The Blind Harper

Over the centuries, the handicap of blindness has had an almost mystical association with the professions of musician and prophet. In ancient Egypt, where blindness was a common malady, blind singers and musicians were highly prized, while Greek legends tell the tale of blind Tiresias, foremost among seers. Perhaps it is the feeling that, deprived of worldly sight, a new world of magical insight and knowledge is bequeathed, far beyond the ken of ordinary men. Leave it to a damn Irishman to spoil it all!

Turlough O'Carolan, the most famous harpist of Ireland, was born in 1670 in County Meath. His personal tragedy came at the age of 18, when smallpox took away his sight. The timing of these early events of his history is somewhat uncertain, but it was about this time that he began to learn the harp. He was never known as a virtuoso performer - Carolan's brilliance manifested in his poetry and music.

From what I have read of his life and temperament, Carolan was as far from being a remote, mystic involute as it was possible for a man to be. He was described as cheerful and gregarious, a hard drinker with a quick temper. One story has it that he soundly thrashed a rival harper who mocked his compositions. Another tells of a drinking match between Carolan and an old friend named MacCabe. The terms of the match required the first man drunk to pay the entire score. MacCabe fell into a drunken sleep, and awoke the next morning to find he had been tied into a sack during the night! Carolan refused to release him until MacCabe had acknowledged his loss.

Carolan's passing was an almost poetic tribute to his life. It is told that his final composition was to the butler who brought him his last drink, and that his wake lasted four days. He died in 1738. Carolan was survived by six daughters and a son. More than a century later, WB Yeats had this to say:

"Carolan, the last of the Irish bards, slept on a rath, and ever after the fairy tunes ran in his head, and made him the great man he was." - from Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
Carolan was particularly well known for his sprightly planxties1, but he also composed more reflective works. His compositions occasionally exhibit the mannered little flourishes of Baroque era composers, and he is said to have been influenced by such contemporaries as Vivaldi and Corelli. Celtic musicians continue to play his works in many arrangements and variations. Clannad pays him particular homage on their traditional recordings, having arranged versions of "Planxty Burke" (In Concert, Shanachie, 1982), "Planxty Browne" (Crann Úll, Tara, 1980), "Eleanor Plunkett" (Clannad 2, Shanachie,1988) and "The Fairy Queen" (Magical Ring, Tara, 1983).

The music on this page is a MIDI version of "Eleanor Plunkett", sequenced by Barry Taylor. I am indebted to Lesley Nelson's fine Turlough O'Carolan site for both the music and the historical information on this page.

Tim Eagen
June, 1999

1A planxty, according to the OED, is "a harp tune of sportive or animated character, moving in triplets. It is not intended for or often adaptable to words, and is slower in pace than the jig." The word is apparently not derived from Irish Gaelic, and may be a deriviative of the Latin plangere, which means "to strike or beat".