Turlough Carolan (1670-1738) became Ireland's
most famous harper. In his music one hears a variety of styles-- from early modal Celtic melodies, to Airs, to early modern
dance music to neo-classical Italian-influenced Baroque melody. While he wrote lyrics to some of his music, his work is remembered
exclusively because he was a much stronger composer than he was a lyricist.
Carolan composed his music on the traditional Irish harp at a time when
that instrument was beginning to decline in popularity. The long sustains of the brass strings on that instrument produces
a sound very different from that heard on the modern nylon or gut strung harp. We suspect the sparse harmonies he wrote were
a result of his harp's particular sound. Today, Carolan's music is very popular and is played by musicians both Irish and
otherwise on a variety of instruments.
A malevolent wind bearing disease blew west across the Irish Sea from
England during the 1680s carrying a microbe long known as the scourge of civilization. In Ireland, during this visitation,
some would escape its stigmatic bite while many would die a horrible death. Some would become disfigured some would suffer
life-long disability the result of its sting. Turlough Carolan, the future harper and friend to the rich and powerful in Ireland
during the first third of the next century, was a teenager, the son of an iron worker living on the estate of the MacDermott
Roe family at Alderford, in County Roscommon, when he fell ill.
Carolan's smallpox attack ran its course in the following manner: On
Day One he would feel that his body was out of gear and would no longer work. He may have suffered convulsions, but probably
not, for that symptom usually attacked young children and he was already nearing adulthood. By the second day he was fighting
for his life with a temperature of 104 F. He would slide in and out of delirium, slipping into a stupor, perhaps becoming
comatose for short periods. Relief came briefly on the third day as his temperature dropped, but this was a short respite.
Soon the first pox sores appeared in his mouth and throat soon followed by excruciating pain. Carolan would feel like vinegar
was being poured into his mouth, now an open sore. His throat swelled, his voice became barely audible in its hoarseness.
Next the sores appeared on his face and forearms, spreading up to his
upper arms and finally to his full body where his back and legs were engulfed. The sores began as red splotches, which swelled,
spread, finally erupting into ugly wounds that would eventually scab over. His temperature was once again near 104 F. Carolan's
youthful face was now a swollen mass marred by the pockets of disease and pus.
After the smallpox abated and the fever died, Turlough had to face one
awful truth--he was stone blind. He had become yet another casualty in a seemingly endless onslaught of the disease. He was
now one of a legion of blind smallpox left in its wakes.
While this young Irish field hand was now blinded, he might take solace
in knowing that smallpox did not discriminate according to class and wealth. A few years later on December 28, 1694 his English
Queen Mary II would die of the disease in London. She was just 32 years old.
When Carolan finally arose from his sick bed he may have envisioned a
world as bleak and dark as his dead eyes. He would no longer be able to roam freely through the nearby Arigna Mountains. He
would not be able to gaze out over lovely Lough Meelagh, which lay below the foot of nearby Kilronan Mountain, nor see the
distant hills of Sligo pointing northwest to the Atlantic Ocean. Neither would Sheebeg and Sheemore, with their legendary
myths of ancient battles and heroic deaths--clearly visible above the pastureland at the Roscommon and Leitrim border--tantalize
his now-dead eyes. Fieldwork was out of the question, for how could a blind man till the ground, lay the stone for fences
or buildings, or properly care for animals? Nor would he join his father at the forge and continue to learn iron working,
an important seventeenth century trade.
Turlough had not expected much from the life he was born to before he
became ill. It was a life destined to be hard--working the land, pounding tools out on a forge, all to benefit the land owners,
the MacDermott Roe family and their estate. He would have expected little more than his workman father received a thatched
roof over his head, just enough food to keep his belly from grumbling, and a woman beside him. Now that he was blind even
this meager existence was in jeopardy.
But Carolan's future would take an unexpected turn and this tragic event,
the loss of his sight, would determine the career that he was to follow and the fame he eventually achieved.
It is certain that had Turlough Carolan, born as he was to an undistinguished
Gaelic-speaking Irish Catholic family with roots in the east of the country in Meath, not been blinded, there would have been
no music to remember him by.
This was an Ireland ruled in his lifetime by the powerful and ambitious
members of the Protestant Ascendancy. For someone not of this class, and a Catholic to boot, there was virtually no chance
of receiving formal musical training. The landless farmer and field hand might play the fiddle or flute late of an evening
but he could hardly expect his compositions to be played for the upper class lord or lady in the drawing rooms of the manor
house. The peasant music he produced, if it was memorable at all, would have been heard by others of his class and might have
entered the aural folk tradition like a narrow stream enters the bigger river, where its waters become forever anonymous in
the mix of currents.
In the days and weeks after blindness set in, as Carolan learned to cope
with his disability, he could not have imagined himself becoming a welcome guest and friend of the same gentry that oppressed
his class. He had little to expect in the way of upward mobility as he tried to imagine what his adult life might now encompass.
That Carolan would eventually be introduced to, and be befriended by
the most important people of the country, including the Protestant clergymen Jonathan Swift and Dr. Patrick Delaney, that
he would become friend and confidant to important Gaelic Irish families like the O'Rourkes or the O'Conor Dons and others
of higher birth, would not have entered his youthful imagination even at the worst point in his delirium. This was too much
to dream for a lowborn country farm boy.
