Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/O'Carolan, Torlogh
O'CAROLAN or CAROLAN, TORLOGH (1670–1738), Irish bard, the son of John O'Carolan, a farmer, was born in 1670 at the village of Newtown, three and a half miles from Nobber, Meath (O'Reilly). The inhabitants of the village of Carlanstown, co. Meath, point to a slight irregularity of surface in a field near the bridge at the end of the village as the site of the house in which he was born; this field is either adjacent to or included within the parish of Newtown. The family, known in Irish as Ua Cearbhallain, are stated to have been a branch of the sept of Mac Bradaigh of Cavan, to which Philip Mac Brady [q. v.], a friend of Carolan, belonged, and who were allied to the Ui Sioradain or Sheridans. Terence O'Kerrolan was rector of Knogh, co. Meath, in 1550. Shane Grana O'Carrolan, said to be the great-grandfather of the bard, was in 1607 the chief of his sept. During the civil wars his descendants were deprived of their lands (Exchequer Rolls, quoted by Hardiman).
The father settled at Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim. O'Carolan's education, begun at Cruisetown (O'Reilly), was carried on, in company with the children of M'Dermott Roe, of Alderford, Roscommon. Attacked by small-pox at the age of fourteen, O'Carolan lost his eyesight. His natural musical gifts were developed by special training; he was provided with a good master for the harp, and, though he never attained to great proficiency in execution, the use of that instrument assisted him in composition. The adoption by blind men of music as a profession was not uncommon in Ireland; and when O'Carolan, in his twenty-second year, began his wandering life as a bard, there were many Irish harpers who used to play at the houses of the gentry throughout Ireland and the highlands of Scotland. Denis O'Conor, father of Charles O'Conor [q. v.], of Belanagare, was one of his earliest friends, and he was always welcome at Belanagare.
His patrons supplied the musician with horses and a servant to carry the harp, and, thus equipped, O'Carolan passed through Connaught, visiting on his way the great houses of Leitrim, and there composed ‘The Fairy Queens,’ ‘Planxty Reynolds,’ and ‘Gracey Nugent.’ Another early song, ‘Bridget Cruise,’ was inspired by a love affair, the memory of which clung to him even to middle age, when, as he related to O'Conor, he recognised the long-lost lady of his romance by the touch of her fingers as he assisted her among other chance passengers into the ferry-boat taking them as pilgrims to the island in Loch Derg, co. Donegal (Walker). A marriage with Mary Maguire of co. Fermanagh was as happy as the conditions of O'Carolan's life would allow. They built a house on a small farm near Mohill in Leitrim, where Mary was wont to await in patience the irregular appearances of her gifted husband. She bore him six daughters and one son, and upon her death in 1733 O'Carolan wrote a lament in a strain of genuine pathos.
O'Carolan's patrons and admirers, the rich and poor of Connaught and the neighbouring counties, continually sent messengers in quest of him. The honour and hospitality lavished upon him he repaid in songs and tunes known under the names of the persons for whom they were composed. At Castle Kelly in Galway he made the fine song, ‘Mild Mable Kelly.’ Mr. Kelly of Cargin, near Tulsk, Roscommon, an old and hospitable friend, he celebrated in ‘Planxty Kelly.’ Proceeding from Cargin on one occasion, he stopped at Mr. Stafford's, near Elphin, and the famous ‘Receipt for Drinking,’ or ‘Planxty Stafford,’ will long commemorate his affectionate reception there. On his arrival at Greyfield, Roscommon, where his presence always attracted a number of visitors, he composed his ‘Fair-haired Mary’ (Hardiman). ‘Bumpers, Squire Jones,’ is Dawson's paraphrase of O'Carolan's ‘planxty’ in honour of Thomas Morris Jones, the squire of Moneyglass, co. Antrim. The well-known ‘Planxty Maguire’ was written at Tempo, the house most frequently visited by O'Carolan in Ulster. He was often entertained at Ballymascanlan, co. Louth, and there composed ‘Mo chuairt go baile iSganlain’ (‘My visit to Ballymascanlan’), in honour of his host Mac Neale's daughter. In Mayo he composed verses and music to Lord Bourke, Lord Dillon, Mrs. Garvey of Murrisk, the Palmers, Costellos, and O'Donnells. His best known Sligo tunes are those to the Croftons, Colonel Irwin, and Loftus Jones. In co. Roscommon Mrs. French, Nelly Plunket, the O'Conors, and the M'Dermotts inspired fine melodies. One of these, called ‘The Princess Royal’ (for a Miss M'Dermott), is identical with the tune ‘Arethusa’ in Shield's ‘Lock and Key.’ He also celebrated his early friends the Betaghs of Moynalty, co. Meath, and Cathaoir Mac Cabe [q. v.]
