The Nobber Bard

Wider than the heavenšs is my fame Š I am the best as regards the power of my fingers Š nobody will ever be found to match me Š Turlough OšCarolan knew he was the best.

Nobber’s most famous son was probably Ireland’s greatest composer and even though he spent less than one quarter of his life in north Meath, he is still held in high esteem there.

Since 1988 the annual O’Carolan Harp Festival has been held each October in honour of the man regarded as "the last of the Irish bards" according to the inscription on a plaque in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

As a travelling musician he became familiar with Italian baroque music in the houses of the gentry and was a great admirer of his contemporary Antonio Vivaldi. He broke new ground as an Irish composer by incorporating these influences into his work.

Though blindness prevented him studying harmony, counterpoint and musical form, his compositions successfully blended folk and classical influences.

Later when the harp became almost extinct in Ireland, his music was perpetuated by fiddlers, pipers and whistle players. Because the harper tradition was essentially oral, few compositions for the national instrument survive outside of O’Carolan’s body of work.

Fortunately, over two hundred of O’Carolan’s compositions survive and a revival of interest in O’Carolan’s music was instigated by The Chieftains in the early 1970s and continued when their harpist Derek Bell recorded the album "Carolan’s Receipt" five years later.

Most of his compositions were written for a variety of patrons, including Lord Athenry, Lord Blayney, Sir Festus Burke and members of the McDermott Roe family. He called these tunes Planxties.
Many were written for weddings and funerals and so popular was that many such functions were delayed until he could be present. He also composed a series of laments including one for Owen Roe O’Neill.

Other compositions include Blind Mary, Carolan’s Cap, Ode to Whiskey and near the end of his life he wrote Carolan’s Farewell to Music, which as the name suggests was composed shortly before his death in 1738.

Before his illness, he fell for a young girl named Bridget Cruise but because of their differing backgrounds he had no chance of marrying into nobility. However, he wrote three planxties in her honour and is said to have recognised her by the touch of her hand when they met again many years later.

His best known work, Carolan’s Concerto, said to have been written in response to a challenge from Francesco Geminiani, a contemporary Italian composer (1687-1762) who spent the last three decades of his life in Dublin. It was chosen as one of the top 75 Irish musical works across all musical genres by the RTE Radio One arts programme, Rattlebag in 2002.

Despite his reputation as a travelling harpist, it is a composer and lyricist that he is best remembered. It was his first patron George Reynolds, from County Leitrim who suggested that he try his hand at composing.

For forty-five years he travelled the length and breadth of the country performing and composing tunes for his many patrons. But what of the man himself?

He was born near Nobber on March 25, 1738. His father, John, was a small farmer and a blacksmith. When Turlough was 14 he family moved west to County Roscommon, where his father took up employment at an iron foundry at Aldersford belonging to the McDermott Roe family.

Mrs. Mary McDermott-Roe befriended the bright teenager who was already displaying a talent for poetry and ensured he received a good education.

However, when O’Carolan was just 18, tragedy struck when he contracted smallpox and was blinded as a result. Some sources suggest that he was already receiving lessons on the harp from the harper Ruairi Dall (Blind Ruairi) who lived with the McDermott Roe’s.

Despite his handicap he continued to study the harp as music provided the only outlet for the blind and three years later Mary McDermott Roe gave him a harp, a horse, a guide and some money to kick start his career as an travelling musician.

His practice was to compose the music before grappling with the lyrics, which was the opposite of the Irish traditional convention, in which poetry took precedence over music.

The harper tradition in Irish music served as a link between the art and folk traditions and as well as combining the two, O’Carolan added a third, contemporary classical influences.

His music reflects a cheerful and gregarious personality, who enjoyed story-telling and practical jokes and according to one biographer, Donal O’Sullivan, was proficient at backgammon.

Like many harpers he was a heavy drinker and had a bad temper as one incident illustrates. An old friend McCabe challenged him to a drinking contest on the premise that whoever got drunk first would pay for the drinks.

After a while McCabe became silent and when O’Carolan asked why he was told his friend had fallen asleep. Fearing McCabe wouldn’t honour the bet, O’Carolan had McCabe tied up and when he awoke he was forced to concede the bet.

McCabe was annoyed and the incident led to an exchange of ‘scolding poems’ between them and in one of them O’Carolan refereed to his rival as "smelly-fingered Charles, Son of Cabe" and derided him for not taking the joke as intended.

In response, McCabe berated him for "insignificant, elementary humour" , but later wrote a touching Elegy to Carolan.

On one occasion, O’Carolan gave up drinking on medical advice. But after complaining of feeling worse instead of better, he found a physician who gave him the opposite advice and in appreciation wrote:

He’s a fool who give over the liquor,
It softens the skinflint at once,
It urges the slowcoach on quicker,
Gives spirit and brains to a dunce.
The 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 turn –
And fill me that bumper again!

On another occasion, the harper David Murphy castigated his compositions as being like "bones without beef", whereupon O’Carolan dragged the man who once performed for King Louis XIV of France kicking and screaming through the room and told him to "Put beef to that air, you puppy".

In 1720, when aged 50 O’Carolan married Mary Maguire and settled down on a farm near Mohill, Co. Leitrim. Between them they had one son and six daughters. All we know about his offspring is that a daughter Siobhan married a Captain Sudley while his son, also proficient with the harp, published a collection of his father tunes before fleeing to London following an affair with a married woman.

As harpers, like poets, were highly regarded in Ireland at that time he enjoyed a comfortable living entertainers wealthy landowners. It seems he never got over the death of his wife, who passed away in 1733.

In declining health he returned to the home of Mrs. McDermott Roe where he died in 1738 aged 68. As he laying dying he is reputed to have called for a sup of whiskey saying, "the drink and I have been friends for so long, it would be a pity for me to leave without one last kiss".

A former pupil Charles O’Conor noted his passing. "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."

He was truly an iconic Irish figure, and his image later appeared on the Irish £50 note. He was comfortable in both raucous and refined company. In 1999, the writer and former Beirut hostage, Brian Keenan published Turlough, a fictionalised biography of O’Carolan.

The Belfast man summoned up an imaginary companionship with the blind Meath native to help him keep mentally stable during his five year period of incarceration.

Another biographer, Gráinne Yeats concluded; "O’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 flavour as well. It is this achievement that suggests that Turlough O’Carolan does indeed deserve the title of Ireland’s national composer."

Taken from Royal Meath
December 2003