The Complete Works of O'Carolan
(Ossian, 1984)

Turlough O'Carolan wasn't a very good harper. His poetry and song lyrics were, by all accounts fairly bad as well.

But the blind harper still wandered into the hearts and history of Ireland, becoming the widely accepted "national bard" of a country known for musicians. The reason? Composition.

Wandering through Ireland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, O'Carolan demonstrated a keen talent for writing tunes in an idiom which had produced many great players but few composers whose names have survived along with their music. O'Carolan, on the other hand, was a passable performer only, often derided by his peers.

But from his first composition, the lyrical "Si Beag is Si Mor," O'Carolan's place in the annals of Irish music history was assured.

A brief history of O'Carolan -- his lowly birth, the smallpox which left him blind at age 18, the harping which became his livelihood and his "Farewell to Music" shortly before his death -- is outlined in an introduction by Grainne Yeats. Following that introduction are several pages reproducing early manuscript copies of O'Carolan's work.

And then there's the meat of the publication: about 120 pages of O'Carolan's music, divided into chapters of tunes for patrons, tunes without titles, miscellaneous tunes and laments. These are presented simply, with little notation and no harmonies, for that is how the music was originally preserved. And all his tunes are here, including the well-known titles such as "Eleanor Plunkett," "Fanny Power," "Carolan's Concerto," "Sheebeg and Sheemore," "The Fairy Queen," "Carolan's Draught," "Carolan's Dream" and, of course, "Carolan's Farewell to Music." The volume concludes with a list of sources, discography and bibliography.

O'Carolan, after a lifetime of 68 years, left behind an incredible body of work influenced by the Irish harping tradition, folk tradition and, oddly enough, the Italian composers who were his contemporaries, such as Vivaldi. All this he combined into a style distinctly recognizable as his own. Anyone with a fascination for Irish music and culture should consider picking up The Complete Works of O'Carolan.

[ by Tom Knapp ]