Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738)
"The last of the Bards" 
This text is an extract from his article)


Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was born at Nobber, Co. Meath, in 1670.  His ancestors had been extensive landowners; but in the confiscation which followed the Revolution, his father, John O'Carolan, was forced, like thousands of now a tall, interes his countrymen, to fly westwards, leaving his broad acres to Williamite adventurers, or Earl Nugent's cattle. A friend procured a home for him near Carrick-on-Shannon (1688). Here our bard,ting youth of eighteen, attracted the attention of Madam McDermot Roe of Alderford, who, struck with his extraordinary aptitude for music, brought him to her house and had him educated with her own children. Here he acquired the perfect knowledge of his native language and the great love for his native history, which distinguished him through life; here, too, he had acquired some proficiency in the harp, when the great affliction of his life overtook him. A violent attack of small pox, though leaving his beauty intact, rendered him totally blind, in his twenty-second year (1692).

His poetic faculty was yet hidden, even to himself. When, at the inspiration of George Nugent Reynolds—the genuine author of the Exile of Erin—he discovered the gift of poetry in himself, it seemed to Turlough as easy and natural to sing and play together as it is to the merry youth to whistle time to his steps, or the orator to modulate his tone to his feelings.

The union of such gifts in a single person is, of course, a phenomenon, perhaps an unprecedented one. O'Carolan combined all the graces of the bard, the poet, the ccTmposer and the law-giver of heroic times; and Providence bestows exceptional gifts of this kind to meet exceptional emergencies The storm which O'Carolan was destined to encounter and vanquish was gathering, but did not burst for some years; and during that lull he lived on a little farm near Mohill with his wife, Mary Maguire of Tempo, Co. Fermanagh. Mary was an extravagant dame; but she was the wife of his choice, and they lived harmoniously together. Their house was open to the stranger and the poor. There, at stated times, the bards from far and near met for feis and festival. Meantime, our bard was a frequent guest at Alderford, Greyfield, Letterfian, Belinagare and other mansions of the old Celtic nobility. At length, however, in 1709, the storm of the Penal Laws, the fiercest that ever swept over the fair hills of Erin, which threatened ruin to the race and made O'Carolan a wanderer, burst in full fury on the unhappy land

From 1710 till his death in 1738 O'Carolan was a missioner. His mission lay through that part of Connaught where his fellow-refugees had settled. He went wherever sorrow and oppression claimed his solace. To this cause we owe it chiefly that his lyrics nearly all sound the note of gladnesa He had set himself the noble task of crushing a tyranny, and of sustaining the courage of his kindred; and when he mustered all his powers to this task, he simply rose to a height of enthusiasm and captivating grandeur that carried his audience away out of the realms of sense. Mounted on a fine steed, and preceded by a mounted attendant who filled the office of guide and harper, he traversed Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon, Longford and neighbouring counties in his mission of consolation. Every home he visited was endowed with the priceless legacy of a song, addressed sometimes to the head of the family, sometimes to the most beautiful or most renowned of its members. His genius was ever radiant when engaged on those familiar subjects; and although he sometimes burst into tears in the height of his song, he ever aimed at drowning the memory of sorrow in a torrent of melodious sound.

His chief patrons now claim our attention. The first, the last, the best, was Madam McDermot Roe of Alderford, Ballyfarnon. To her loving care he owed all the instruction he had received: at her house he was always received with rapture; there, also, he composed many an enchanting melody. From Alderford, he first set out on his mission of love; and when the fire of life was burning low and his fingers were losing their skill, to Alderford he returned to die.

Next comes the O'Conor Don of Belinagare. This lineal descendant of the H igh Kings of Erin was so shorn of his vast estates, that during the Penal Regime he had to settle on a small farm (Knockmore, Ballyfarnon) and follow the plough. But they could not deprive him of his serenity or princely character, and after a time they were forced to restore him a fragment of his property. O'Carolan frequently experienced the royal hospitality of this grand old Connatian. A special apartment was reserved for him, while outside a delicious arbour was fashioned where the bard, provided with harp, pipe and punchbowl composed his charming measures He turned into Belinagare as to a home. Blind as he was, yet he always recognised the place by the echoes, and the atmosphere. When feebleness was growing on him he used to say—"I think when I am among the O'Conors, my harp has the old sound in it" Fittingly, one of his harps is still at Clonalis, in the possession of the present bearer of that kingly name.

