Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Irish Accents: O’Carolan’s Welcome

Joe Ross, Janet Naylor and Friends: O’Carolan’s Welcome


There’s little music as dear to my heart as that of Turlough O'Carolan, last of the Irish bards. Born in 1670, he moved with his family to the Roscommon-Leitrim area while very young. His father was employed at an iron foundry. Totally blinded in his teens by smallpox, Turlough O'Carolan was taken in by Mrs. MacDermott Roe at the Alderford house near Boyle. Here, he studied under a harper for three years. A more creative tale claims that O’Carolan once slept on a fairy rath and forever after heard fairy music to inspire him.

In 1998, an album I produced with harper Janet Naylor (from Eugene, Or.) called "The Harper's Reverie" captures some of O'Carolan's fanciful musings such as the piece offered here, “O’Carolan’s Welcome.” At age 21, equipped with a horse, a guide and money, O'Carolan began his career as an itinerant harper in the province of Connacht. In Irish bardic tradition, the harper was popular and held high social status in the "Big Houses," and tunes composed for his patrons are called "planxties" (musical tributes). Much more than a mere musician or composer, O'Carolan was an honored guest of his patrons and regarded as a sage who articulated eloquence, wit and profundity. And, of course, he kept his patrons informed of the latest gossip collected while traveling the Irish countryside. At one "Big House" in Connacht, O'Carolan was no doubt inspired to write “Welcome” in return for a hot meal and soft bed.

If, by chance, he encountered a less than hospitable host (as he once did at the house of Jennings of Mayo), O'Carolan might be heard ranting, "Devil take the glass that was meant for a dwarf, and the same for the hand that didn't fill it by half!" O'Carolan had numerous romantic affections, and many of his compositions written for his lady loves (such as those to Bridget Cruise) have been irretrievably lost. The influences of Italian composers such as Geminiani and Corelli show in some O'Carolan works.

Sources for most tunes played on “The Harper’s Reverie” album are Edward Bunting's collections of "Ancient Music of Ireland." Bunting transcribed many of the tunes heard at the 1792 Belfast Festival of Harpers, a gathering of musicians interested in preserving this important heritage. At the Harpers' Festival, Bunting witnessed only one harper still using the old fingernail technique (rather than the flesh of the finger), and by the 1820s the great school of Irish harp playing had greatly disappeared.

In 1738, O'Carolan died and was buried at the old 6th century O'Duignan Abbey at Kilronan, his grave adjoining the vault of the MacDermotts. In 1990, my wife (also a harpist) and I were fortunate to attend the Turlough O'Carolan Thirteenth International Harp Festival and visit O'Carolan's gravesite. The Festival is held in the picturesque Irish village of Keadue, County Roscommon, near the shores of Lough Meelagh. Near Castlerea, one of O'Carolan's harps can be found at the 45-room Clonalis House, the ancestral home of Clan O'Conor, who gave 11 high kings to Ireland and 24 kings to Connacht. It was a treasure and inspiration to behold. Another of O'Carolan's harps, a large sycamore instrument with 35 strings, is on exhibit in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

During his years of itinerant minstrelsy, O’Carolan was said to have composed about 200 pieces of music, although many have been lost. “O’Carolan’s Welcome” will take you on a musical journey back to Ireland. That song (and album it’s from) shape a portrait of another age, one that displays the joys and revelry of life that marked O'Carolan's day. The Irish simply called it "Luinneach" (merry music). Whenever I hear or play Turlough O'Carolan's musical compositions, I experience an epiphany from the beauty, color, emotion, gentleness and melodic expression. I hope you’ll do the same.

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