A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/O'Carolan

O'CAROLAN, or CAROLAN, Turlogh, one of the last and certainly the most famous of the bards of Ireland, was born in the year 1670, at a place called Newtown, near Nobber, in the county of Meath. He lost his sight at 16 years of age from small-pox, and, in allusion to this used to say, 'my eyes are transplanted into my ears.' He was descended from an ancient and respectable family in Meath, where a district is still known as Carolanstown. Turlogh began to learn the harp at 12 years of age, but owed nearly all his education to Madame MacDermot Roe of Alderford, a fine dame of the old school, who lived to 80 years of age, and survived her protegé. She it was who, when O'Carolan's father settled at Carrick-on-Shannon, perceived the talent of the boy, had him taught the Irish language and music, and provided him with a horse and an attendant, when, at 22, he became an itinerant minstrel. He was susceptible towards the gentler sex; his first love was one Bridget Cruise, and he must have preserved a tender remembrance of her, since long after they parted he recognised her fingers, as his hand touched them accidentally in a boat at Lough Dearg. He solaced himself for her loss by falling in love with Mary Maguire, a young lady from Tempo, Fermanagh. She became his wife, and they lived happily together. He now took a farm in Leitrim, but imprudent hospitality soon dissipated his means. He then (1692) adopted the life of a travelling minstrel. Wherever he went, the doors of the nobility and gentry were thrown open, and he was ever ready to compose both words and music in praise of those who welcomed him. Later in life O'Carolan was much addicted to intemperance; he required to be supplied with stimulants before composing, but after drinking, his muse rarely failed him. One instance however is recorded in which his invention was utterly at fault. It related to a Miss Brett. In order to celebrate her charms, O'Carolan tried and tried in vain, till throwing aside the harp in a fit of vexation he declared to the young lady's mother that after frequent attempts to compose for her, there was not a string in his harp that did not vibrate with a melancholy sound; 'I fear,' said he, 'she is not long for this world: nay,' he added, with emphasis, 'she will not survive twelve months!' The event proved the bard a true prophet, for Miss Brett died within that time. With a view to wean him from his inordinate fondness for drink, O'Carolan's friends made him promise to shun all places where liquor could be purchased, and he for a while abstained; but at last, visiting the town of Boyle, and chancing to pass a spirit-shop, he prevailed on the shopman to pour out a glass of the spirit, intending to smell but not to taste. His resolution however failed him, and he not only swallowed the one draught, but many others, until his mind had fully recovered its tone, and in this state of exhilaration he produced his famous tune 'The Receipt for drinking whiskey.' It was said that Geminiani and other foreign artists entertained a very high opinion of his musical talents, but though some stories are told of his immediately executing from memory long and difficult pieces which the Italian musicians had just played, these tales are musically improbable, and are inconsistent with the generally received accounts of his moderate skill on the harp. It is enough to allow him the decided talent for improvising music and words, to which his claim has been undisputed.

In 1733 his wife died. She had borne him six daughters and also one son, who subsequently taught the Irish harp in London, and before he quitted Ireland, in 1747, published an imperfect collection of his father's compositions. Turlogh O'Carolan died March 25, 1738, at Alderford House, where his room is still shown, with his high-backed chair, his engraved punch-ladle, and a press in the wall where he kept his whiskey. His funeral was attended by 60 clergymen of different denominations, by a number of the gentry of the district, and by a vast crowd of the humbler class; and his wake lasted four, days, during which the harp was never silent, and the bottle never ceased to flow. Some biographies allude to the visible preservation of the poet's skull; the facts are these:—Early in the present century it occurred to a Ribbonman named Reynolds, to steal the skull of O'Carolan, and dispose of it to Sir John Caldwell, for his museum. The museum however has long ceased to exist, and the skull and letter describing it are both gone. Of late years the grave of the bard (hardly to be distinguished from those of the Macdermot Roes amongst whom he lies) has been neatly enclosed, and an inscription placed near the spot, by Lady Louisa Tenison. O'Carolan's fecundity as a musician was undoubted; one of the ten harpers assembled at Belfast in 1792 had acquired more than 100 tunes composed by him, and asserted that this was but a small portion of them. In 1809 a sort of commemoration of him was held in Dublin. The late Lady Morgan bequeathed £100 to the Irish sculptor Hogan, for the purpose of executing a bas-relief of the head in marble, which has been placed in St. Patrick's Cathedral. It was copied from a rather youthful and idealized portrait prefixed to 'Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy.'

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