The Irish made a strong harp strung with brass wire,
and they played it with long crooked fingernails. The sound produced is
quite unlike any other instrument. It is sweet and clear, resonant and
strong, and often resembles a peal of bells.
The Irish harpers were the musicians of the aristocracy, maintained by
the kings, the chiefs, and the powerful families. In later centuries,
however, as Norman and English invaders gradually took over the country,
they lost their protectors. 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 around 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.
At age 18 Carolan, from County Meath, was stricken with smallpox and was
blinded. He decided to become a harper, and after three years study
began his professional life, having been provided by his patron, Mrs
McDermott Roe, with a horse, some money, and a guide. And so he
embarked on a lifetime of travel, playing the music he had learned
orally, as well as his own compositions.
Despite the dismal political conditions and the oppresson of his own
people, Carolan went on to lead a successful life, write new and
individual music, and be welcomed by all. He became 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, although his tunes existed in rare printed collections or
manuscripts, until comparitively recently very few of them had been
heard even by the Irish public, let alone by anybody else.
Forty years ago, in sharp contrast with the present, Irish traditional
music had only a small listening public. The music of the harp was
hardly heard at all, and to most people the Irish harp seemed a somewhat
exotic instrument. Nowadays things have changed, for there has been a
general upsurge of interest in folk music. An important influence in
this development was the work done in traditional music by Seán Ó Riada,
a composer and Professor of Irish Music in University College, Cork.
O Riada arranged some sweeping Irish melodies for two documentary films,
and founded a group 'Ceoltóirí Cualann' in which he used the harpsichord in place of a
traditional wire strung harp, which had fallen into disuse. I myself
had spent fruitless years trying to persuade somebody to make one for
me, but without success. The Group played to large and enthusiastic
audiences in Ireland and internationally. Others learned the tunes,
reestablishing the cycle of oral tradition, and now musicians all over
the world learn Irish music. Included in Ceoltoiri Cualann's repertoire
was music by Carolan and other harpers. About 200 Carolan pieces in
fact survive, some in folk style or in traditional harp idiom, but most
are in baroque style.
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 at 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 these
contrasting styles that make his 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.