Turlough O'Carolan

O'Carolan, Turlough, a well-known harper, was born at Nobber,[1] County of Meath, in 1670, on the lands wrested from his ancestors at the Anglo-Norman invasion.

Blinded in infancy by the smallpox,[2] he discovered considerable musical genius, which was cultivated by his family.

He married early, and settled on a farm at Mosshill, in the County of Leitrim; but both he and his wife were unthrifty, and consumed their substance in extravagant living, and O'Carolan was obliged to become an itinerant harper.

His great taste and feeling in music ensured him a welcome at the houses of the gentry, and he composed many beautiful airs; but the words he attempted to wed to them, if we may judge from the English translations, were rude and almost barbarous in their composition.

It is said that he preferred Italian to all other music. He did not learn English till late in life, and indeed never spoke it with fluency.

In his later years O'Carolan fell into intemperate habits, which hastened his death, in March 1738, at the age of 67.

His remains were interred at Kilronan, in the County of Fermanagh.

A visitor to the spot in 1785 writes:

“I stood over poor Carolan's grave, covered with a heap of stones; and I found his skull in a niche near the grave, perforated a little in the forehead, that it might be known by that mark.”

A collected edition of O'Carolan's music was published in 1747, and another in 1780.

He was held in extravagant esteem in Ireland through the last century.

Walker, in his Irish Bards, writing in 1786, says:

“The spot on which his cabin stood will … be visited at a future day with as much true devotion by the lovers of natural music, as Stratford-upon-Avon and Binfield are by the admirers of Shakespeare and of Pope.”

Lady Morgan left funds for a tablet to his memory, which has recently been erected in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

An interesting though somewhat acrimonious discussion relative to his life and works, his portraits, and his skull, will be found in Notes and Queries, 4th Series.

O'Carolan left six daughters, and one son who studied music, and taught the Irish harp in London.


20. Bards, Historical Memoirs of the Irish: Joseph C. Walker. Dublin, 1786.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850–'78.
O'Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

Editor's notes

[1] The Cabinet of Irish Literature suggests that Newton in the county of Westmeath was the real place of birth of Turlough O'Carolan.

[2] The above-mentioned article also suggests that O'Carolan was not blind from birth.