Charles Foran,
Carolan's Farewell
(HarperCollins, 2005)

Any fan of Irish music knows that Turlough O'Carolan, the last of the great bards of Ireland, wandered the countryside, blind, in the company of a servant who led him from great house to great house, where he composed tunes for his patrons.

But Charles Foran gives the tale a personal touch in Carolan's Farewell, a fictional account based on some facts of Carolan's life, that focuses on the friendship that developed between Carolan (here called Terence) and his dutiful friend and guide, Owen Connor.

The story is set in 1737, during Carolan's final days. His health is failing, particularly after completing a difficult pilgrimmage and following a lifetime of rich foods and richer drinks. Before long, you'll know more about the bard's growing gastro-intestinal problems than you might have wanted.

The narrative sets the stage for a turbulent time in Ireland's history, and readers will learn a great deal about the issues and opinions of the time. But more importantly, it makes a flesh-and-blood figure of a legendary character.

Foran's Carolan is a deeply compassionate man who is inspired to make music by the world -- particularly the birds -- around him. But in his declining days, his memory sometimes fails him and the rigors of the road are harder to bear.

Owen is even more fully fleshed in this account, full of regrets for his own life as well as his master's, dreams of a future not likely to come to be, an unquenchable thirst for books and learning (even at someone else's expense) and an abiding respect and love for both Carolan and his music.

Carolan's Farewell is warm and deeply human, witty, dramatic and emotionally draining, a celebration of a life and an exploration of its mysteries. You can't know Carolan in a conventional sense, but this book allows you to know Carolan as he might have been, through actions and -- more importantly -- dialogue that flows like a harper's fingers over his strings.

If you'll excuse me, this book has put me in the mood for a tune.

review by
Tom Knapp

24 November 2007

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