A Bit Of O'Carolan

OcarolanThe Resurrection of The Bard

… this is inspired by the writings of VERY REV. M. J. CANON MASTERSON

Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was born at Nobber, Co. Meath, in 1670.

His family ancestry had been of affluent farmers but their lands were confiscated during Cromwell's Revolution. Like many, his father, John O'Carolan, were forced to fly westwards.

They found a home in Carrick-on-Shannon (1688) where John O'Carolan created a living as a blacksmith.

O'Carolan took to music as a young boy and attracted the attention of Madam McDermott Roe of Alderford, who offered have him educated with her own children. Through this education Turlough acquired a good knowledge of his native language and a great love for his native heritage, which would latter become a distinguishing asset for him.

Turlough's musical interest developed into a harp playing talent which became a saviour when he became blind after and attack of smallpox when he was 22 years old. (1692).

At this time, Turlough had not developed composing and song writing ability. Local writer, George Nugent Reynolds, told Turlough that he awful at doing cover versions and should compose and establish his own material. Reynolds was off to South Africa for awhile and invited Turlough to look after his home in his absence, in return for composing an original composition. It was during this time that Turlough wrote "Sidhe Beg, Sidhe Mor" inspired by the legends of the local "fairy hills". This has since become, perhaps, his most famous and most performed composition.

It did not take long for Turlough to also compose songs and to sing songs and play harp in unison. This was an ancient tradition that has somehow become lost during the time of Turlough O'Carolan so it was regarded as unique. The tradition of the Irish Bard had returned.

The beginning of House Concerts

Turlough then performed house concerts at the homes of Gaelic nobility, such as Alderford, Greyfield, Letterfian and Belinagare. Earning a comfortable living from this bardic work Turlough bought a small farm near Mohill, Leitrim, and married Mary Maguire of Tempo, Co. Fermanagh.

Their home became a ceili home, always welcoming passing bards from far and near on their travels to feis and festival. Things changed quickly in 1709, when the the Penal Laws cast over Ireland, threatening to wipe out the language and traditions that Turlough had restored and influenced other bards to do the same.

From that time until his death in 1738 O'Carolan became missionary to sustain the old traditions through an “underground movement” throughout Connaught. For this cause he wrote lyrics and tunes that presented joy and optimism with intent of sustaining courage and hope within his kindred. Indeed other bards have spoke of Turlough, in performance, rising to heights of enthusiasm that infected his “hidden” Gaelic audiences.

Turlough constantly toured with a “fine steed” and accompanied by an employee to serve as guide and helper. Every Connaught Gaelic home, no matter how small, that Turlough visited was endowed with sharing his priceless legacy of a songs and tunes, often addressed to the head of the family. He composed songs on subjects familiar with his audiences presented with hope to drown any sorrow present.

His most popular patron, where he visited most frequently, was the home of Madam McDermott Roe of Alderford, Ballyfarnon. This was bound to be in response and a continuation of her loving care, as well as education, that he had received through her. At her house Turlough often rested awhile and composed many of his songs and tunes there. It was from Alderford, Turlough set off on his loving bardic mission and it was at Alderford he returned to die.

The home of O'Conor Don of Belinagare was extremely important on Turlough’s mission and travels. O’Connor Don was a direct descendant of the family of High Kings of Erin. During the Penal Regime he had his vast estates seized and had to settle on a small farm at Knockmore, Ballyfarnon and work this farm himself without help. Turlough frequently experienced the O’Conor’s hospitality is the spirit of his old Gaelic royalty grandeur. O’Conor Don set aside a special exclusive apartment for Turlough within his home. It was here that Turlough, said to be with harp, pipe and punchbowl, composed his most charming tunes. As his marriage home near Mohill had been seized, Turlough regarded this Belinagare apartment as the home for himself and his wife. A famous Turlough quote was "I think when I am among the O'Conors, my harp has the old sound in it". To this day local O’Conors of Clonalis are still stewards of one of his harps.

Another Turlough supporter was Owen O'Rourke, a Prince of Breifne, who was stripped of rank and possession during the Penal revolution, lived in a modest house by the shore of Lough Allen. For his wife, Turlough wrote "Fairhaired Mary" and at Owen's passing composed "Lament for O'Rourke" and "Brian of the Battleaxes", an O’Rourke ancestor who held Breifne against Elizabeth’s armies.

Another favourite resting-place for Turlough was Greyfield House, Keadue, built by Henry, son of Madam McDermott Roe of Alderford. At Greyfield House, O'Carolan is said to have composed abundantly.

Bard and traveller

The abundant compositions of Greyfield and the reputation they created opened up the interest of many patrons including, in Leitrim, the St. George family of Carrick and Counsellor Brady of Ballinamore, in Longford the Nugents, O'Reilly family of Granard, the Featherstons of Ardagh and the Cruises of Edgeworthstown. In Roscommon, Mrs. French for Frenchpark, the Dillon family of Lough Glynn), and many others. Throughout Co. Mayo his main patrons were Lord Dillon, Lord Mayo and the families of O'Malley, O'Donnell, Costello and Higgins. We must add the old Gaelic families of Co. Sligo to which Turlough composed and dedicated to , such as "O'Hara's Cup","Edward Corcoran", "Dr. Harte", "O'Conor Sligo","Maud O'Down", "Terence McDonogh" which were nicknamed as the “Milesian Stock”.

