O'Carolan and his Contemporaries (2)

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XXI (concluded) | Start of chapter

In 1733 O'Carolan's wife died, leaving him seven children. On her death he composed a fine lament, or monody, in Irish, of which Walker published a free translation in his Irish Bards.

Dr. Hyde says:—"He composed over 200 airs, many of them very lively, and usually addressed to his patrons, chiefly to those of the old Irish families. He composed his own words to suit his music, and these have given him the reputation of a poet. They are full of curious turns and twists of metre to suit his airs, to which they are admirably wed, and very few are in regular stanzas. They are mostly of a Pindaric nature, addressed to patrons or to fair ladies; there are some exceptions, however, such as his celebrated 'Ode to Whiskey,' one of the finest bacchinalian songs in any language, and his much more famed but immeasurably inferior 'Receipt for Drinking.' Very many of his airs and nearly all his poetry, with the exception of about thirty pieces, are lost."[13]

O'Carolan's "Receipt for Drinking" was composed at the house of Mr. Stafford, of Portobello, near Elphin, and it is also known as "Planxty Stafford."[14] Most writers tell of the dissolute habits of our bard, and of his over-indulgence in drink, but this is an exaggeration. O'Conor, whose testimony is at first hand, tells us that O'Carolan did indulge rather freely in the use of spirituous liquors, "a habit which he imagined added strength to the flights of his genius," but he adds: "In justice, it must be observed that he was seldom surprised by intoxication." And he continues: "Constitutionally pious, he never omitted daily prayers, and fondly imagined himself inspired when he composed some pieces of Church music. Gay by nature, and cheerful from habit, he was a pleasing member of society, whilst his talents and his morality procured for him esteem and friends wherever he visited."

It seemed like a design of Providence that in the year 1738 O'Carolan, stricken with illness, found himself at the hospitable mansion of his old patroness, Madame MacDermot, at Alderford, near Boyle. His illness was of short duration, and he died after a last performance on the harp—"crowning a life of song with a wild and touching 'Farewell to Music'"—on Saturday, March 25th, 1738. Charles O'Conor briefly, and yet expressively, wrote as follows in Irish, which may be translated:—"Turlogh O'Carolan, the talented and principal musician of Ireland, died. May the Lord have mercy on his soul, for he was a moral and religious man."

Hardiman writes:—"The woman who attended Carolan in his last illness, and who lived till about the year 1787, used to say that the bard merely tasted a little whiskey to stimulate decaying nature . . . On the fifth day after his death upwards of sixty clergymen of different denominations, a number of gentlemen from the surrounding counties, and a vast concourse of country people, assembled to pay the last mark of respect to their favourite bard. All the houses in Ballyfarnon (on the border of County Sligo) were occupied by the former, and the people erected tents in the fields around Alderford House. The harp was heard in every direction. . . . Old Mrs. MacDermot herself joined the female mourners who attended 'to weep,' as she expressed herself, 'over her poor gentleman, the head of all Irish music.' The funeral was one of the greatest that for many years had taken place in Connacht."

O'Carolan was buried in the east end of the old church of Kilronan, adjoining the vault of the MacDermots. From a letter written by Charles O'Connor the following extract is of interest:—"In my pensive mood, at Kilronan, I stood over poor Carolan's grave, covered with a heap of stones; and I found his skull in a niche near the spot, perforated a little in the forehead, that it might be known by that mark."[15] The then parish priest of Kilronan was Dr. Thomas MacDermot Roe, afterwards (1747) Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, who died in 1750, and was buried in a splendid tomb in Kilronan, overlooking Lough Meelagh.

Although no monument marks the grave of O'Carolan, yet the late Lady Louisa Tenison got the cemetery enclosed, and had an Irish-designed gate surmounted by a central cross. Over the arch of the gateway is the inscription: "Within this churchyard lie the remains of Carolan, the last of the Irish bards, who departed this life March 25th, 1738. R.I.P."

