The Rediscovery of Carolan* (Full text)
by Gráinne Yeats

Turlough Carolan (1670-1738) was the last of a long line of Irish harper-composers. He came from a very small country little known outside its own borders, and his music was played only by a few fellow harpers, whose art had largely died out by the end of the 18th century. Yet some two centuries after his death, there came a sudden revival in his reputation, so that now his music has become so popular that it is to be heard all over the world, played by all kinds of musicians in all kinds of arrangements, even by full orchestra. How did this come about?

Image of Carolan
Turlough Carolan

Carolan was the inheritor of an ancient tradition. The harp in some form or other has been played in Ireland for two thousand years or so. It is one of the oldest instruments in the world, and it is by no means uniquely Irish. However, we Irish developed a kind of harp, and a special technique, which were unique and which made Irish harpers famous in medieval times.

The small harp was a common enough instrument in medieval Europe. It was fairly light, was usually strung with gut or hair, played with finger pads, and used mostly to accompany, or in ensemble work. In contrast to this, the Irish made a strong heavy harp, strung with brass wire, and they played it with long crooked finger nails. The sound produced is quite unlike any other instrument. It is sweet and clear, resonant and strong, and often resembles a peal of bells - quite different in fact from the tone normally produced by a plucked instrument. It is a matter of some conjecture as to why the harp developed this way in Ireland, while on the European Continent it was and remained a minor instrument with not much life of its own, until in later years it was expanded, and changed into the pedal harp as we know it today.

The difference between the medieval European harpers and those of Ireland was that the European players were minor musicians of no great consequence. The Irish harpers, on the other hand, were people of great importance, with considerable standing in Irish society. They were the musicians of the aristocracy, insofar as one existed in Gaelic Ireland. In their heyday they were the maintained harpers of the kings, the chiefs and the powerful families. In later centuries, as Norman and English invaders gradually took over the country, the harpers lost their protectors, and they travelled and played in the Big Houses, entertaining families of both Gaelic and foreign stock.

Castle Otway Harp
Castle Otway Harp,
Trinity College, Dublin.

It was presumably because of their importance in Gaelic society that the harpers were looked upon with suspicion by successive English governments, and numerous laws were brought in to proscribe them. In 1366, for example, all harpers were expelled from the area round Dublin, because these "Irish minstrels, coming among the English, spy out the secrets, customs and policies of the English."

Anyone who gave a harper hospitality would be imprisoned, as well as the harper, whose instrument would be forfeited to the king. During succeeding centuries this persecution of harpers continued, and in the 16th century one of the decrees of Queen Elizabeth I called for officials "to apprehend and commit to prison any malefactors, rebels, vagabonds, rhymers, Irish harpers, idle men and women, and all such unprofitable members." By the time Turlough Carolan was born, these direct proscriptions of harpers had ended, but nonetheless he lived through a dismal period in Irish history. His life coincided with the time when the Penal Laws were at their height, and he was born less than thirty years after the final destruction by Cromwell of the old Gaelic order. The Penal Code began in 1695, and continued throughout Carolan's life, and was designed to force the Catholic Irish either to abandon their religion or else to be deprived of their property and of all chance of education. Yet, despite this oppression of his own people, he led a successful life, wrote new and individual music, and was welcomed by all the people, whether of Gaelic or non-Gaelic stock.

Carolan was born near the tiny village of Nobber, County Meath, the son of a small subsistence farmer. When he was 14 years old, his family moved west to the village of Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon, where his father found employment with the well-off McDermott Roe family of Alderford House. Mrs McDermott Roe took an interest in young Turlough, and gave him some education. His knowledge of reading and writing availed him little, however, because he was stricken with smallpox at the age of 18, and was blinded as a result. Employment therefore was difficult to find, and he decided to become a harper; this profession was often taken up by blind people. After three years study, Carolan began his professional life, and Mrs McDermott Roe provided him with a horse, some money, and a guide to accompany him and to carry his harp. And so he embarked on a lifetime of travel, playing the music he had learned orally, as well as his own compositions.

Carolan was popular and famous during his lifetime, yet by the end of the 18th century his music had largely gone from the oral tradition,, as a result of the disappearance of the traditional harpers. Other musicians had never looked on Carolan as one of their own, and did not play his music. It would be fair to say that, though his tunes existed in rare printed collections or manuscripts, until comparatively recently very few of them had been heard even by the Irish public, let alone by anybody else.

Carolan's Harp
Carolan's Harp,
National Museum of Ireland.

Forty years ago, in sharp contrast with the present, Irish traditional music had only a small listening public. Traditional singing, in Irish and in English, had its own band of devoted adherents, as did the music of pipes, whistle, flute and accordion. These latter instruments were largely played for dancing, but even in this field, the céili band reigned supreme. The music of the harp was hardly heard at all, as harps and harp players were scarce. When the harp was played, it was used almost exclusively for singing, where the song was naturally the focus of attention, and the accompaniment minimal and often poorly played. The instrumental music of the harpers was never heard, except for an occasional solo normally played on the concert harp. To most people, the Irish harp seemed a somewhat exotic instrument.