He fell ill at Tempo, composed a farewell to Maguire, and rode to the house of Mr. Brady, near Ballinamore, co. Leitrim, and thence by Lahire to Alderford, where he took to his bed. He made his ‘Farewell to Music’ there, and, after a lingering illness, ‘spent his last moments in prayer,’ and passed away on 25 March 1738, in his sixty-eighth year. The funeral was attended by a vast concourse of people; tents were erected for numbers who were unable to find lodgings for the four days' wake. O'Carolan's grave at the east end of the old parish church of Kilronan has been neatly enclosed, and an inscription placed near the spot by Lady Louisa Tenison (Grove). His skull, once preserved in a niche close by, was destroyed by a pistol-shot fired at it by a drunken horseman in 1796. A portrait of O'Carolan was painted on copper in 1720, at the instance of Dean Massey, by a Dutch artist, supposed to be Van der Hagen. The picture was in 1840 in the possession of Sir Henry Marsh (Bunting). It was engraved and published by Martyn in 1822, and again by J. Rogers, and published by Robins for the frontispiece to Hardiman's ‘Irish Minstrelsy,’ 1831. Hogan executed from it a bas-relief of the head in marble, which has been placed in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (Grove).
O'Carolan was diligent in the observance of the ritual of his faith and honourable in all the relations of life. He was stated by Charles O'Conor, who knew him well, to be ‘moral and religious.’ He was of convivial disposition, but ‘was seldom surprised by intoxication.’ Goldsmith, in his essay on O'Carolan, describes the bard as having fallen a victim to his bacchanalian habits, but this idea was probably derived from the recital of some other bard, who thought such an end appropriate to the author of ‘The Receipt for Drinking.’ Goldsmith attributes ‘O'Rourke's Feast’ to O'Carolan. The air only was his; the words, of which Swift made an English verse paraphrase from a translation, were by Aodh MacGabhrain of Glengoole, co. Leitrim.
His poetry was not intended for study without music, and was suitable to the festive or melancholy occasions of its composition. It has been found impossible to preserve the metre in translation, or to force English words to musical airs which were composed to suit the accents, the vowel assonance, and other peculiarities of Irish metre. O'Carolan's knowledge of English was very slight, as is apparent in his poetical address of one English stanza to Miss Fetherstone. To his melodies, critical as well as general admiration has been freely accorded. As a musical genius he was original, representative, many-sided. His earliest pieces show him to have followed his predecessors, the O'Kanes and others, who played old Irish music only. The later productions of the bard exhibit the influence of the foreign school, and his imitations of Corelli became very apparent, particularly in the responses between treble and bass, in his ‘Concerto,’ ‘Madam Bermingham,’ ‘Lady Blaney,’ ‘Colonel O'Hara,’ ‘Mrs. Crofton,’ and ‘Madam Cole’ (Bunting). His music was in the highest degree popular in his own country. It continued to be so as long as Irish was spoken, and much of it may still be heard in the counties of Meath, Cavan, Roscommon, and Sligo. It was first publicly introduced into England as part of the musical setting of O'Keeffe's ‘Poor Soldier,’ and others of his plays; Arnold and Shield noted down the airs from O'Keeffe's singing.
About fifty pieces, in excellent setting, are included in Bunting's three collections of ‘Ancient Music of Ireland,’ published in 1796, 1809, and 1840 respectively. A number of airs were published in Terence Carolan's ‘Collection of O'Carolan's Compositions,’ 2nd edit. 1780. The Irish verses of several, with paraphrases in English, are in Hardiman's ‘Irish Minstrelsy,’ which also contains an account of the bard and his peregrinations. In the ‘Transactions of the Iberno-Celtic Society’ Edward O'Reilly, who was assisted by Paul O'Brien, a native of O'Carolan's district, mentions twenty-four of his poems. Among the chief are six on events of his own life, the most famous being ‘Mas tinn no slan do tharlaidh me’ (‘If sickness or health happen to me’), commonly called ‘The Receipt,’ and the air of which is known to nearly every fiddler and piper in Ireland, and the words to all who sing in Irish. In all, about one hundred pieces by O'Carolan are accounted for in the works noticed, while more no doubt exist in the manuscript collections of verse to be found here and there in Ireland.
[Walker's Irish Bards, 1786, p. 156, and App. vi.; O'Keeffe's Recollections, ii. 17, 70, 77, 357; Bunting's Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840, pp. 9, 71; Forster's Life of Goldsmith, p. 11; Goldsmith's Works, iii. 271; Walsh's Hist. of Dublin, ii. 903; Grove's Dict. of Music, ii. 490; O'Reilly in Trans. of Iberno-Celtic Soc. Dublin, 1820; authorities quoted.]