Lady Morgan, who was ever an admirer of old Irish music, got a splendid bas-relief of O'Carolan placed in the north aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. This monument was executed by Hogan, a son of the great Irish sculptor, at Rome.

O'Carolan left seven children, namely, six daughters and one son. His son, who might have easily got together the best of his father's airs (as he was a talented musician), published an indifferent volume in 1747, under the patronage of Dean Delaney, and others. This volume was reprinted in 1750 and 1760, and the fourth edition appeared on January 1st, 1779, with the imprint of John Lee, No. 70 Dame Street. Walker adds: "His son went to London, where he taught the Irish harp. On inquiry, I find that he brought his father's harp with him to London, and, also—another man's wife."

If it is true, as alleged by Walker, that O'Carolan's son brought his father's harp to London, it must have been an instrument used by the great minstrel in middle life. However, "O'Carolan's harp" was bequeathed to Madame MacDermot, and is now in possession of The O'Conor Don, P.C., at Clonalis, Castlerea.

A good edition of the best compositions of O'Carolan is much to be desired, and the marvel is that such a work has not long since been undertaken. Let us now take a cursory glance at some of his contemporaries.

Reference has previously been made to MacCabe [16] and MacCuarta (Courtney), the friends and contemporaries of O'Carolan. Another friend was Cornelius Lyons, harper to Randal, fourth Earl of Antrim, famous not only as a composer, but as an arranger of Irish airs. Arthur O'Neill relates the following story of Lyons:—

Our harper and his patron being in London on one occasion, went to the house of Heffernan, a famous Irish harper, whose hotel was much frequented by the gentry, and it was previously agreed that his lordship was to call the bard "Cousin Burke," while the latter was to call his noble friend either "Cousin Randal" or "my lord" as he pleased. Having regaled themselves, they sent for Heffernan, who by this time was aware of the dignity of his guest from the conversation and livery of his lordship's servants. Heffernan complied with the wish of his noble guest, and played many of his best pieces in good style, after which his lordship requested "Cousin Burke" to try an air on the harp. The supposed cousin, after some apologies, took the instrument, and performed some melodies with such effect that Heffernan, on hearing him, exclaimed: "My lord, you may call him 'Cousin Burke,' or what cousin you please, but dar dich [dar dia] he plays upon Lyons's fingers." To accentuate this story, O'Neill says that Heffernan had never met Lyons before.[17]

Heffernan was a celebrated Irish harper, who resided in London from 1695 to 1725, and there is a reference to him in Drake's Memoirs in connection with the year 1708. "From March 25th to June 5th, 1708, while the captured Irish officers of the ship 'Salisbury,' fifteen in number, under Colonel Francis Wauchop, who came over to England with the Old Pretender, were awaiting trial in Newgate, London, they seldom missed a day without having a visit from one Mr. Heffernan, famous for the harp, which he never failed to bring with him, to divert the gentlemen, and would sometimes leave it there for three weeks to avoid the trouble of fetching it." It is of interest to add that the fifteen officers, after the trial at the Old Bailey, in June, 1708, were exchanged for Hugenots who had been captured by the French.

Another great Irish harper who settled in London in the first years of the eighteenth century was Maguire, from County Fermanagh. He, too, like his contemporary, Heffernan, kept a tavern near Charing Cross, and lived for a time in affluence. Walker tells us that his house was patronised by the Duke of Newcastle and several of the Ministry, from 1753 to 1756, and he died a year later of a broken heart, consequent on neglect by his former patrons. Walker adds:—"An Irish harper who was a contemporary of Maguire, and, like him, felt for the sufferings of his country, had this distich engraven on his harp:—

'Cur Lyra funestas edit percussa sonores?
Sicut amissum sors Diadema gemit!"

