Turlough O' Carolan, Irish Music

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  • Topic: Music of Ireland, Turlough Carolan, Music
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Irish Music

Turlough O’ Carolan (1670 –1738)

An exploration of his inspirational sources, musical style and unique contribution to Irish music.


Turlough O’ Carolan has as a composer, poet and musician contributed to Irish music in a unique way. I am going to explore his musical influences and style and his inspirational sources, and show how Carolan’s music has continued to shape Irish music both during his lifetime, throughout history and in recent times.

Childhood and educational influences. O’ Carolan is known as a harpist and composer of what is nowadays regarded as traditional Irish music. He was born in 1670 in County Meath and grew up in the Roscommon / Leitrim district. At a time in Irish history, when the native Gaelic and Old English families were declining due to plantations and confiscations by the English Crown, Carolan’s father was working for the Mac Dermott Roe family as a blacksmith. It was of great importance for his future path in music that Carolan received an education in native poetry and music by the Cruise family, who despite having lost their property, continued to run the local school. A person with much influence throughout Carolan’s youth was Mrs. Dermott Roe who provided for his education as a young boy. When he contracted small pox which left him blind at the age of eighteen she supported him for three years and helped him to complete his training as a harpist under Maire Mac Dermott Roe, to who O’ Carolan would dedicate his final composition “Carolan’s Farewell to Music”. The foundations for his future had been laid and O’ Carolan began his career as an itinerant harper.

Inspirational sources and unique musical style. Turlough O’ Carolan’s background was the native Irish music.

In Carolans time there were three musical traditions in Ireland - art music, folk music and the harpers tradition. The harpers tradition served as a link between art and folk music and was the main conduit for the oral tradition. (www.oldmusicproject.com)

While performing and composing for the wealthy landlords and great Irish houses throughout Ireland he began to develop his individual style. He was fond of popular Italian baroque music of the time written by Vivaldi and Corelli and began to add elements of the classical style to his own compositions.

Because of his blindness he was unable to study and compose in the classical way; due to the traditional Irish harp being diatonic Carolan could not play in the classical style. He developed a unique style of composition by fusing traditional and classical elements. Traditionally Irish tunes had two sections of equal length. One way of achieving a baroque sound was to extend the second part of his tunes with unusual melodic variations. Probably one of the best known examples is “Carolan’s Concerto”. He was also encouraged to write songs 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. …prior to Carolan, poetry always took precedence. (www.oldmusicproject.com)

Many of his compositions he dedicated to people close to him, and named them after acquaintances and families. Some examples are “Lament for Owen Roe”, “Denis O’ Conner (Air)” and “Betty O’ Brien”. He created a unique form of melody, known as the Planxty.

Achievements and contributions to Irish Music. Turlough O’ Carolan, like the many other traveling harpists at his time, kept the tradition of music and song in Ireland alive. Music was generally not written down; nevertheless he was famous for his talent as a composer in his lifetime.

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....
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