Next comes Owen O'Rourke, rightful Prince of Breffni, who now denuded both of rank and possession lived in a modest house by the shore of Lough Allen. For O'Rourke's lady, "Fairhaired Mary" (daughter of the McDermot, Prince of Coolavin) the bard composed one of his most charming songa For his host, Owen, he composed the well-known planxty, and after Owen's demise, immortalised him in the elegy called "Lament for O'Rourke". For Owen's ancestor, "Brian of the Battleaxes", who held Breffni against all the might of Elizabeth, O'Carolan had a profound admiration, and makes him the hero of a spirited lyric.

For many years the bard's favourite resting-place was Greyfield House, Keadue, built by Henry, son of McDermot Roe of Alderford. Henry married Nanny, daughter of Manus Roe O'Donnell of Westport, direct descendants of Hugh RoeO'DonnellofTirconnail. Theirdaughter Eliza afterwards married Robert Maguire, Tempo. I believe one of the O'Donnells, after Henry's day, came to live at Greyfield. Here O'Carolan spent some of the happiest days of his life; and is said to have composed most of his lays in the garden of this mansion. It happened, on one occasion, that several of the neighbouring gentry (O'Rourke, Maguire, McConmee, Nugent and others) came while the bard was absent A courier was at once despatched for him to Castle Kelly (Co. Galway), where he had just composed the fine song of "Mild Mabel Kelly". On his way home, passing near Tulsk, he called on Mr. Kelly of Cargins and rewarded his hospitality with the celebrated "Planxty Kelly". Proceeding to Elphin he called on Mr. Stafford, and commemorated his visit by composing the famous "Planxty Stafford", known as the "Receipt for Drinking Whiskey". Arrived at Greyfield, he rewarded the kind friends who were lovingly awaiting him with some of the happiest of his effusions.

In Leitrim, besides Reynolds and O'Rourke, prominent among his patrons were the St. George family of Carrick, and Counsellor Brady of Ballinamore. In Longford, he was the honoured guest of the Nugents (owners of large estates at Coolamberand Lisryan), O'Reilly (Granard), the Featherstons (Ardagh) and the Cruises (Edgeworthstown). In Roscommon, his favourite county, besides hischief patronsatAlderford and Belinagare, we owe the tribute of thanks and grateful remembrance to O'Conor Faly, Mrs. French (Frenchpark), the Dillon family (Lough-glynn), O'Kelly, Drury, O'Duignan and many others Throughout the Co. Mayo also, our bard was as famous and as eagerly sought as in Leitrim and Roscommon. Chief among his patrons there were Lord Dillon, Lord Mayo (Viscount Bourke), also the families of O'Malley, O'Donnell, Costello and Higgins, whose names and virtues are perpetuated by their illustrious guest in several of his inspired compositions. The old Gaelic families of Co. Sligo were also his enthusiastic admirers and their names are imperishably enshrined in creations of his muse, such as "O'Hara'sCup","Edward Corcoran", "Dr. Harte", "O'ConorSligo","Maud O'Down", "Terence McDonogh" and many other priceless lyrics dedicated to the Milesian stock of that county.

And now it is but mere justice to the Saxon settlers in Connaught to acknowledge, as I do candidly and gratefully, that they emulated their Celtic neighbours in honouring Turlough O'Carolan. The records of his career and his own compositions bear eloquent testimony to the fact that every one of these families worshipped O'Carolan: that their lavish hospitality was invariably proffered and gladly accepted: that they cultivated the Irish language and Irish music; being led captive by his overpowering genius; and that they lived on the best terms with their Catholic neighbours. And it is but mere justice, also, to acknowledge that these Protestant families helped to break the Penal regime in Connaught. Without their co-operation, the Executive was powerless to carry out the savage enactments of that inhuman code; and the pages of Lecky made it abundantly clear that the decent humane Protestants not only set their faces against revolting penalties but that they actually co-operated with their Catholic neighbours to render the code, at least in its worst features, inoperative. For this result again it is quite impossible to estimate the nation's debt to O'Carolan. He served as a heaven-sent envoy to unite all creeds in a common love of country and hatred of oppression and, I repeat, he needed the help of the Protestant gentry, and secured it in generous measure. Hence, of his extant productions, practically half are dedicated to these deserving patrons. Here are a few of them, selected casually. "Sir Edward Crofton," "Madam Crofton," "Nanny Cooper," "Charles Coote," "Loftus Jones," "Toby Peyton," "Madame Cole," "Lord Massarene," "Madam Maxwell," "James Plunkett," "Mr. Waller," "Dean Massey," etc These belonged to the Ascendancy. Severe penalties attached to their tolerance of their Catholic neighbours, while large rewards awaited their compliance with the code. None of them proved degenerate.

