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Halamus Publishing - Archived Articles - #25, April, 2004



The Articles from the Monthly Newsletters

Written by

M. Lesley Halamek

April, 2004:–

SONG: "Carolan's Lament" – Ireland

I first encountered a tune titled "Carolan's Lament" about 20 years ago, when I was looking for something for a group of 8 young beginner recorder players to play in an eisteddfod. (Appropriate dynamics were achieved by varying the number of players – 2 players started p with players added progressively for the cresc., with the whole group playing ff , and a solo player playing the closing phrase pp . The effect was electric! ).

So, who was Turlough O'Carolan?

Turlough O'Carolan Portrait of Turlough O'Carolan in the National Gallery of Ireland.
Painted from Life. Artist Unknown.

From Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"Turlough O'Carolan, also called Terence Carolan (born 1670, near Nobber, County Meath, Ireland, died March 25th, 1738, Alderford, County Roscommon), one of the last Irish harpist-composers and the only one whose songs survive in both words and music in significant number (about 220 are extant).

The son of an iron founder, O'Carolan became blind from smallpox at the age of 18. He was befriended by a Mrs. MacDermott-Roe, the wife of his father's employer, who apprenticed him to a harper and supported him for the three years of his training, then gave him money, a guide, and a horse. As an itinerant harper, he traveled widely in Ireland.

Although never considered a master performer, he was highly regarded as a composer of songs and improvised verse. His tunes appeared widely in 18th-century collections."

From: Chris Smith Reference Materials (This page is no longer available).

"Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), blinded by smallpox at 18, was one of the last representatives of the great bardic tradition which had been largely wiped out by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century.

Even during his own lifetime, he was recognized to be the greatest living composer in this oral tradition.

Stories abound of his encounters with women, drink, and rich patrons, and the titles of his compositions ("O'Carolan's Quarrel with the Landlady," "Farewell to whiskey," "Welcome whiskey back again,") suggest a career as colorful as the music.

He was a great admirer of his contemporaries Vivaldi and Corelli, whose modern music he would have heard in the homes of his noble Irish patrons, and this admiration is reflected in the melodic construction and forms of many of his pieces.

Moreover, it is said that his "Carolan's Concerto" was a winning response to a compositional challenge from Geminiani, who resided in Dublin for a number of years."

Below is an extract from a Tribute to Turlough O'Carolan by Bridget Haggerty, who herself has quoted from:

"Carolan: The Life and Times of an Irish Harper" by Donal O'Sullivan.

The full Tribute, photographs, and more interesting info can be found here:

Tribute to Turlough
by Bridget Haggerty

"When Turlough O'Carolan died at the house of his patron Máire MacDermott Roe in 1738, his former music-pupil Charles O'Conor recorded his passing in sadness: "Saturday, the 25th day of March, 1738. Turlough O'Carolan, the wise master and chief musician of the whole of Ireland, died today and was buried in the O'Duignan's church of Kilronan, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. May his soul find mercy, for he was a moral and religious man."

"Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin was born 1670 near Nobber, County Meath. In English, his name was Terence Carolan. ...John Ó Cearbhalláin moved his family to Ballyfarnon to take employment with the MacDermott Roe family. His son, Turlough, was 14 years old.

"Mrs. MacDermott liked the boy and saw to it that he was educated. Observing that he appeared to have a talent for music and poetry, she also arranged for him to have lessons on the harp. When he was about 18, he was stricken with smallpox which left him completely blind. However, this handicap did not stop his studies, and after three years, Mrs. MacDermott gave him a harp, a horse, a guide, and the money to launch a career as an itinerant harper, playing for patrons throughout the Irish countryside. His first patron was George Reynolds of County Leitrim who suggested that Carolan – as he was known to himself and his friends – try his hand at composition. With this encouragement, Carolan composed "Si Bheag, Si Mhor," which means "Big Hill, Little Hill," and refers to a site in Co. Meath. ...Thereafter, Carolan composed tunes for most of his patrons, usually putting them together on his journeys.

"But what of the man himself? Various sources say that he was cheerful and gregarious, enjoyed ludicrous stories, practical jokes and, according to one biographer – Donal O'Sullivan – he was an excellent backgammon player. As with many harpers of the time, he also drank a great deal, and he had a temper...

