Turlough O'Carolan, born 1670 — died 1738

Charles A. Read
The Cabinet of Irish Literature
Volume 1 (1880)

Turlough Carolan, or O'Carolan as he is more properly called, was born in the year 1670 at the village of Baile-nusah or Newton, in the county of Westmeath, and not at Nobber, as is generally, but erroneously, stated.

His father was a small farmer, and his mother the daughter of a peasant in the neighbourhood.

Goldsmith speaking of him says that “he seemed by nature formed for his profession; for as he was born blind, so also he was possessed of a most astonishing memory, and a facetious turn of thinking, which gave his entertainers infinite satisfaction”

As to the blindness, Goldsmith is in error, for Carolan was born with perfect eyesight, but early in life, or about his fifteenth year, an attack of small-pox made the world dark to him for ever.

Before this he had been sent to school at Cruisetown, county Longford, and there he made the acquaintance of the Bridget Cruise whom he afterwards immortalized in one of his songs.

While still a boy Carolan moved with his father to Carrick-on-Shannon, and there he attracted the attention of a Mrs. M'Dermott-Roe, who admired him for his intelligence.

Placing him among her own children, she had him carefully instructed in Irish, and also to some extent in English.

She also caused him to learn how to play the harp, not with the view to his becoming a harper, but simply as an accomplishment.

Hardiman says he afterwards “became a minstrel by accident, and continued it more through choice than necessity.”

Charles O'Conor—who places Carolan before us as a reduced Irish gentleman who lost his property in the troubles of the time—says “he was above playing for hire; at the houses where he visited he was welcomed more as a friend than an itinerant musician.”

In his twenty-second year he suddenly determined to become a harper, and his benefactress providing him with a couple of horses and an attendant to carry the harp, he started on a round of visits to the neighbouring gentry, to most of whom he was already known.

In his journey he did not forget to visit Cruisetown, and though he might not behold beauty of form, his mind was doubly alive to the beauty of soul which he believed existed in his old school-fellow Miss Cruise.

To her he poured out song after song, and at last in plain prose acknowledged his affection and met with a refusal.

However, it is said that the young lady was anything but averse to him personally, her rejection being founded chiefly on financial reasons.

Leaving Cruisetown his real career as an itinerant musician began, and for years he wandered all over the country, gladly received wherever he came, and seldom forgetting to pay for his entertainment by song in praise of his host.

When approaching middle life, Carolan went on a pilgrimage to what is called St. Patrick's Purgatory, a cave in an island on Lough Dearg in county Donegal.

While standing on the shore he began to assist some of his fellow-pilgrims into a boat, and, chancing to take hold of a lady's hand, he suddenly exclaimed, “By the hand of my gossip! this is the hand of Bridget Cruise.”

So it was; but the fair one was still deaf to his suit, and soon after he solaced himself for her loss by marrying Miss Mary Maguire, a young lady of good family.

With her he lived very happily and learned to love her tenderly, though she was haughty and extravagant.

On his marriage he built a neat house at Moshill in county Leitrim, and there entertained his friends with more liberality than prudence.

The income of his little farm was soon swallowed up, and he fell into embarrassments which haunted him the rest of his life.

On this he took to his wanderings again, while his wife stayed at home, and busied herself with the education of their rather numerous family.

In 1733, however, she was removed by death, and a melancholy fell upon him which remained till the end. When the first agony of his grief was past he composed a monody on her death, a composition which we quote, and which in the original Irish is peculiarly plaintive and pathetic.

Carolan did not survive his wife long. In 1738, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, he paid a visit to the house of his early benefactress, Mrs. M'Dermott-Roe, and there he fell ill and died of a disease, brought on it is said by over-indulgence in drink.

Carolan was, as Goldsmith says, “at once a poet, a musician, and a composer, and sung his own verses to his harp.”

Goldsmith also says that of all the bards Ireland produced, “the last and the greatest was Carolan the blind.”

With a single exception of no importance all his songs, which numbered over two hundred, were written in the Irish language, in which also they appear to most advantage.

The style of his music may be best studied in the air to “Bumper Squire Jones,” which Carolan originally composed to words of his own.

Though essentially Gaelic, his style has also something of Italian in its manner. It was much admired by a great contemporary, Geminiani, who declared Carolan was endued with il genio vero della musica.

It is a great pity so few, and these not the best, of Carolan's compositions are extant. For this state of things we may thank an unfilial son, who in 1747 published a collection of his father's music, but omitted from it most of the best compositions.

However, what we have is still of high merit, and deserves to be cherished by every true musician, as well as by every lover of the scattered reliques of poetry and music left us of the time when Ireland was indeed the “Land of Song.”

We append an elegy on the death of Carolan, written by his friend M'Cabe, and translated by Miss Brooke.

M'Cabe, says Miss Brooke, was rather of a humorous than a sentimental turn; he was a wit, but not a poet. It was therefore his grief and not his muse that inspired him on the present occasion.

The circumstances which gave rise to this elegy are striking and extremely affecting.

M'Cabe had been an unusual length of time without seeing his friend, and went to pay him a visit. As he approached near the end of his journey, in passing by a church-yard, he was met by a peasant of whom he inquired for Carolan. The peasant pointed to his grave and wept.

M'Cabe, shocked and astonished, was for some time unable to speak; his frame shook, his knees trembled, he had just power to totter to the grave of his friend, and then sunk to the ground.

A flood of tears at last came to his relief, and, still further to disburden his mind, he vented its anguish in the following lines.

In the original they are simple and unadorned, but pathetic to a great degree; and this is a species of beauty in composition extremely difficult to transfuse into any other language I do not pretend in this to have entirely succeeded, but I hope the effort will not be unacceptable; much of the simplicity is unavoidably lost; the pathos which remains may, perhaps, in some measure atone for it.

I came, with friendship's face, to glad my heart,
But sad and sorrowful my steps depart!
In my friend's stead—a spot of earth was shown,
And on his grave my woe-struck eyes were thrown!
No more to their distracted sight remained,
But the cold clay that all they lov'd contained.
And there his last and narrow bed was made,
And the drear tombstone for its covering laid.
Alas! for this my aged heart is wrung,
Grief chokes my voice, and trembles on my tongue,
Lonely and desolate I mourn the dead,
The friend with whom my every comfort fled!
There is no anguish can with this compare!
No pains, diseases, suffering, or despair,
Like that I feel, while such a loss I mourn,
My heart's companion from its fondness torn!
Oh, insupportable, distracting grief!
Woe, that through life can never hope relief!
Sweet-singing harp—thy melody is o'er!
Sweet friendship's voice—I hear thy sound no more!
My bliss, my wealth of poetry is fled,
And every joy, with him I loved, is dead!
Alas! what wonder (while my heart drops blood
Upon the woes that drain its vital flood)
If maddening grief no longer can be borne,
And frenzy fill the breast, with anguish torn!