(Audio of Planxty Irwin)
Hello, my name is Anne and I’m going to tell you a bit about Turlough O’Carolan.
Most of you will have heard of Planxty, the folk band of the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t know how many will know about the origin of their name, though. The word planxty was apparently invented by O’Carolan to designate a type of song he wrote as a tribute to a host. One of the more famous ones is Planxty Colonel John Irwin, often just called Planxty Irwin, which we heard at the beginning. But of course, as most of you will know, O’Carolan did not play the flute. Instead, he played the harp. It is believed that he would make up the melody first while travelling, and added the lyrics later. But lets start at the beginning.
Turlough O’Carolan was born in 1670 near Nobber, Co. Meath. When he was 14, his family moved to Ballyfarnon in Co. Roscommon, where his father John got a job as a blacksmith at Alderford House with the MacDermott Roe family. The lady of the house had the young Turlough educated and soon discovered his talent for poetry. When he was 18, his life took a nasty turn – he caught smallpox and as a consequence, lost his eyesight. Mrs MacDermott Roe had him become an apprentice to a harper, also called MacDermott Roe. By the age of 21, Turlough had become a very good harper, and was sent off by the family with a horse and a guide to travel Ireland and make a living composing songs for patrons. He did not only do that, but also wrote songs for ordinary people. One of his first songs was an air he wrote for Brigid Cruise, a girl he was infatuated with when he was 18.
Over the 50 years of his travelling, he composed numerous songs and instrumental pieces for the harp. His songs are rarely performed in sessions nowadays. Part of the reason might be that the original lyrics are in Irish. Partly, it might be due to the fact, that sean nos singing does not take up a huge part in sessions, at least in my experience. Most trad musicians will have heard O’Carolan’s Concerto or O’Carolan’s Draught. However, when I once played the concerto in a session and some other musician joined in, another player said to him afterwards: “I didn’t know you played Bach.” To be fair, Bach and O’Carolan were contemporaries, O’Carolan being 15 years older, so it is not surprising that their music sounds similar, as fashions travelled from the continent to Ireland. Indisputable, O’Carolan’s compositions are influenced by Italian baroque music. He probably came across it meeting other travelling musicians at the big houses he played at himself. Lets hear O’Carolan’s concerto, also known as Mrs Power, to give you an idea.
(Audio of O’Carolan’s concerto)
Contemporary sources describe him as not actually a great performer. Who could blame him – being blind and having to deal with all those strings on a harp? His fame was much more gained through his compositions and verses.

At the age of 50, Turlough married Mary Maguire from Co. Fermanagh and they moved into a cottage in Manachain in Co. Leitrim. They had six daughters and one son. When he died on March 25th 1738, he was buried in the MacDermott Roe family crypt near Ballyfarnon, where he had returned to after the death of his wife Mary five years earlier.
An annual harp festival is held since 1988 at his birthplace in Nobber, Co. Meath.

Sources

  • Wikipedia
  • Dictionary of Irish Biography, vol 2, Burdy-Czira, p. 361f.
  • www.thesession.org