It’s time to talk about Turlough.
In spite of our guitar being named after the legendary Irish bard Turlough O’Carolan, and even though we’ve played his compositions (see Post 35 and Post 38), we’ve said little about the man himself; who was he and why is he our muse? So please indulge us a brief history lesson. Now we can’t hope to do justice to Carolan’s rich story in a short post, let along compete with the scholarly and deeply researched books that have been written about his life, times and music*. But we will attempt the briefest of sketches.
Turlough O’Carolan was an itinerant Irish harper, singer and storyteller who lived in Ireland between between 1670 and 1738. Of his many gifts, perhaps the greatest was his talent for composing beautiful Celtic melodies. Though he wrote them for traditional Irish harp, they sound lovely on acoustic guitar too – as shown by many excellent guitarists over the years**.
Carolan became the most famous of the great Irish bards and is considered by many to be Ireland’s national composer. He spent the large part of his life touring Ireland, often staying in the homes of noble and wealthy patrons for whom he composed tunes, including his famous ‘Planxties’ (‘thank yous’), alongside tunes dedicated to his loves, quarrels (including with a landlady who objected to his harping), and even a farewell to music (and whiskey) composed on his deathbed. He appears to have led a rock and roll lifestyle, being fond of the craic, often found in the company of his friend, drinking companion, poet and fellow harper Charles McCabe (who he once had tied up in sack and left outside a bar following a drinking competition).
Carolan’s music was part of the oral tradition, being composed, played and handed down by ear, and it only began to be written down decades after his death. As a result, there is considerable confusion as to the names, forms and origins of many of his tunes and some uncertainly as to which ones he composed. Ironically for us, it is perhaps the insurgent British culture that followed in the wake of Cromwell’s invasion of 1649 that was responsible for his works being documented, while simultaneously fuelling the demise of the oral (and presumably subversive) bardic tradition.
Carolan suffered from Smallpox during his youth which left him blind. Indeed, he is often referred to as the last of the great blind Irish harpers, which begs the question of how many there were. The response is perhaps surprisingly many, as becoming an itinerant musician was one of the careers open to the blind, especially if they had a wealthy patron who could support their placement with a master musician and teacher as did Carolan in the form of Mrs McDermott Roe.
Carolan’s tunes are a wonderful blend of the traditional and the classical. They clearly belong to Ireland’s oral tradition, but are somewhat distinctive from its traditional jigs, reels and hornpipes (for example, appearing in a dedicated section in O’Neil’s classic compendium of Irish tunes). At the same time, there are clear influences of the Italian classical music that was popular in Ireland at the time. Legend has it that Carolan met and performed for the composer Geminiani, improvising his famous Concerto on the spot as a response to a musical challenge set by the Italian Master.
Carolan led a full life of music and travel and was the source and vehicle for many stories. He composed beautiful music, even on his deathbed, that remains with us today. The perfect muse for a travelling, storytelling guitar.
* For a history of Carolan’s life and extensive documentation of 214 of his compositions, we point you to Donal O’Sullivan’s excellent and thoroughly researched ‘Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper” (Ossian Press) and there is an excellent Wikipedia page too.