The only hint Carolan might have had of the future ahead of him would
have been conjured up from the stories he heard of the great harpers, some blind themselves. Theirs was a long tradition of
service and prestige in ancient Ireland. These men (and they were always men) sat next to the seat of power beside the chieftains
of the country. He may, in those early weeks in the dark, have suspected that the harp, the ancient "Clairseach," was the
one doorway open to a blindman that held any hope for a future.
Carolan would in fact learn to play the harp, and would eventually discover
an ability to compose melody. That particular gift would gain him social prominence and fame as one of the most important
Irish musicians of his day.
He would spend nearly 50 years composing music and earning his livelihood
from the patronage of landowners. He would become the only Irish harper/composer to leave a significant body of music behind
that would be preserved in his name for posterity.
From Chapter 2: A Harper's Land
It was never hard to pick out a harper in Ireland, for his hands gave
him away. Long fingernails honed into the shape of a quill were the mark of his art. These oddly-shaped nails allowed the
musician to play his brass wire-strung instrument with power and finesse.
The Irish harp, the Clairseach, was the country's national instrument.
It was of ancient design and constructed of just two woods, either oak or willow (sallow). For some unknown reason these woods
had mythological significance and no harp builder would ever vary them.
The harper's long nails plucked the strings and the instrument would
resonate with a bell-like tone, which reverberated through the high-ceilinged halls of the castles of the hereditary chieftains
of the country.
The harper's nails, long and slender, were a badge of high status in
medieval Irish society. These same nails placed him in the upper echelon of the Gaelic ruling class. No harper would have
ever considered cutting his nails. As it was, the strings of this instrument were never struck with the balls of the fingertips.
Because their fingernails were so long, harpers did no menial work. Their nails were their tools and they would not damage
Most harpers, in the years before 1600, were aligned with a chieftain
and served him and his family. Others found a position at the manor house of a wealthy Anglo-Irish or Norman-Irish family.
These "new" Irish were descendants of the original Norman invaders, and they took to Irish ways with enthusiasm. They had
assimilated the Irish language and customs as their own and were staunch Catholics. In the years preceding Henry VIII it is
said they became more Irish than the Irish themselves.
Harp music in Ireland then, unlike today, was music for the nobles not
music of the common folk. The harp was never considered a folk instrument, it was the primary musical instrument heard by
the high ranking Irish aristocracy. The music that flowed from its strings was courtly and dignified. It was not primarily
a dance instrument. As such, it remained socially segregated from the music of other musical instruments during its heyday,
and stayed that way until its final fading notes were sounded early in the nineteenth century. The landless peasant, scratching
out an existence, sheltered from the elements in a windowless thatched hovel, may never have heard the sound of the harp.
When Turlough Carolan emerged as a harper much had changed. The traditional
role the harper occupied as a member of aristocratic Irish society was well into its final decline. The importance of these
musicians had steadily eroded from the mid-1500's as the English government solidified its hold on the country. By changing
the traditional patterns of land holding the rule of the hereditary chieftains was forever altered. With that change came
the decline of the harper as a member of the chiefly household. By the time Carolan first plucked a harp string the harper's
place in society had degenerated and his lofty status was greatly diminished.
The Harp Became His Instrument
Turlough Carolan had few career choices when he began to study the harp
around the year 1687 after his bout with smallpox. For very practical reasons the harp, and a career in music, was virtually
the only means available to a blind man for a profession. Limited as he already was in the Protestant-dominated Ireland, and
unable to support himself as a laborer, Carolan would otherwise have survived on the meager charity available from his family
and neighbors. But music was open to him, he was given training, and his career began.
Music has always been an outlet for the blind. Medical documentation
is clear; hearing becomes more acute in the blind as compensation for the loss of sight. And it seems that this was a track
other blind men in Ireland had taken. Carolan was not alone as a blind Irish harper. He would share the tradition with many
others who took up the instrument when they, too, suffered a similar fate, the loss of their sight, often to the scourge of
Harp playing had certain advantages for the blind. The music had never
been learned by reading a page of sheet music. It was oral music transmitted from teacher to pupil through repetition. These
ancient melodies, the traditional harper's repertoire, now mostly lost to modern ears, were passed from teacher to student
throughout the course of Irish history.
The harp, as much as any instrument in Carolan's time, was suited for
a blind person's specific loss. It is not a visual instrument like a piano, and playing acuity comes from touch more than
Even at the late date of 1687 the harp was the most ancient and revered
of Irish musical instruments. Its history stretched far back before the year 1000. There are references to the Irish harpers
accompanying the Crusaders across Europe to the Middle East in the 1200s and 1300s. Carolan, the harper, would gain great
status in a society that still revered the ancient traditions.
Carolan would have known that the harp was in its waning years when he
began his lessons. He would have also learned, along with the melodies and technique need to produce pleasing sounds, of the
long history of the instrument. The harp, his teacher would have taught him, had a long and important tradition for the Celts,
who in the years before the Normans arrived, used it in a sacred or magical manner. They played it in hopes of furnishing
poetic inspiration. In those years it was believed supernatural power was communicated to the bard, who recited the poetry,
through the sounds of the harp. He, it was hoped, would be inspired to prophesy.