Turlough O'Carolan - Biographical Info

Turlough O'Carolan

Biographical Information

The background music on this page is Eleanor Plunkett
Sequenced by Barry Taylor

Carolan vs. O'Carolan

I am often confronted with the opinion that my site should refer to Carolan as O'Carolan. I originally used "Turlough Carolan" because Grainne Yeats - certainly an expert on the man - refers to him as such. However, as this site relies strongly on Donal O'Sullivan's biography of Carolan I have decided to use his naming conventions for Carolan, except where I am quoting another source. There is a great deal of confusion and inconsistency in naming Carolan and so I have decided to devote some space to O'Sullivan's explanation.

Carolan's full name in Irish is Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin. As is often the case with names of the past, several variations of both the first and last name appear. In English the name would be Turlough or Terence Carolan.

According to O'Sullivan, when full names (first and last together) are written in Gaelic it is customary to add the Ó prefix. However, in using the surname alone, O'Sullivan states, one should use the form the owner and his friends used. In his songs for Fallon and John Stafford, Carolan referred to himself as Cearbhallán, not Ó Cearbhallán. In his elegy for Carolan MacCabe uses the same, as do several other close friends in writing of Carolan. Writing in English they refer to him as Carolan - not O'Carolan. O'Sullivan, therefore, feels certain that Carolan was known to himself and his friends as Cearbhallán or Carolan.

So, without meaning to offend anyone Gaelic or the bard himself, I will use the O'Sullivan conventions. When using the full name I will use Turlough O'Carolan and when using the last name alone I will use Carolan.

Turlough O'Carolan: Irish Harper

Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was born in 1670 near Nobber, County Meath and died March 25, 1738 at the home of his patron Mrs. MacDermott Roe in Alderford, County Roscommon. He was one of the last Irish harpers who composed and a significant number of his works survive in single line melody. Carolan's fame was not due to his skill with the harp (having started at 18), but to his gift for composition and verse.

Carolan's father, John, was either a farmer or a blacksmith. (An iron founder according to Britannica, subsistence farmer according to New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). John Carolan moved his family to Ballyfarnon when Carolan was fourteen to take employment with the MacDermott Roe family. Mrs. MacDermott befriended the boy and gave him an education. Around the age of 18 Carolan was blinded by smallpox.

Even before his illness Carolan had shown talent for poetry and may have been taught, even before his illness, by a harper Named MacDermott Roe (possibly Ruari dall who lived with the MacDermott Roes). Carolan studied for three years at the end of which Mrs. MacDermott Roe gave him a harp, a horse and some money to begin his career as an itinerant harper. For forty-five years Carolan would travel throughout Ireland composing tunes (planxties) for his patrons.

His first patron, George Reynolds of County Leitrim suggested Carolan try composing. With this encouragement Carolan composed Sheebeg and Sheemore. Thereafter Carolan composed tunes for his patrons, usually composing tunes on his journeys. He traveled widely throughout Ireland.

In 1738, 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 (O'Sullivan, v. 1, 101):

    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.

Carolan's funeral was widely attended and, in fitting tribute to the man, the wake lasted four days.

Carolan - the Music

Carolan was never highly regarded as a performer. His gift was in musical composition and poetry. His practice was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was opposite of the traditional Irish practice. Although music was always important, prior to Carolan, poetry always took precedence (Complete Works, 2-4).

There were three musical traditions in Ireland, art music, folk music and the harper tradition. (Complete Works) The harper tradition served as a bridge between art and folk music and was the primary conduit for the oral tradition. Carolan created a unique style by not only combining the two art forms but by adding elements then-contemporary composers, including Vivaldi and Corelli. He greatly admired Geminiani, whom he probably met in Dublin.

Carolan's melodies survive only as single line melodies, without a clue to how he accompanied or harmonized them. The National Library of Ireland has the only copy of Carolan's works. The book lacks a title page and was originally thought to have been published in 1721 in Dublin. However, based on the watermark the book dates no earlier than 1742. It is possibly a copy of the work published by Carolan's son (with Dr. Delany) in 1748.

Carolan - the Man

Carolan's music reflects his personality. He was "cheerful and gregarious" (Complete Works, 5), enjoying ludicrous stories, practical jokes and, according to Donal O'Sullivan was excellent at backgammon. Like many harpers, he drank a great deal and he had a temper.

Several anecdotes illustrate these characteristics. Carolan was drinking with an old friend, McCabe when MacCabe challenged Carolan to a contest. Whoever got drunk first would pay for all of the drinks. After some time MacCabe fell silent. Unable to see, Carolan asked why and was told MacCabe was sound asleep. Suspecting MacCabe would refuse to honor the bet, Carolan called for a sack and tied MacCabe up. MacCabe slept through the night. MacCabe woke, somewhat annoyed, but forced to concede the bet to Carolan. The incident led, however, to an exchange of "scolding" poems between the two men. Carolan scolded "smelly-fingered Charles, son of Cabe" for not taking the joke as intended and McCabe bid "bad luck and ill-chance befall" Carolan, and berated him for his "insignificant, elementary humor" (O'Sullivan, 78-79). McCabe would later write a touching Elegy to Carolan.

At one point a doctor advised Carolan to stop drinking for a period of time. Complying with this, 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 poem (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 turn-
    And fill me that bumper again!

In The Complete Works of Turlough O'Carolan Grainne Yeats relates the tale of Carolan and David Murphy (who was harper to Lord Mayo and once played before King Louis XIV of France). Murphy told Carolan that 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 married Mary Maguire who he settled on a farm near Mohill, County Leitrim. They had seven children, six daughters and a son. His wife died in 1733. There is little record of Carolan's children. His daughter Siobhan married Captain Sudley and his son published a collection of Carolan's tunes in 1747. Following the publication Carolan's son began an affair with a married woman and fled to London, where he taught the harp.

Grainne Yeats sums up her biography with an excellent tribute to Carolan. Carolan "bridge 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" (Complete Works, 6).

The Encyclopedia Britannica
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Volume VII, p. 468
Chicago, Copyright 1977

Article by Grainne Yeats in
The New GROVE Dictionary of Music and Musicians
Volume 3, pages 813-814
Edited by Stanley Sadie
MacMillan Publishers Limited, London

The Complete Works of O'Carolan: Irish Harper & Composer (1670-1738)
2nd Edition, Ossian Publications
1989, Ireland
ISBN 0 946005 16 8

Carolan: The Life and Times of an Irish Harper
Donal O'Sullivan
Published by Celtic Music
Louth, Lincolnshire, England
1991, (First published in 1958)

Main Carolan Page
Midi Files and Historical Information for some Carolan Tunes
List of The Complete Works of Carolan
Discography of Carolan Albums
Other Web Pages with Carolan Info or Related Interests

Visit the Contemplator's Folk Music Midi Page