O'Carolan and his Contemporaries

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XXI

ALTHOUGH many distinguished harpers flourished during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, yet Turlogh O'Carolan stands pre-eminently as the representative Irish musician of that period. O'Carolan has been styled "the last of the bards," but, in truth, he scarcely deserves the appellation. He certainly combined in himself the three offices of poet, harper, and composer, but cannot be rightly named a bard.[1]

Numerous memoirs of O'Carolan have been written, and, therefore, I shall merely give a short biography of him. Walker and Hardiman furnish ample details, whilst Goldsmith's account is a classic.

Turlogh O'Carolan was born at Newtown, near Nobber, County Meath, in the year 1670, and in 1675-6 his parents changed their residence to Carrick-on-Shannon, on the invitation of Lady St. George. In his twenty-second year he became blind, and having displaying much proficiency on the harp, determined to pursue the avocation of harper. Accordingly, in 1693 we find him travelling "on a good horse, with a servant, well mounted also, to carry his harp and wait on him"—all provided for him through the generosity of Madame MacDermot, of Alderford House, County Roscommon.

O'Carolan's first success as a professional minstrel was at Letterfyan, the seat of George Reynolds, in 1693, where he composed the words and music of the "Fairy Queens," founded on a supposed battle between the fairies of Sidhe Beag and Sidhe Mor. The words are poor enough, but the music shows evidence of a high order, "so tender, so fairy-like," writes Kohl, "and at the same time so wild and sweetly playful that it could represent nothing but the dancing and singing of the elves and fairies by moonlight."[2]

Another of his early compositions, written at Letterfyan, is "Planxty Reynolds"; followed by a song for Grace Nugent, first cousin of Mr. Reynolds—which was actually printed in London some years later as "Grace Nugent, by Carrallan"—to which air Robert Burns adapted "Louis, what reck I by Thee?"

The number of these Planxties composed by O'Carolan from 1694 to 1737 is very considerable, most of which were in honour of his patrons. Thus, for the families of Dillon, Peyton, Kelly, Sudley, Wilkinson, Wynne, Bellew, Jones, Wrixon, Drew, O'Flynn, O'Hara, Cruise, Bermingham, Judge, Irwin, Maguire, O'Kelly, Stafford, Power, etc., he wrote effusions wedded to incomparable airs. Many of these airs were utilised by Tom Moore, e.g., "Planxty Peyton" (The Young May Moon), "Planxty Kelly" (Fly not Yet), "Planxty Irwin" (Oh! Banquet not), "Planxty Tyrrell" (Oh! Blame not the Bard), "Planxty Sudley" (Oh! the Sight Entrancing), and "Planxty O'Reilly" (The Wandering Bard), better known, in Lover's setting, as "Molly Carew."

In 1696 Carolan composed "Young Terence MacDonogh," in honour of the son of Terence MacDonogh, the only Catholic barrister who was permitted to practice from 1692 to 1718, in which latter year he died.[3]

Of a later date is "Donnchadh MacCathal beg," composed for Donogh (Denis) O'Conor, at whose house O'Carolan was always a welcome guest. Charles O'Conor of Belanagare tells us that O'Carolan was present at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve of the year 1726, and led a band of harpers who played "a solemn concert" in the oratory at Belanagare, when Bishop O'Rourke, O.F.M., sang the Mass.[4]

Between the years 1693 and 1710 O'Carolan had several love affairs, notably an unrequited attachment for Miss Bridget Cruise, of Cruisetown, County Longford, and also for Miss Margaret Brown. The song, "Bridget Cruise" [5] has been highly praised by critics, whilst "Peggy Brown" is still popular. The latter lady married Theobald, sixth Viscount Mayo, on July 8th, 1702. This "Lord Mayo" was a great patron of O'Carolan, though the song of that name was composed by Thady Keenan the harper, according to the testimony of Charles O'Conor. But the bard was not inconsolable, and he married Miss Mary Maguire, a lady of good family in County Fermanagh, in 1720. A short time previously (1719), he composed a splendid air for Miss Fetherstone, of Ardagh, County Longford, chiefly remarkable as being the only melody set by O'Carolan to English words. It is entitled "Carolan's Devotion," and was very popular, although the compass of the tune is almost two octaves.

