Carolan, Turlough

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Carolan, Turlough

The Irish harper and composer Turlough Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin; 1670–1738), whose compositions make up the vast majority of surviving Old Irish harp music, was born near Nobber, Co. Meath. Carolan's family moved to County Roscommon, probably when he was about fourteen years old, and his father was employed there by the MacDermott Roe family. The lady of the house took a particular interest in Carolan's education, especially when, at age eighteen, he was debilitated by smallpox, which left him blind. Mrs. MacDermott Roe arranged harp lessons for him for three years with a harper also called MacDermott Roe and then equipped him with a horse, a guide, and a gratuity to enable him to begin his career as a traveling musician.

Carolan traveled the roads of Connacht, north Leinster, north Munster, and south Ulster over a period of about forty years. His fame grew steadily in his own lifetime, no doubt helped by the fact that he was regarded as an eccentric and colorful character. However, his composing skills were apparently far superior to his performing abilities, and this is the reason that he remains an important figure in Irish traditional music today. His music was influenced on the one hand by the native, oral, art-music tradition of his Irish harping predecessors and on the other hand by the Italian baroque music popular among the gentry at that time, in particular the music of Corelli, Vivaldi, and Geminiani. The audience for Carolan's music is thought to have been divided into three groups—Gaelic, Old English, and the Protestant Ascendancy—in whose homes he was a welcome visitor. The vast majority of his surviving music is named after individuals representing each of these groups (e.g., Elizabeth MacDermott Roe, Lady Athenry, and Mervyn Pratt respectively).

Carolan's fame can be attributed at least in part to the fact that his musical life coincided with a great interest in Irish culture and identity in general as the eighteenth century progressed. However, this era was also one in which the economy and culture that had supported the medieval class of male, professional Irish harpers disappeared. Therefore Carolan was a member of one of the last generations of these harper/composers. Fortunately his musically active years also coincided with the development of the music-publishing industry in both Ireland and Britain. Carolan's compositions made up the majority of the tunes in the earliest known collection of Irish music published in Ireland, A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, published in 1724 by John and William Neal(e). His music continued to be published in Ireland and Britain in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, appearing in operas by eighteenth-century composers such as Coffey and Shield, in popular-song collections such as those by Thomas Moore, and in antiquarian-inspired collections such as those by Bunting and Petrie.

More than two hundred pieces attributed to Carolan survive, although some have been attributed erroneously. His music continues to have great importance today and is regarded as distinct from the mainstream dance-music tradition.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Music: Early Modern Music; Music: Modern Music


Moloney, Colette Mary. The Irish Music Manuscripts of Edward Bunting (1773–1843): An Introduction. 2000.

O'Sullivan, Donal. Carolan: The Life, Times, and Music of an Irish Harper. 2 vols. 1958.

Rimmer, Joan. The Irish Harp. 1969.

Yeats, Gráinne. Féile na gCruitirí, Béal Feirste, 1792. 1980.

Sandra Joyce