About Turlough O'Carolan
By Glenn Weiser

This article first appeared in the November 1996 issue of Acoustic Musician magazine. The guitar piece, Elizabeth McDermott Roe is from my book, Celtic Harp Music of Caorlan and Others for Solo Guitar, available here. Click here for two of my Carolan arrangements. For check out my Celtic guitar CD and listen to MP3s from it, click here.

Turlogh O'CarolanPerhaps no figure in the history of Irish music is more beloved than the harper-composer Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). A plaque in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin honors him as "the last of the Irish bards," the man who brought to a close the centuries-old tradition of the wandering poet minstrel. The beautiful tunes he wrote can be found in the repertories of virtually every major Celtic band, and a section of "O'Niell's Music of Ireland," the Bible of Irish music, is devoted to his compositions. Carolan's pieces sound wonderful on guitar, and in this issue it is my pleasure to offer you an arrangement of one from my new book, Celtic Harp Music of Carolan and Others for Solo Guitar.
Carolan was born near Nobber in County Meath. His father John, most likely a small farmer, moved the family to the Roscommon-Leitrim district when Turlough was fourteen and eventually came to work at an iron foundary at Aldersford owned by the McDermott Roe family. Turlough's intelligence impressed Mrs. McDermott Roe, who generously had him educated alongside of her own children until he was eighteen.

    Then disaster struck and Turlough was blinded by smallpox. In those days music was often the only possible livelihood for the blind, so it was decided to make a harper out of him. After three years of lessons, he was given a horse, a guide, and some money, and sent out on the road as an itinerant harper.

    Which really wasn't so bad - the harper, like the poet, had always been honored in Ireland and was welcome in the mansions of wealthy landowners. There he would be lavishly feted, and, in exchange, compose a song in praise of the host. After a few days, he would move on to the estate of another rich man. Carolan was thus able to live handsomely, mingle with society's upper crust, and compose many lovely tunes.

    The music that Carolan produced was different from that of his predecessors, though. In the great houses of the Irish gentry he heard Italian Baroque music, which was starting to become popular with the aristocracy as the country became Angloized. Carolan admired the new music and sought to emulate it in many of his tunes. But he could never become a classical composer for two reasons - he was blind and therefore unable to study harmony, counterpoint, and musical form, and, the Irish harp, being diatonic (imagine a piano with white keys only and you've got a harp) was incapable of playing classical music with its' accidentals and key changes. Still, the tunes he composed are a delightful mix of folk and classical elements. Most traditional Irish tunes usually have two repeating sections of equal length. In Carolan's music, though, the second sections are often longer than the first and are extended by unusual melodic twists and turns, which was one of the ways he attempted to give his compositions a Baroque sound.

    By the time Carolan died at 68, he was a famous and respected man. But by the early nineteenth century, the harp itself was extinct in Ireland. His tunes were popular with harpers, and were later kept alive by fiddlers, pipers, and whistle players. Still, they may have been lost had it not been for the efforts that were begun at the end of the eighteenth century to collect Irish music.

    Because the bardic tradition was an oral one, music had never been written down. Harpers prided themselves on their memory, but this had an unfortunate result - only 30 or so tunes known to have been composed by Irish harpers before Carolan have survived. Considering that 2,000 lute pieces and 600 virginal pieces from the Elizabethan period have been preserved, the loss of several centuries' worth of harp music was clearly a cultural tragedy. Fortunately, Carolan's case was different - 214 of his tunes have survived.

    In 1792, it was realized that harping was dying out. In Belfast, a committee was formed to gather Irish harpers together and write down the tunes. Edward Bunting, a nineteen year church organist, was hired as the transcriptionist, but he only notated the melodies and not the basses. Because of this, our knowledge of how the harp was played is very limited. Still, 40 of Carolan's tunes were recorded, along with scores of others. Following Bunting's lead, other collectors gathered songs and dance tunes, and by the early years of this century, thousands of tunes had been notated.

    In 1958 Donal O'Sullivan's biography Carolan - The Life, Times, and Music of an Irish Harper was published. In this work, the standard reference on Carolan, O'Sullivan collected and edited all of his tunes, bringing them together for the first time.

    This led to a revival of Carolan's music in the early 70s, when the Chieftains began recording his tunes. A few years later their harper, Derek Bell, went on to make the landmark solo record Carolan's Reciept, and more records of Carolan's tunes and earlies harpers followed. Soon fingerstyle guitarists began to discover this rich tradition.

I first heard Carolan's music fingerpicked by Eric Schoenberg in the late 70s and was immediately taken by it. After collecting several Celtic harp CDs, I began to arrange Carolan for solo guitar in 1979. As I worked on this, I also studied harmony and counterpoint out of textbooks that I would buy in used bookstores. I wanted to write a book in which the arrangements would have bass lines and inner voices that were correct according to the rules of voice leading and still retain a folky flavor.

Elizabeth MacDermott Roe, a very tender tune named for the daughter of the the family that showed Carolan so much kindeness when he was young, is presented here.\

Glen5.gif (10901 bytes) Celtic Harp Music of Carolan and Others for Solo Guitar
Centerstream Publishing (HL00000100)
Features 45 Irish and Scottish harp tunes, with 28 by Turlough O' Carolan. Arranged at the intermediate level in standard tunings, with tablature included. 111 pages.
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Price: $ 14.95            Quantity:
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List of tunes
Reviews - from Guitar Player, Acoustic Musician, Irish Music, and Dirty Linen magazines.
For some free sample arrangements,  click here.
  "Comprehensive..." - Acoustic Guitar magazine.
"Outstanding" - Irish Music magazine.
"A great book. It should become the standard tome." - John Renbourn

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Mail: P.O. Box 2551, Albany, N.Y. 12220
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Other Celtic fingerstyle guitar books by Glenn Weiser

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Solo guitar arrangement of Elizabeth McDermott Roe
by Glenn Weiser
Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Books by Glenn Weiser
Reviews of "Celtic Harp Music of Carolan and Others for Solo Guitar," by Glenn Weiser
Index of O' Carolan Tunes Arranged for Guitar By Glenn Weiser
Irish Baroque-Turlough O' Carolan for Fingerstyle Guitar by Glenn Weiser

Email: banjoandguitar100@yahoo.com

Home  |  Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Books  |  Harmonica Books  |  Music Lessons  | CDs
 Harmonica Main  |  Celtic Main  |  Blues Main  |  Fingerstyle Main  |  Woodstock 69  |  Reviews 
Free Celtic Guitar Arrangements  |  Free Celtic Harmonica Arrangements  |  Online Celtic Tunebook

Writings  | MySpace Page  |  Discographies  |  To Order Books  |  Contact  |  Links  | Translate