For the only existing portrait of O'Carolan the musical world is indebted to Charles Massey, Dean of Limerick, to whom the minstrel paid a visit at Doonass, County Clare, in 1720, on the invitation of Mrs. Massey, née Miss Grace Dillon, the daughter of Sir Charles Dillon, of Lismullen, County Meath. On the occasion of this visit O'Carolan composed "Dean Massey" and "Mrs. Massey," and his portrait was drawn by a Dutch artist who was then in the neighbourhood. Petrie says that the portrait is by "Van der Hagan, a distinguished Dutch artist," but this is scarcely probable, inasmuch as Van der Hagan did not come to Ireland till 1730 or 1731. However, the portrait dates from 1720-1, and on the death of General Massey, at Paris, in 1780, it was brought to Ireland, and was sold to Watty Cox in 1809, who presented it to Thomas Finn, of Carlow. Mr. Finn had it engraved by Martyn, of Dublin, in 1822.[6]

As early as 1726 a collection was printed in Dublin containing six or seven airs by O'Carolan. In the following year (1727-8) many others by him were printed in Daniel Wright's Aria di Camera—the settings of which are very corrupt indeed—noted by Dermot O'Conor, the translator of Keating's History of Ireland into English, in 1723.

Who has not heard of "Pleraca na Ruarcach," or "O'Rourke's Noble Feast," the words of which were translated from the original Irish (by MacGauran, of Leitrim) by Dean Swift, in 1721, the music by O'Carolan. But a better known convivial air is "Bumpers, Squire Jones," by O'Carolan, the English paraphrase of which was written by Arthur Dawson, Baron of the Exchequer, in 1730.[7]

We are safe in dating the lovely air "Fanny Power" as composed before the year 1728, by O'Carolan, in praise of the daughter and heiress of David Power, County Galway. Lady Morgan tells us that O'Carolan called her "the Swan of the Shore," from the fact of her father's residence being situated on the edge of Lough Riadh. Miss Power changed her name to Mrs. Trench on March 13th, 1732, on her marriage to Richard Trench, and was the mother of Lady Clancarty, surviving to the year 1793.[8] Hence the melody was published in 1745 and 1779 as "Mrs. Trench," which satisfactorily explains Mr. Alfred Moffat's difficulty over the two names for the same tune.[9] Twentieth-century concert-goers will recognise O'Carolan's beautiful melody as set by Thomas Davis in 1843, to his well-known song, "Bright Fairies by Glengarriff's Bay."

Other well-known airs by O'Carolan, composed in honour of lady patrons, are "Madame Judge," "Madame Bermingham," "Lady Dillon," "Fanny Dillon," "Fanny Betagh," "Madame Costello," "Bridget O'Malley," "Rose Dillon," "Mild Mabel Kelly," etc. But, to English persons, the tune known as "The Princess Royal" has been popularised in the setting called "The Arethusa." In fact, the English have annexed the melody and included it in their collections as an "old English" air. It is absolutely certain that O'Carolan composed it in honour of Mary MacDermot (the daughter of the Princess of Coolavin), who was the Princess Royal of the MacDermot family, and for whom O'Carolan composed another song, "Maire an Cuilfhin" (Fair-haired Mary).[10]

"The Princess Royal" was composed in 1725, and was printed in 1730 in Walsh's Complete Dancing Master, and in 1731 by Daniel Wright, being several times reprinted between the years 1735 and 1745. From the fact of having been introduced into Shield's "Lock and Key" to a song called "The Arethusa"—words by Prince Hoare—it has been claimed as the composition of Shield, and been included in English collections.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to O'Carolan's powers as a composer may be cited in the fact that dozens of his airs were printed during his lifetime, many of them being introduced into the various ballad operas that were fashionable from 1728 to 1738.

For the MacDermot family, in addition to "The Princess Royal," O'Carolan composed "MacDermot Roe," "Madame M'Dermot Roe," "Anna MacDermot Roe," and "Edmond MacDermot Roe." His lovely lyric, "The Hawk of Ballyshannon," was written for Charles O'Donnell, the brother of Nanny, daughter of Manus roe O'Donnell, of Westport. This Nanny was married to Henry, the only son of MacDermot Roe, and their daughter, Eliza, married Robert Maguire, of Tempo, for whom O'Carolan composed "Planxty Maguire." It was whilst on a visit to Colonel Maguire, of Tempo, that O'Carolan became acquainted with James Courtney, or Seumas MacCuarta, (sometimes called dall MacCuairt), also a poet and harper, who composed a famous "Welcome" in honour of O'Carolan. Another visitor at Tempo to meet our bard was Patrick Linden, of the Fews, County Armagh.

