I can only assume he didn’t play the blues. When I googled “blind blues harp player” his name didn’t come up.


  11. Maybe you confused the Google with “harp”, pete. Two totally different instruments there. For one thing, unless you’re Steven Tyler, a non-blues harp would be really hard to get in your mouth.

Comments are closed.