It would, of course, be a mistake to judge from the foregoing remarks that our bard confined his attention to the nobility and gentry. On the contrary, he delighted in the simple graces of the poor, and he came to them as an angel of light. When his approach to a village was known, the children would fly off to meet him, and contend for possession of his horse's rein, the more daring sometimes venturing to touch the boss of his harp, and sometimes urging modestly a request for a tune. When it was known he intended to remain, every presentable dwelling (there were no slated houses then) was pressed on his acceptance; and when he made his choice the favoured proprietor would carry him off with greater pride than if he had secured the Pretender himself. During the long summer and autumn evenings, the young people would assemble on the green and then were realised scenes such as Goldsmith depicts, when the vulnerable bard, full of the exhilaration which he was diffusing, began to strike up the tinkling jig or planxty to the elated assembly— "each with eye like a sunbeam and foot like a feather". And when these children of sorrow, whose only inheritance was oppression, had danced away their cruel wrongs, the old bard would sing them some Jay of ancient days full of Erin's glories, or perhaps, by request, some of his own splendid songs, inspiring hope and trust in Providence. When men like Mr. Lecky admit, but cannot well explain, the high standard of morality among these people; the peculiar delicacy of female virtue amid so much misery; their boundless charity in the very dearth of all things; their singular tact, and grace of thought and expression; and above all their insuppressible joyousness: the reason is that Mr. Lecky never knew anything intimate about our religion or our national music. O'Carolan was the incarnation of both. And, in a sense, he was favoured by the circumstances of his time. He found everywhere a mournful appeal for comfort and sympathy; and, with the skill of a true magician, he touched the deepest and most sensitive chords in the human heart: he administered the most potent of all spells—music and religion—and raised his hearers superior to any external calamity. Peace, joy, charity, and the spirit of "the liberty of the children of God" followed in his path and remained after him.

His deep and constant religious fervour is, by universal admission, one of his outstanding traits. Charles O'Conor, who from his youth knew O'Carolan intimately, was struck by the piety and devotion which the bard displayed naturally ("constitutionally," he says) and without affectation, under all circumstances. And although he never obtruded his religion, yet the obvious sanctity of his character added a subtle charm to his minstrelsy, a charm which enhanced enormously the veneration in which he was held by a people so spiritual as the Irish. There is no monument to his memory, most of his creations have perished, his grave is neglected; but he stands on a pedestal all by himself.

It will not be out of place here to recall two occasions when he took part in the Divine Service, (i) On Easter day, O'Conortells us, he sang the "Gloria" in Irish verse; then softly played as tar as the tlevation: after which he broke forth into a Sublime Canticle, specially composed, which he called "The Resurrection". His unrestrained devotion and the mastery of his performance, O'Conor adds, affected the whole congregation, (ii) Another similar scene has been described by the late Dean Kelly of Athlone. At Belinagare, on the Christmas Eve of 1725, Charles O'Conor entertained a truly notable company of the noble but outlawed chief of the Gael. They came together for a merry Christmas, though their country was in ruins, and themselves were "strangers at home, exiles in Erin." There was present also O'Carolan, and lastly they had among them a prince of their Church, Dr. Thadeus O'Rourke, Bishop of Killala, whose head was forfeit to the law of the land. During that day Dr. O'Rourke had been directing the education of young Charles O'Conor, who succeeded so well in English Composition, that he declared to his tutor that he would write only in English. "No," said the bishop, "you must never forget your own language, and you shall not go to rest this blessed Christmas Eve, until you have translated the "Miserere" into Irish." The youth accepted his penance; and in a few hours produced a translation of the psalm superior to Bedell's. The delighted bishop read it to the assembled guests, and so vividly did he interpret its cry of agony and humiliation and its final appeal to Heaven to be propitious to Sion and to raise up again its ruined temple, that his audience were intensely moved, and O'Carolan, in a moment of supreme excitement, seized his harp, swept along the chords the dirge of Erin's faded glories, and drew out the deep notes of wailing for the humiliation of the Gael: and then, as if he saw into the future, sadness gradually merged into a burst of triumph for the coming day when— The star of the west would yet rise in its glory,

