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If you had the pleasure of meeting him some three hundred years ago, he would have told you he was called Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin.

Turlough O'Carolan was born in the year 1670 near Nobber, County Meath, Ireland. His birth date has been lost in the mists of time. He died on March 25, 1738 in Alderford, County Roscommon.

Carolan's father was a working man, apparently working as both a farmer and blacksmith. The young Carolan had vision until he was about eighteen. Sometime around his eighteenth year, Carolan was blinded by smallpox. Even before the illness which blinded him, he had shown a talent for poetry and music. After he became blind, he was befriended by a wealthy noblewoman, Mrs. Mary Fitzgerald McDermott Rowe, who became his lifelong patron. She was still a young woman herself, only about five years older than Carolan. She gave him a harp, a horse and some money. With that small start, the young blind man begin a forty-five year career as an itinerant harpist. All those long years, he traveled throughout Ireland, staying with many families who became a series of patrons.  He repaid their support by composing tunes (planxties) for his patrons.

In 1738 he began feeling ill. He returned to the home of Mary Fitzgerald McDermott Rowe in Alderford. During his last illness, she attended to him personally. She was with him at his bedside as he slipped away forever. Shortly before he died, he spoke these lines to his first and last patron:

Mary Fitzgerald, dear heart,
Love of my breast and my friend,
Alas that I am parting from you,
O lady who succored me at every stage.
There is only one known authentic picture of Carolan.  Obviously, this is a painting, since photography had not been invented then.

There is a statue of him in Mohill, County Leitrim where he spent much of his life.

O'Carolan has been called the last of the great bards. The tradition of traveling harpists performing for the gentry declined during the 18th century. By the 19th Century, harp playing in Ireland had become almost extinct.  Fortunately, musicologists preserved most of his music.  His music was a key element in the revival of Celtic music toward the end of the 20th Century. Such groups as The Chieftains and virtuoso harpist Derek Bell included many of O'Carolan's compositions in their recordings. Going from being nearly forgotten, Turlough O'Carolan has become one of the most famed harpists in the world, despite having been dead almost three centuries. Harp music has been called by some, "the soul of Ireland."  Carolan's music lives on, loved by people all over the world.

A few years before she died, my wife and I were driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and stopped at the Folk Art Center near Asheville, NC.  Whenever we were in the area, she always wanted to stop. One of the features of the Folk Art Center is the presence of resident artists and crafters. When one goes in the front door, there is a nook where the visiting artist is set up. On previous visits, we had seen weavers, quilters, potters, and painters. On this visit, the featured artist was a luthier, and his specialty was the hammered dulcimer. As an amateur luthier myself, I always stop and talk shop whenever I get the chance. As it turned out, he was also an expert on the music of Turlough O'Carolan.  I knew one my wife's favorite Irish tunes was  Si Beag Si Mor and asked him if he knew it. He replied, "Oh, yes, of course." With a smile, he picked up the two dulcimer hammers and began playing.  

The title, Si Beag Si Mor, means "little hill, big hill," a reference to the faerie kingdoms of Ireland. it is pronounced "Sheebeg Sheemore."  Si Beag Si Mor itself is a simplified and Anglicized spelling. In Gaelic it is: "Sidhe Bheag an Sidhe Mhor"

Here is how that featured artist at the Folk Art Center looked and sounded as he played one of the most beautiful of all the harp tunes Carolan composed.

Turlough O'Carolan's music has been performed on every instrument imaginable, but his own instrument was the Celtic harp.  This is Planxty Irwin, one of his most famous compositions. This recording is on the Celtic harp, probably very similar to the one he played.  It is easy to close one's eyes and imagine sitting in front of a warm peat fire after dinner, listening to him play.

As I write this, it is late in the evening. As my granddaughter would say when she was little, "A bednight tune."  This is a tune that could easily pass as a lullaby for harp.  Carolan's Dream.

Being an Irishman and poet, it should come as no surprise that he wrote about whiskey. Yes indeed, Carolan did like a wee nip from time to time.

Ode to Whiskey

A h- uisci chroidhe na n-anamann!
Leagan tú ar la'r me',
Bim gan chéill, gan aithne,
'Sé an t-eachrann do b'fhearr liom.
Bíonn mo chóta stracaighthe,
Agus caillim leat mo charabhat,
Is bíodh a ndéarnais maith leat,
Acht teangmhaigh liom amárach!

English translation:
O Whiskey, heart of my soul!

You always knock me down.
I'm without sense, I don't know where I am!
You'd think that I'd take the warning.

My coat is all torn up and
I lost my cravat because of you.
But let all you've done be forgiven,
So long as you meet me again tomorrow!

This is a St. Patrick's Day tribute to Irish music, poetry and the last of the great Irish bards.  Please add your own Irish favorite music, poetry, and tales of faeries and leprechauns. If you have a favorite Turlough O'Carolan tune or poem, please share it with us.

As for the Poll. I know I left out Corned Beef and Cabbage. While corned beef first appeared sometime around the 12th century, the tradition of corned beef and cabbage as a St. Patrick's Day food is an American invention.  Corned beef (also called Bully Beef) was heavily salted for preservation so it could be shipped overseas.  Given a choice, people in Ireland preferred the meat fresh, and there was no need to eat preserved meat except when fresh meat was not available.  

Originally posted to Shamrock American Kossacks on Sun Mar 17, 2013 at 04:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and DKOMA.

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