Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day

Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) was the last of the great Irish bards.

In ancient and medieval Ireland, the bards were poets and musicians who kept the native folklore alive. They traveled from house to house, telling old stories and composing new songs, relying on the patronage of the island's great families. However, in the 17th century, after the Flight of the Earls, most of the great clan-leaders had no choice but to become grantees of the King of England. They were no longer chieftains, but simply landholders.

O'Carolan was born after the Flight of the Earls when the old Gaelic order had already collapsed and was nearly extinct. As a boy, his father took the family to Roscommon so he could work for the MacDermot Roe family, who had formerly been chieftains but were now living as landholders. The MacDermot Roe family, however, still kept up the family's role as patrons of the arts. The young O'Carolan showed promise as a poet, but was blinded by smallpox at the age of 18. Lady MacDermot Roe had him trained as a harper and then gave him a horse so that he could take up the life of a bard, traveling the countryside, performing for what remained of the Irish gentry. The MacDermots Roe remained his patrons for the rest of his life, and he expressed his gratitude to Lady MacDermot Roe in particular with one of his finest compositions, "Princess Royal."

As can be heard in "Princess Royal," O'Carolan was influenced by the European art music of his time. He reportedly went to Dublin to hear the Italian baroque virtuoso Geminiani perform on the violin. Given his affinity for baroque music, it is not surprising that one of his best-known planxties (melodies composed in honor of a patron) has been dubbed his "concerto."

In the past half-century, O'Carolan's music has been revived, beginning with Sean O'Riada, whose group Ceoltóirí Chualann later morphed into the Chieftains, who for the pat fifty years have regularly featured pieces by O'Carolan (above all the "concerto") on their albums and in their concerts. Even Clannad, the Donegal family that became famous for its New Age music and for launching the career of Enya (the stage name of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, the sister of several of the members), recorded a simple, but beautiful, arrangement of "Eleanor Plunkett" on one of their early records.

After years of wandering as a bard, O'Carolan married and settled down in Leitrim. But, after his young wife died, he returned to Adlerford House, the seat of the MacDermots Roe, and lived his last days there. It is said that upon his return, he greeted Lady MacDermot Roe, went to a bedroom, and composed his "Farewell to Music." O'Carolan is now buried in the MacDermot Roe family crypt.

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