And the land that was darkest be brightest in story. That Christmas festival was one of the happiest in his life. Dr. O'Rourke celebrated Mass and the bards, under the direction of OCarolan, rendered the usual choral parts, while he himself sang to his own music the last verses of the psalm he had heard that evening, and (to quote Dr. Charles O'Conor again) he fondly imagined himself on this and many other occasions to be inspired.

In association with contemporary bards who were numerous (for Ireland was still the "land of song") O'Carolan's experiences were of the happiest Towards them he was gentle, unaffected, appreciative to the highest degree, and ever suppressing any feeling of superiority, however warranted. Towards him, they in turn evinced an almost extravagant homage; partly because his genius was so outstanding, but cheifly because they found him always unassuming and even eager to suppress his own gifts Thus O'Carolan exercised a more than regal sway over his brethren. One of them, James Courtney, thus eulogised him:

"Each bard that wanders o'er earth and sea
Seems proud to learn new lays from thee."

He called another of them, McCabe, "the light of his eyes": and he had the rare pleasure of hearing them perform everywhere he went, his own compositions.

It would be foolish to pretend that we can follow our bard in all his wanderings. But even a mere summary, like this, would be incomplete, and invidious, without mention of his occasional and less privileged friends outside the counties already referred to. In Galway he was patronised by the O'Kellys, O'Dalys (Dunsandle), Dalys (Glinks), Lord Athenry, Sir Ulick Burke; in Cavan by many of the branches of the great and noble dan O'Reilly. He certainly went as far south as Doonass, in the County Clare, where he was the guest of Rev. Charles Massey, Dean of Limerick. Northwards he frequently visited his wife's relatives at Tempo, County Fermanagh. Finally, he often went on a pilgrimage to St Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg

Time was now rapidly telling on the old man, worn out by ceaseless wanderings, and saddened to death by the woes of his country. His wife died in 1733 and he never fully recovered from the blow. Besides, long and heroically as he had laboured to sustain the courage of his countrymen, he saw that their doom was fixed as destiny; and his own indomitable courage began to quail. In 1737 he visited his relatives in County Fermanagh for Christmas and came in close contact with the atrocities of the Ascendancy. His spirit failed within him; he yearned for the kindly voices of his beloved Connaught friends; and after playing his touching "Farewell to Maguire"—he directed his weary course to Alderford. At Ballinamore he rested a few days with his friend, Mr. Brady, and then, accompanied by the neighbouring gentry, and a large concourse of the country people, proceeded to Laheen, the seat of his dear old friend, Toby Peyton. Here he addressed the assembly in a few broken words of thanks, and then proceeded with his usual attendants past Letterfian—reminiscent of his first poetic effort (where his early friend George N. Reynolds had long since died), then past Greyfield, Keadue, and on to Knockcranny. Here, according to an invariable custom of his, he paused where the road first touches the edge of Lake Meelagh, to play a few chords to a bittern which used to recognise him, and respond to his welcome with several loud booma But the severe frost had killed the poor bird, and the bard, though not superstitious, took the omen seriously. Then inclining towards Kilronan, and breathing a prayer for the dead who repose there, he finished the last stage of his last journey. Arrived at Alderford the cheering failte with more than usual warmth greeted him; but it was plain to all that the soul of music and genaility was fled or fleeing. After resting a few days, he roused all hin energy and played for his aged hostess one of her favourite airs. Then directing the window of his apartment to be opened, once again he lent all hs spirit to the swelling notes, and his last sad strain, his "Farewell to Music" was borne afar on the still air, and before the echo had ceased, O'Carolan laid down his harp and his life (25th March, 1738). His death is thus recorded by his devoted friend, Charles O'Conor. "On Saturday 25th March, 1738, Turlough O'Carolan, the talented and principal musician of Ireland, died and was interred in Kilronan, the church of the O'Duignan family, in the sixty-eighth year of his life. May the Lord have mercy on his soul, for he was a moral and religious man."

