Ireland’s National Emblem, The Harp, and One of its Masters
By Brian McGowan
We return again to music as our theme. The harp – cláirseach in Irish – is a musical instrument immediately and passionately identified with Ireland and the Irish as no other in the world.
It appears on every coin issued by the Republic of Ireland since independence in 1921, and every government document.
But what of the harpers who made it so?
One immediately comes to mind, although not quite a contemporary, and I have mentioned him several times – Turlough O’Carolan. Born in County Meath in 1670, his blacksmith father moved the family to County Roscommon when O’Carolan was 14 years old. There the father was employed by the McDermott Roe family, members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. His son’s poetic talents were recognized early on by Anne McDermott Roe, the family’s matriarch, and she assisted in the young man’s education. Tragically blinded by smallpox when he was 18, she had him tutored by a local harper, and three years later equipped him with harp and horse and set him off to journey the hills and vales of Ireland as an itinerant harper.
The music O’Carolan played spans many musical meters, but it is the slow air that is the most haunting. O’Carolan’s contributions here are legion, but perhaps his best, and most poignant, is the last tune he composed, on his deathbed it is said: “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music.”
Another particularly unique tune type is the “planxty,” or pleraca in Irish. While not exclusively O’Carolan’s, he is most associated with it. A planxty is any tune composed in honor of a patron. And that is exactly who most of O’Carolan’s tunes were composed for – wealthy Anglo-Irish landowners who would subsidize a harper in exchange for songs of praise extolling their virtues, set to the instrument’s melodic strums.
My favorite planxty is “Planxty George Brabazon,” composed for a wealthy County Mayo landowner of the same name who was descended from King Henry VIII’s treasurer. In fact, O’Carolan composed at least two tunes for the man, a strong measure of his admiration and devotion, without mentioning the depth of Brabazon’s wealth and influence. O’Carolan was a master at the art of flattery. And what of it, if it put food in the mouths of children?
Of O’Carolan’s repertoire, more than 200 compositions have come down to us. Many are staples of Irish trad, though some purists would argue that they are not really Irish music since O’Carolan was influenced strongly by Continental composers of his age.
Hogwash, in my opinion. His music is as Irish as any, and maintains a vibrancy to this day. Listen to such tunes as “Planxty Irwin,” or O’Carolan’s first composition,
“Sidh Beag agus Sidh Mhor,” and it is no small wonder that his body of work is still a staple for anyone professing an interest in Irish trad.
Other favorites in his repertoire are “Fanny Poer,” “O’Carolan’s Concerto,” “O’Carolan’s Welcome,” “Bridget Cruise,” “O’Carolan’s Quarrel with the Landlady”, “O’Carolan’s Draught” and “O’Carolan’s Receipt.”
O’Carolan married at 50, sired six daughters and a son and breathed his last on Mar. 25, 1738. While several other harpists struggled to keep the tradition alive, and some of them gathered in their eighties to play at a memorable festival in Belfast in 1792, it is O’Carolan’s music that continues to define Irish harp music to this day.
Give some of it a listen on the following YouTube tracks and let me know if you agree the music is timeless: “Planxty George Brabazon” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxthNQ3yLxg and “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNo-4k6knvo.
Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian and author of two books: “Love, Son John,” about World War II, and “Thunder at Noon,” on the Battle of Waterloo. Both are available at Amazon.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more on “things Irish,” follow his blog, “Rethinking Irish,” at www.rethinkingirish.com.