Turlough then travelled wider to perform for the homes in Galway of the O'Kellys, O'Dalys of Dunsandle), Dalys of Glinks, Lord Athenry and Sir Ulick Burke. In County Clare he was the guest of Rev. Charles Massey who also introduced him to homes of Limerick, a venture into Munster.

Going north into Cavan Turlough performed in the homes of the O'Reilly clan and even performed for his wife’s relatives at Tempo, County Fermanagh and often went on a pilgrimage to the St Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg

A mission of love and tolerance

As you can see Turlough, became a bard for the incoming Protestant families to whom he was able to lovingly share the Irish language and Gaelic culture that they were “legally” required to oppress. He also sustained support and performance among his Gaelic people. This sharing of culture is said to have inspired the creation of better terms between the incoming protestants and their catholic neighbours. It was these inspired Protestant families that helped to break the Penal regime within Connaught. The Connaught Protestants revolted against the revolting penalties enforced by England. It seems the bardic mission of O’Carolan created an wonderful legacy.

We cannot measure how much the bardic sharing of Turlough O’Carolan changed relationships and brought peace and restoration of Gaelic ways to Connaught. Its as if O'Carolan used the way of the bards to unite all creeds into a common love of country. Turlough mission needed the help of the Protestant gentry to built the bridge to his native people. This is why it seems half of his compositions are dedicated to the incoming protestants presented in the styles of people, such as "Sir Edward Crofton," "Madam Crofton," "Nanny Cooper," "Charles Coote," "Loftus Jones," "Toby Peyton," "Madame Cole," "Lord Massarene," "Madam Maxwell," "James Plunkett," "Mr. Waller," and "Dean Massey," etc

It must be reminded that Turlough did not just performed for nobility or was attracted to their generous payments. He was a huge supporter of the poor and downtrodden. He was not possessive of his harps either. He loved children to come up pluck the strings and get some feel for the harp. The cottages of the poor were often ceili venues of Turlough where he would not share his songs and tunes of nobility but share songs, tunes and stories of inspiring days of past Erin's glories, that would soon return again.

It is quoted that Turlough in performance to these poor shared and inspired the spirit of “peace, joy, charity, and the liberty of the children of God". Turlough’s life was a spiritual mission for the glory of others, not for himself. By religion Turlough O’Carolan was neither Catholic or Protestant in faith, but followed the ancient ways of the bard. Evidence of his spiritual heart comes from an account by O’Conor Don who witnessed Turlough singing "Gloria" in Irish verse that broke into a self composed Canticle, also in Gaelic, that Turlough named "The Resurrection".

Farewell to Music

Turlough’s wife died in 1733 and it is said that’s when his music also died too. After living a long mission to sustain hope in his fellow Gaelic country men and women the heart effect of losing his wife caused Turlough to despair about the the future of his people. In 1737 Turlough still visited the relatives of his wife and share celebrations. That Christmas he recognised his spirit failing and wanted to ensure he passed on on Connaught and not in Ulster. It is said he performed "Farewell to Maguire" and headed home for Alderford.

On that journey, feeling weak, he rested a few days at Ballinamore with a Mr. Brady. The local people, hearing of Turlough’s weakness then carried him to Laheen, the home of a dear friend, Toby Peyton. From there his employees helped him get past Letterfian, past Greyfield, Keadue, and on to Knockcranny. There he paused to touch the edge of Lake Meelagh, and to play a few chords dedicated to a bittern bird who lived there and sang with his harp. Alas, the bittern had died in the cold. To Turlough this was an omen. He proceeded to Kilronan and honoured a prayer for those who had passed and rested there, a place said, by mythology, to be where the Tuatha De Dannan arrived and where the healer Lasir shared her visions.

As Turlough arrived at Alderford word had spread that this was Turlough’s probable last return so many were there to greet him, but there was no longer a tune to share with them but he did play one air in private for his hostess, the 80 year old Madam McDermott Rowe, "Farewell to Music" and she flung open the windows for all nature to hear. After performing that air, Turlough O'Carolan laid down his harp and his life on 25th March, 1738.

Today, the body of Turlough O’Carolan rests in Kilronan, beside the church of the O'Duignan family on the former land of St. Ronan’s Abbey.

A statue of Turlough O'Carolan, above

Erected in Mohill, created by sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915-1981) whose other works include the statue of Jim Larkin in O'Connell St. in Dublin. This finished bronze was unveiled in Mohill by President Hillery on 10th August 1986.

More to come

I have a lot of video footage connected to Turlough O’Carolan, the sites of his life mentioned above and performances at his resting place. I will upload clips as soon as possible.

My singer harp partner, Claire Roche, has recorded several O’Carolan tunes.


  1. Would you mind linking to: www.catholicheritage.blogspot.com



      e-MAIL jon.mcd@hotmail.co.uk


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