Growing up, we were told by adults that when we died we would sit on clouds and play harps all day. There would be no corner markets (supermarkets)—in essence, no candy. For children this was a frightening concept—that death would be so boring.
Of course we did not know much about harps or death. There were a few pictures of cherubs with harps or the occasional harp on television.
As we grew, we came into contact with harps and their place in the music world. At one cosmopolitan church I attended as a youth, the pastor’s wife was an excellent harpist with a full-sized harp. In watching her on the stage her fingers gracefully touched the strings as they poured forth beautiful melodies, be they religious or classical.
During university I obtained the THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF MUSIC. I found it informative.
There was a short entry in the book about an Irish harpist. It succinctly said, “O’Carolan, Turlough (1670-1738 ), Famous Irish harper and composer for the harp.”
The entry barely made an impression back then. Who was Turlough O’Carolan?
If you visit Ireland, you discover that this composer, singer and poet is viewed as a national treasure and he should be. He deserves all the honor that his home can bestow.
Turlough was a young man destined to follow his father as a skilled laborer. This would have been the case except for two important events:
His father, a blacksmith, took a job with the MacDermot Roe family. The lady of the manor, Mary Fitzgerald, took a special interest in the young Turlough and formalized his education.
At eighteen Turlough contracted smallpox. The infection was severe and left the teenager blind.
Fortunately, because of his father’s decision to work for the MacDermot Roes, Turlough would have them as his patrons and they set him on the road as a harpist to convey to the upper level of Irish society the unique songs and poems of their country, especially to their children. The English rulers were doing what they could to make the Irish English in every sense of the word.
This is why Turlough with his natural talent and creativity was so important to the Irish way of life. To preserve one’s heritage when that heritage was under attack was so essential for the Irish national identity.
Turlough’s loss of sight was a physical reality, but his loss of the young woman who captivated his heart was a soul hurt which would take decades to heal. The lovely Bridget Cruise was part of the upper crust of Ireland, and the son of a skilled laborer had no chance to marry such a young woman. His heart was broken, but in the years to come he wrote songs about his Bridget, his first true love.
He found love many years later with a young woman, Mary Maguire, who gave him children, but it was Bridget which always held a place, a special place, in his heart. First loves are difficult to erase from the tender young heart.
It is told that before his death he was attending a religious festival. A noble lady extended her hand to the blind poet. As he touched her hand, he knew who it was—his beloved Bridget.
History does not record their conversation, but it must have been one of reminisces of teenage years, flowering love and what fate had led them on their individual roads of life. Perhaps, he wrote her a new composition, one of his planxties, or shared one dedicated to her from the past.
It is rare on this planet traversing the cosmos for two young lovers to reconnect decades later. Touching the hand of a beloved must have a special place reserved in the mind. Blindness cannot deter the touch of love.
His fondness for Irish whiskey was legendary. Perhaps, the glass drowned the hurt and sorrow of this man who became a legend in his own time.
It is reported that his last request before he passed beyond the confines of this world was for one last kiss. His wife had died a few years before. The last kiss was the kiss of Irish Whiskey as he relished the final taste of his constant companion. Her kiss was the final memory as he faded into the shadows of death.
His friend, Charles O’Conor the great Irish culture advocate and writer, wrote
“Saturday the XXV day of March, 1738, Toirrdealbhach O Cerbhalláin, the intellectual sage and prime musician of all Ireland died today, in the 68th year of his age. The mercy of God may his soul find, for he was a moral and a pious man.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11195a.htm
G. D. Williams © 2014
Turlough O’Carolan 670 –March 25, 1738
From the consolidation of English power in 1691 until well into the nineteenth century, religion was the gulf which divided the colonial rulers of Ireland from the native majority. This sectarian division resulted from deliberate government policy. It reached into political, economic, and personal life, through a series of statutes known as the Penal Laws.
Tara O’Carolan exists to preserve and promote traditional Irish music and culture in Manchester and across the North of England as part of the globally renowned Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann.
We meet for music lessons every Wednesday evening from 18.30 at St John’s Parish Centre on Chequers Road in Chorlton, Manchester. Tuition is available in whistle, flute, fiddle, drums, bodhran, banjo, piano, piano accordion and button accordion.
We also meet on Monday evenings at Chorlton Irish Club for band practises.
THE HARP: A BBC Documentary