Being half Irish, I have a strong passion for Irish history. In researching Irish music for a novel I was writing set in eighteenth-century Ireland, I discovered quite an interesting character: a harpist named Turlough O’Carolan. What struck me most was that he was blind.
Music is rooted in Ireland’s culture. It is the only country to have an instrument as its natural symbol, the Irish Harp, which has been used as both a social and political symbol. Namely, the United Irishmen in the eighteenth century, a society dedicated to forming a free Irish republic, used it as their symbol along with the motto It has been new strung and shall be heard. In the eighteenth century, music, as it is now, was a source of entertainment, and a good way to gain connections. Imagine, for a moment, that you have been invited to a grand banquet at a manor in the Irish countryside, and it is time for the entertainment. To polite applause, in walks Turlough O’Carolan (Turlough being Irish for Terence) with his iron harp. After bowing and taking his seat, he begins to play elegantly. He does not know it now, but he will become known as Ireland’s National Composer, a title his blindness did not stop him from obtaining.
O’Carolan was born in 1670 in Nobber, County Meath, the son of a blacksmith. He was destined to follow his father, Hugh, in the trade, but as we shall see, fate changed. His family moved around a lot, seeking employment, before eventually settling in a village in Roscommon when O’Carolan was fourteen. His father found work in the grand estate of Lord and Lady McDermott Roe. Lady McDermott Roe saw potential in the young Turlough, and had him educated in poetry and arithmetic, treating him as one of her own children. Aspirations of being a scholar changed when Turlough turned eighteen. He became seriously ill with smallpox. He survived, but the disease robbed him of his sight. Gone was the chance to become a scholar or to continue the family trade, but Lady McDermott Roe, having grown fond of Turlough, was determined to help him. She arranged for him to learn the harp.
Music was a common career path for the blind in the eighteenth century. In London’s Foundling Hospital, blind children learnt music, and later in the 19th century, blind schools in Britain encouraged children in piano tuning and organ playing. Organists and piano tuners were considered honest and well-paying professions for the blind, so it was not unusual for the young Turlough to transition to music after going blind. He proved to be an accomplished harpist, and Lady McDermott Roe, ever the benevolent patroness, arranged for him to pursue a career and travel the country to perform for the nobility. Turlough, blind and with very little English (Irish was his first language), was given a horse and a guide, and set off to begin his musical journey.
Lady McDermott Roe, being a well-established member of the Irish nobility, had many connections, so O’Carolan found no shortage of venues. The nobility of Ireland at this time would have been Protestant, and mainly English or Scottish. But the majority of Irish inhabitants, who were tenants to their Protestant landlords, were Catholic, and Irish speakers. The Protestant nobility were somewhat intrigued by the romantic notion of an ancient people, so O’Carolan was a welcome addition to the household. His first performance, given to Squire George Reynolds, was not well-received, however. Reynolds was not impressed at the young harpist and supposedly said, ‘You might make a better hand of your tongue than of your fingers’. Then again, not every musician has immediate success. Turlough’s subsequent performances and venues, which included weddings and funerals, enjoyed greater success. It is said that a wedding could not start until the harpist had arrived.
O’Carolan’s childhood sweetheart was one Bridget Cruise, but class division meant they could never marry. Her father did not approve of the match either. O’Carolan’s blindness led him to have exceptional memory and touch, so when he and Bridget crossed paths many years later, O’Carolan is said to have recognised her by taking her hand while helping her out of a boat. He married Mary Maguire and had seven children, his only son becoming a harpist himself (though he did not enjoy the same success as his father). O’Carolan was also a lover of drink, which may have been a factor of his death in 1738 at the age of sixty-eight. Before he died, he returned to his Roscommon village and paid tribute to his benefactress, forever grateful to the opportunity she gave him and the kindness she showed, despite his rank and disability.
His death was a sad day for Ireland, and indeed for Irish music. His wake lasted four days to accommodate the swarm of mourners, patrons, admirers, friends and fellow musicians.
Blindness did not stop O’Carolan from producing over two-hundred pieces of music. Other musicians enabled their survival, but his music declined in the nineteenth century, possibly due to the political tensions in Ireland, or general music taste (O’Carolan’s style was Baroque, while the nineteenth century saw the height of the Romantic movement). The cultural movement known as the Gaelic Revival in the late nineteenth century, which saw a revived interest in Irish art, literature, music, sport, and the language, which led to Irish nationalism, helped stimulate interest in his work. His most famous pieces include: O’Carolan’s Concerto, the four airs of Bridget Cruise, and Captain Sudley (also known as Carolan’s Dowry). As the names suggest, many pieces were dedicated to friends or patrons. I cannot do justice to O’Carolan’s music merely by talking about it, so I have attached links to both an orchestral arrangement of his melodies and O’Carolan’s Concerto on the harp as O’Carolan would have performed it.
As we saw with John Milton, blindness should not stop one from producing art. It did not stop O’Carolan from writing two-hundred tunes, which have enabled both the survival of Irish music and culture, and a page in the history books.
Turlough O’Carolan’s harp was strung. Despite his blindness, it was heard.
O'Carolan's Concerto - YouTube – played traditionally on the harp
Fanny Power / Mabel Kelly / O'Carolan's Concerto - YouTube – orchestral arrangement
Bartlett, T (ed) (2018) The Cambridge History of Ireland, Volume III: 1880 to the Present. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Printing House, UK.
Lanier, S. C. (1999) it is New Strung and Shan’t be Heard: Nationalism and Memory in the Irish Harp Tradition, British Journal of Ethnomusicology. 1999, Vol. 8, pp 1-26