Collection: Carolan, Turlough


Turlough O'Carolan was born in the midlands of Ireland in 1670. There is some confusion regarding his birthplace, with some sources mentioning Co Meath and others Co Westmeath. However, he is without question the most famous Irish harper in the history of Irish folk music, mainly due to the large amount of melodies and songs attributed to him.

In his teens his family moved to Co Roscommon in the west of Ireland and there his father began work for the MacDermott Roe family. Mrs MacDermott Roe took a liking to young Turlough and paid for his education, which included tuition on the Irish harp. Tragedy struck while still in his teens when he contracted smallpox, resulting in him being blinded for the rest of his life.

During his early 20s his fame as a harper was spreading, so the family gave him a horse and with the aid of a travelling companion he set out to make a living from performing and composing. This is how he was to spend the next thirty years, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland playing for the aristocracy and ordinary people, often dedicating his compositions to those he knew and those who employed his services. In 1720 he married Mary Maguire and settled in Mohill Co Leitrim, where they raised a family of seven children - six girls and a boy.

Because of his blindness, O'Carolan did not write his compositions down in the same way as his German contempory J.S.Bach, nevertheless in 1724 two brothers John & William Neal (instrument makers in Dublin), published several of his pieces in their book 'A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes', - this was the first time any of his compositions appeared in print.  He died on 25 March 1738 and was buried in the MacDermott Roe family crypt in Kilronan Co. Roscommon.

The popularity of his music was spread mostly by other travelling harpers, pipers, fiddlers and singers. It was not until the early 19th century that more of his music appeared in print, in the publication 'The Ancient Music of Ireland', by Edward Bunting, who was a collector of Irish music from the oral tradition.

The most comprehensive collection of Carolan's melodies today is contained in – Carolan – The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper – by Donal O'Sullivan and is the mains source of the melodies and information presented here.