The sad news spread like lightning. For four days a royal wake was held in his honour. All the houses in Ballyfarnon were crowded by the gentry from far and near, while the country people erected tents around Alderford House or secured shelter of some sort The bards of all the country acted as a privileged guard of honour around his bier. Madam McDermot, thoug h now over eighty years of age, was the chief mourner, and openly bewailed "her poor gentleman, the head of all Irish music". There were all the nobility and gentry, both Gaelic and Saxon, from fifty miles around: there, in their tens of thousands, were the noblest

peasants in Christendom, many of them in borrowed rags, but all determined to do honour to their reverend friend, who was the embodiment of their faith, and their national spirit As the long procession moved on to Kilronan, the most startling sight of all was a long line of sixty clergymen, clad in cassock and surplice, who chanted the "De Profundis" and the "Miserere". In the midst of all the penal enactments, this surpliced line of clergymen must have seemed an apparition,.even as a visitation from on high. Yet, without a word of protest from any zealot, but rather, amidst feeling of unbounded consolation, the white-robed line moved on, chanted the "Benedictus" and the "Requiescat in Pace" over the grave of Turlough O'Carolan, and then vanished as silently as it had appeared. O'Carolan's remains were laid to rest in the vault of the McDermot Roe family, at the east end of the old church of Kilronan. Before the vast concourse departed, his brother bards gathered around the grave and played a lament, which the mountains and glens seemed to prolong:

"Even so though thy mem'ry should now die away, 'Twill be caught up again in some happier day And the hearts and the voices of Erin prolong, Through the answering future thy name and thy song." Some time after his burial, his elegy was pronounced by his beloved friend, Charles McCabe. McCabe, like O'Carolan himself, was one of those gifted spirits raised up by Providence to shed the relief of their light on benighted epochs.

After the minstrel's death, McCabe, unaware of the event, was wending his way to Alderford to greet him. Passing Kilronan cemetery, he met a countryman, and enquired for O'Carolan. All the peasant did was to beckon him into the cemetery, point to a fresh grave, and weep. McCabe became unable to speak; his frame shook; his knees trembled; afteratime, he staggered to the grave, and sunk to the ground. Afloodof tears at last came to his relief, and then he vented his sorrow in an elegy, of which I append a stanza:

"St. Francis, St Dominic, listen,
St. Clare, and all Ye host of saints who glisten
On Heaven's high wall, Give welcome to Toralach's spirit,

Your ramparts among, And the voice of his harp ye shall hear it With glorious song." In 1750 O'Carolan's grave was opened to receive the remains of a priest, who last request was to be buried there. O'Carolan's skull was exhumed, and, as a mark of respect, was decorated with a black ribbon and placed by the Hon. Thomas Dillon (brother to the Earl of Roscommon) in a niche over the grave, where it remained an object of veneration and attraction for nearly fifty years. In 1796 it disappeared,

and a host of rumours grew up and excited the minds of the neighbours, and of many others, until all doubts were dispelled in our own day by the erudition and devotion of Chevalier Grattan-Flood, who has traced the relic successively to Castle Caldwell, thence to a museum in Belfast, and one of the last services this renowned scholar and artist rendered to our national bard was to have this priceless relic transferred (1926) to a fitting shrine in the National Museum, Dublin.

No lordly monument, no epitaph of learned length mark his grave. He sleeps in Kilronan—not quite forgotten—but neglected and unhonoured until his country awakens to "the deep debt so long due".


A statue of Turlough O'Carolan has been erected in Mohill.  The statue is by sculptor Oisín Kelly (1915-1981) whose other works include the statue of Jim Larkin in O'Connell St. in Dublin.  He had also been working on a statue of O'Carolan when he died.  The unfinished plaster model was prepared for casting by Lorna Skrine, who had been his assistant before his death. The finished bronze was unveiled in Mohill by President Hillery on 10th August 1986

A number of sites are dedicated to the life of O'Carolan -


All content © mohill.com 1999-2007.