In 1730, among the printed airs of O'Carolan are the following:—"Molly St. George," "Thomas Burke," "Ulick Burke," "Festus Burke," "Carolan's Cap," "Letitia Burke," "Carolan's Dream," "Carolan's Nightcap," "Colonel Irwin," "Madame Crofton," "James Plunket," "Johnny Reynolds" "Johnny Cox," "Madame Cole," "Grace Nugent," etc.

An interesting episode is told of O'Carolan:—"At the house of an Irish nobleman, where Geminiani was present, Carolan challenged that eminent composer to a trial of skill. The musician played over on his violin the fifth concerto of Vivaldi. It was instantly repeated by Carolan on his harp, although he had never heard it before. The surprise of the company was increased when he asserted that he would compose a concerto himself at the moment, and the more so when he actually played that admirable piece known ever since as 'Carolan's Concerto.'"[11]

It seems rather a pity to spoil this story, but it appears from O'Conor, who knew O'Carolan, that Geminiani never had the pleasure of meeting the Irish minstrel. Thus writes O'Conor:—"In the variety of his musical numbers he knew how to make a selection, and seldom was contented with mediocrity. So happy was he in some of his compositions, that he excited the wonder, and obtained the approbation, of a great master who never saw him—I mean Geminiani." [12]

The following seems to be the true version of the incident:—"Geminiani, who resided for some years in Dublin, heard of the fame of O'Carolan, and determined to test his abilities. He selected a difficult Italian concerto and made certain changes in it, 'so that no one but an acute judge could detect them,' and forwarded the mutilated version to Elphin. O'Carolan listened attentively to the violinist who performed the concerto, and at once pronounced the composition beautiful, but, to the astonishment of all present, added humorously in Irish: 'Here and there it limps and stumbles.' He was then desired to rectify the errors in musical grammar, which he immediately did, and his corrections were sent to Dublin to Geminiani. No sooner did the Italian composer see the changes than he pronounced O'Carolan to be endowed with il genio vero della musica."

O'Conor adds;—"O'Carolan outstripped his predecessors in the three species of composition used amongst the Irish, but he never omitted giving due praise to several of his countrymen who excelled before him in his art. The Italian compositions he preferred to all others, and was enraptured with Corelli's music."


[1] Dr. Douglas Hyde's Literary History of Ireland, p. 598.

[2] Kohl's Ireland in 1843, p. 188.

[3] The MacDonaghs were relations of the MacDermots.

[4] Bishop O'Rourke ruled the see of Killala from 1707 to 1735. In 1734 he came on his last visit to the O'Conors of Belanagare, and died there in 1735.

[5] Twenty years afterwards O'Carolan made a pilgrimage to Lough Derg, or St Patrick's Purgatory Whilst assisting some pilgrims on board the boat he chanced to take a lady's hand, and instantly exclaimed; "By the word of my gossip, this is the hand of Bridget Cruise!" And so, indeed, it proved to be. This fact is attested by Charles O'Conor, who also tells us that the original song written by O'Carolan for Bridget Cruise was often sung by the bard for his patron (O'Conor) It is well known in Furlong's translation, whilst Dr. Sigerson has versified another song under the title of "Gentle Brideen." The episode regarding O'Carolan's meeting with Bridget Cruise after twenty years has been utilised by Lover in his "True Love will ne'er Forget."

[6] An excellent copy, by Rogers, of this picture is prefaced to Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy in 1831. The original was painted on copper, and measures 8 inches by 6. It was in possession of Sir Henry Marsh, Bart., M.D., in 1845. A copy of Martyn's line engraving (1822) is now in the Dublin National Gallery.

[7] The "Squire Jones" commemorated in Baron Dawson's song was Thomas Morris Tones, of Moneyglass, County Leitrim, not Mr. Jones, of Moneyglass, County Antrim, as asserted by Bunting. Squire Jones died in 1743.

[8] Richard Trench died in 1768. His third son, William Power Keating Trench, was born in 1741, and was created Baron Kilconnel on Nov. 25, 1797; Viscount Dunlo on Jan 3, 1801; and Earl of Clancarty on Feb 11, 1803. He had 18 children, and died April 27, 1805.

[9] Moffat's Minstrelsy of Ireland, pp 26, 27.

[10] Miss Mary MacDermot became the wife of Owen O'Rourke, who lived on the Banks of Lough Allen, County Leitrim.

[11] The Monthly Review. Old series. Vol. lxxvii. The story is substantially the same as that told by Goldsmith.

[12] The venerable Charles O'Conor, of Belanagare, died July 1st, 1791, aged 82.