Nowadays things have changed, and there is a wide national and international audience for Irish music and songs. This is by no means merely an Irish phenomenon, for there has been a general upsurge of interest in folk music, which began in the United States and spread to all parts of the developed world. The great technical advances in broadcasting and recording came at a period when, for the first time, there had emerged a generation of independent young people with money to spend. For a while it seemed as if Ireland might go the same way as the rest of the developed world in abandoning indigenous folk traditions in favour of American 'folk-pop' music. However, the inherent strength of Irish tradition was enough not only to maintain its position and to use, as of old, those outside traditions that suited it, while rejecting others. Undoubtedly, an important influence in this development was the work done in traditional music by Seán Ó Riada.

Ó Riada was a composer and Professor of Irish Music in University College, Cork. Both by his training and his love of traditional music, he was well placed to be a major factor in the revival of interest in Irish music that began in the 1960s and still continues today. The arrangements of some of the sweeping melodies of Ireland that he wrote for two documentary films were a revelation to Irish people. Beautiful melodies such as 'Roisín Dubh' or 'Sliabh na mBan', hitherto known only to a few, now became familiar both inside and outside Ireland. When Ó Riada founded his musical group 'Ceoltóirí Cualann' there was already a public ready to hear more.

In the Group (and also elsewhere) Ó Riada used the harpsichord as a substitute for the traditional wire strung harp, then fallen into disuse. I myself had spent fruitless years trying to persuade somebody to make one for me, but without success. The harpsichord is in some ways a reasonable substitute for the traditional harp, but its sound is rather harsh, lacking the long resonance and sweet, melting tone of the old instrument. In his arrangements for 'Ceoltóirí Chualann' the harpsichord was always dominant. He used it often to play the first statement of a tune, this to be followed by the entries of the other instruments one by one, until the Group was in full voice.

The Group played to large and enthusiastic audiences in Ireland and internationally. The tunes played by them were in turn learned by other musicians who passed them on from one to another, so that the cycle of oral learning was applied once more to our harp music, after a lapse of a century or more. Nowadays, indeed, this process is enabling musicians all over the world to learn Irish music. Some years ago, outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I heard a musician playing Irish harp tunes; he had, he said, learned them from the records of Alan Stivell (who himself heard the music from Irish players). On another occasion, I heard with amazement on a small local radio station in Florida, a guitar player performing 'Brian Boru's March', with all the swelling and fading customary among harp players. Such is the awesome power of oral learning.

The repertoire of 'Ceoltóirí Cualann' was varied, and included a good deal of harp music by Carolan and others. Ó Riada took this music from various sources, mainly the collections of Irish music published from 1724 on, but also from Donal O'Sullivan's massive two-volume 'Carolan, the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper' (1958). This biography brought to life vividly a man who up to then had been a shadowy and indefinite figure, while, for the first time, Carolan's tunes were gathered in one place, easily accessible to anybody with an interest in the subject.

Image of Carolan's grave
Carolan's Grave

About 200 pieces by Carolan in fact survive, with 70 sets of words, though he probably wrote many more which have been lost.Some of his songs are in folk style, some in traditional harp idiom, but the vast majority favour the Baroque style. He obviously had a very good ear, for he was able to absorb this idiom without the benefit of sight.

These pieces are in regular sections as regards the number of bars. His best tunes are full of sequences and imitations, often with themes in the treble answered by echoes in the bass. Some of his longer pieces have a common time section, followed by a fast jig in the manner of Corelli.

His music can be played in various ways. Seán Ó Riada developed a mixture of traditional and baroque style. Other groups, such as the Douglas Gunn Ensemble (an Irish chamber music group), favour a pure baroque style. Traditional players and groups tend to play his tunes in fast tempo, without dynamics or nuance, while anything in 6/8 time is treated as a jig, played in strict time with many repeats.

I remember once, appearing with the Chieftains at a Festival concert and leading a performance of 'Lord Inchiquin'. This is a very good example of Carolan's baroque style, an elegant tune full of sequences and imitations, so I performed it with plenty of dynamics and rubato. Then the Chieftains followed, playing it in strict time at twice my speed, full of spirit and energy; I felt that both my quiet interpretation and their bright one were wholly valid. It is the contrasting styles of baroque, harp and folk that make Carolan's music so attractive to musicians of all kinds and styles. Who knows what he would have thought of all this - but it is easy to see him in his little house in Mohill, County Leitrim, enjoying the comfort of a good income and drinking a toast to the continuing popularity of his music.

*This is the correct English-language version of the name, as used by Carolan himself, his friends and fellow harpers. 

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