"...Carolan composed music and verse for some of the greatest families in the country. ...Surprisingly, ...Carolan was never highly regarded as a performer. His fame came from his gift for musical composition and poetry and his usual method was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was the opposite of traditional Irish practice. While music had always been held in high esteem, prior to Carolan, poetry always took precedence.

"In Carolan's time, there were three musical traditions in Ireland – art music, folk music, and the harper tradition. The harper tradition served as a link between art and folk music and was the main conduit for the oral tradition. Carolan created a unique style by combining these art forms, and then adding elements inspired by Italian music which was then fashionable in Ireland. He was a great admirer of Vivaldi and Corelli, whose modern music he would have heard in the homes of his noble Irish patrons, and this admiration is reflected in the melodic construction and forms of many of his pieces. In fact, it's said that his "Carolan's Concerto" was a winning response to a compositional challenge from Geminiani, an acquaintance, colleague, and contemporary.

"When he was in Dublin, Carolan was the frequent guest of Dr. Patrick Delany, Professor of Oratory at Trinity College, in whose honour he composed a tune. Through Delany he came in contact with Jonathan Swift. Swift and O'Carolan collaborated in translating a poem by Carolan's friend, Hugh Magauran, "Pléaraca na Ruarcach" or "O'Rourke's Feast," for which Carolan wrote the music.

"A collection of Carolan's tunes was published in his own lifetime, possibly in 1721, by John and William Neale of Dublin, an extraordinary achievement for an Irish harpist at the height of the penal laws. The National Library of Ireland has the only copy.

"Definitely a lover of whiskey, women and wit, Carolan did finally settle down and marry Mary Maguire. They lived on a farm near Mohill, Co. Leitrim and had seven children. Mary died in 1733 and just five years later, feeling ill, Carolan returned to the home of Mrs. MacDermott Roe. ...His final composition was to the butler, Flinn, who brought him his last drink. And, in a final fitting salute, his wake lasted four days."

More sites about Turlough O'Carolan:

The tune for "Carolan's Lament"
appears on Page 3 of:

"Folksongs for the Violin", Part 4:
A Brief Introduction to the Second, Half, Fourth, and Fifth Positions
(A Graded Selection of Melodies for Beginners of All Ages).

Details on the MUSIC PAGE

Carolan's Lament

I have not been able to find words for "Carolan's Lament" (or "O'Carolan's Lament"), and the tune is listed in one collection as "Lament for Charles MacCabe", while, in another collection, "Lament for Charles MacCabe" has a different tune altogether! It is all very confusing!

Legend has it that O'Carolan wrote "Lament for Charles MacCabe" as a result of a practical Joke perpetrated by Charles MacCabe himself. Apparently he waited beside the road for the blind O'Carolan to pass by, and greeted him in the style and accent of a peasant. When O'Carolan replied to his greeting, and asked for the local news, he was told that MacCabe was dead, and had been buried. On being taken to MacCabe's supposed grave, he composed and played his "Lament for Charles MacCabe", to Charles MacCabe...

Two versions of "O'Carolan's Lament", or "Lament for Charles MacCabe":

The first site contains a similar version to the tune in "Folksongs 4",

The first site has the notes...

and the next site has the different version.

The Irish Harp

"...Pre-Cromwell, harpers were the soul of Ireland, granted access everywhere as protected guests even in the middle of wars. They travelled between locations by foot, alone, and were the eyes and ears of the country militarily as well as culturally. When Cromwell invaded, he deliberately killed them all off, to shut down Irish communications...

"...Medieval Irish harps were designed to live outdoors but be played indoors. The instruments had to be totally weatherproof, able to withstand soaking fogs then still perform while being dried out in front of main hall fireplaces. Traditionally, they were only made from woods that grow in bogs – willow and a couple of hardwoods, bog oak apparently being the commonest. Several seed oils were used then to preserve wood and leather, and would have been used on harps... ...The body of the Irish harp was hollowed out of a log of willow, so the soundboard grain ran lengthwise. As with all instruments, tradition mixes up with a quest for good sound until the two are almost indistinguishable..."

Read more at this website:

To Build An Irish Harp

Irish Harp

Celtic Harp

Irish Harp

How Harps are Tuned

History of Harp Development (from 2800 BC)

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