than the heavenšs is my fame I am the best as regards
the power of my fingers nobody will ever be found to match
me Turlough OšCarolan knew he was the best.
Nobbers most famous son was probably Irelands
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 OCarolan 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. Patricks 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 OCarolans
body of work.
Fortunately, over two hundred of OCarolans compositions
survive and a revival of interest in OCarolans
music was instigated by The Chieftains in the early 1970s
and continued when their harpist Derek Bell recorded the
album "Carolans 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
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 ONeill.
Other compositions include Blind Mary, Carolans Cap,
Ode to Whiskey and near the end of his life he wrote Carolans
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
His best known work, Carolans 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
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 OCarolan 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 Roes.
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, OCarolan added a third, contemporary classical
His music reflects a cheerful and gregarious personality,
who enjoyed story-telling and practical jokes and according
to one biographer, Donal OSullivan, was proficient
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 OCarolan
asked why he was told his friend had fallen asleep. Fearing
McCabe wouldnt honour the bet, OCarolan had
McCabe tied up and when he awoke he was forced to concede
McCabe was annoyed and the incident led to an exchange of
scolding poems between them and in one of them
OCarolan 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
On one occasion, OCarolan 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:
Hes 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.
Its 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 OCarolan 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
In 1720, when aged 50 OCarolan 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 OConor noted his passing. "Saturday,
the 25th day of March, 1738. Turlough OCarolan, the
wise master and chief musician of the whole of Ireland,
died today and was buried in the ODuignans 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 OCarolan.
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; "OCarolan
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 OCarolan does indeed deserve
the title of Irelands national composer."
Taken from Royal Meath