A Foot in Two Countries, a Harp in His Hand and Homage From a King

By Brian McGowan

In a recent issue we spoke of the cláirseach, or harp, as a musical instrument immediately and passionately identified with Ireland, and Turlough O’Carolan, the most famous of Irish harpers. 

But Ireland is not the only country in the Celtic Fringe to embrace the harp.  Equally enamored of the instrument were the Scots, especially prior to the introduction of the rousing music of the bagpipe, which began edging out the harp during the 16th and 17th centuries. Though relegated to second place, the harp never lost favor completely, especially for music to be played within courts and castles and as entertainment for Scot noblemen and women.

But trust it to an Irishman to rise to preeminence upon arriving on Scotland’s shores. Rory Dall O’Cathain (O’Kane), was born about 1580, and died in 1653, 19 years before O’Carolan’s birth. O’Cathain’s major gift to us is the immortal composition “Tabhair Domh Do Lamh,” translated as “Give Me Your Hand,” one of the most widely recorded traditional tunes.

O’Cathain, unlike O’Carolan, was of the native Irish nobility, related to the O’Neills, rulers of Ulster, who at one time were likely candidates to rule all of Ireland. Also blind (dall, in Irish), he traveled often between Ulster and Scotland, which are parted at their closest points by the 13-mile wide stretch of water called the North Channel, separating the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland from Torr Head in Northern Ireland. Spending more and more time in Scotland, O’Cathain eventually became a fixture at the Scottish royal court and was judged one of the masters of his art.

Much of O’Carolan’s repertoire has come down to us. O’Cathain’s tunes, sadly, are far less well-preserved, and amount only to a handful. Perhaps his patrons were less indulgent than O’Carolan’s. There are tales told of O’Cathain that reveal a haughtiness that might not have sat well with the wealthy of his time, not to mention a penchant for “pushing the envelope.”

Highly insulted when mistaken by a Scot noblewoman to be “just another harper” and commanded by her to play a tune, he flew off in a huff. When the offending lady discovered his preeminence, she quickly sought forgiveness, offering him her hand and unwittingly gave the name to the tune O’Cathain composed, possibly on the spot, to show there were no bad feelings left between them. And the result is one of the most popular tunes in the Celtic traditional music repertoire.

Called to play for the Scottish King James VI (who ultimately assumed the throne of England as well, with a numbering change to James I), his playing captivated the king, who placed his hand upon the harper’s shoulder in a fond embrace.

A courtier asked Rory if he realized the honor the king had just given him.   Replied Rory: “A greater than King James has laid his hand on my shoulder.”

“And what man was that?” inquired the King. 

“O’Neill, sire,” answered Rory.

The fact that O’Cathain kept his head after this interchange is no small testament to the king’s regard for the man and his music.

O’Cathain spent most of his time in Scotland, where he died in 1653 and is buried at Sleat on the Isle of Skye. He has the distinction of having another composition to which lyrics were subsequently placed and became inarguably the most famous Irish song ever. Favorable mention to the first three readers who can tell me what that song is and the name of the underlying tune.

Of O’Cathain’s progeny I am unable to find out more. Perhaps his temper kept him a bachelor.

A listen to O’Cathain’s gem, “Tabhair Domh do Lamh,” is but a YouTube search away. See how long it is before you are tapping your feet and nodding your head to the rousing tune this son of Ulster has bequeathed to us.

Slainte mhaith!

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.