Perhaps the most popular of O'Carolan's contemporaries, after Cornelius Lyons, was John Murphy, of County Wexford. He is described by Arthur O'Neill as an excellent harper. "Having travelled into France he performed before, and met with the approbation of Louis le Grand," about the year 1710. In one of the Dublin papers of the year 1737-8 I find a notice that on February 4th, 1738, John Murphy, the Irish harper, was one of the attractions at Smock-alley Theatre, when a double bill was presented in aid of the poor prisoners in the city Marshalsea. It is satisfactory to learn that the receipts on this occasion totalled almost £130. The last I find of Murphy is his appearance at the various "assemblies" held at Mallow between the years 1746 and 1753, when Mallow was a fashionable health resort.

In regard to Irish harps at this period, there are some dated specimens still preserved. Walker gives an illustration of a harp, drawn by William Ousley, of Limerick, the original of which was then (1786) in the possession of Jonathan Hehir of that city. This harp was made by John Kelly, and was dated 1726. It had thirty-three strings, and was made of red sally, and is said to have been five feet high. The Kellys, or O'Kellys, were famous harp-makers of Ballynascreen (Draperstown), County Derry, and one of them (Cormac O'Kelly) made Hampson's harp in 1702. This Cormac also made the "Castle Otway" harp, dated 1707, which afterwards passed to Patrick Quin, the harper, who played on it at the Belfast meeting in 1792. It is now at Castle Otway, County Tipperary. Another harp, made by John Kelly, dated 1734, belonged to Rev. Charles Bunworth, and subsequently came into possession of Crofton Croker, after whose death it was sold in London in 1854, being now the property of Rev. F. W. Galpin.

Hugh O'Neill deserves notice as being a yeoman-harper and an ardent admirer of O'Carolan, and as the teacher of Arthur O'Neill. He was born at Foxford, County Mayo, his mother being a cousin to Count Taaffe. Having lost his sight at the age of seven, he took to the harp, and was subsequently given a large farm in County Roscommon, at a nominal rent, by Mr. Tenison, of Castle Tenison. Owing to his family connections and his own excellence of character, we read that "he was received more as a friend and associate than as a professional visitor, among the gentry of Connacht." He died of fever whilst still in the prime of life, and was buried in the tomb of O'Carolan.



[13] Dr. Douglas Hyde's Literary History of Ireland, pp. 598-9.

[14] In regard to "Planxty Stafford," or "Carolan's Receipt," the minstrel only furnished the first verse, the second being added, at O'Carolan's request, by Charles MacCabe.

[15] In regard to O'Carolan's skull, Sir Robert Stewart, Mus. Doc., thus wrote in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians:—"Early in the present (nineteenth) 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." Hardiman tells us that in 1750, on opening O'Carolan's grave to receive the remains of a Catholic clergyman, "whose dying request was to be interred with the bard," the Hon. Thomas Dillon, brother of the Earl of Roscommon, "caused the skull to be perforated a little in the forehead, and a small piece of ribbon to be inserted, in order to distinguish it from other similar disinterred remnants of mortality." The skull was then placed in a niche over the grave, where it remained till 1796. Sir Robert Stewart is in error regarding the Ribbonman legend. It was George Nugent Reynolds, the song writer, who presented the skull to Sir John Caldwell for his museum and it remained at Castlecaldwell from 1796 till 1852, when it was exhibited in the Belfast Museum. In 1874, on the dispersion of the museum by Mr. Bloomfield, it was acquired by Mr. James Glenny, of Belfast, and in 1884 was in the collection formed by that gentleman's cousin, Mr. John Glenny, at Glenfield, near Newry.

[16] MacCabe outlived O'Carolan by ten years. Hardiman writes: "He was a frequent companion of Carolan, and had a good knowledge of the Irish language, as also of Greek, Latin, and English. Having obtained a licence to teach as a 'Popish schoolmaster,' he earned a scanty subsistence in his old age, and, finally died in want."

[17] Lyons is best remembered as the composer of "Miss Hamilton," and for the variations which he added to "Eibhlin a ruin." His patron, Randal, fourth Earl of Antrim, married Rachel, sister of Clotworthy, and Viscount Massareene, and died October 19th 1721. Probably, on account of his mother being one of the Burkes (Helen, daughter of Sir John Burke), he gave the cognomen of "Cousm Burke" to Lyons.