O'Carolan remembered in harpers' tributes to legendary blind Irish bard


Rain fell on the statue of Turlough O'Carolan , now a landmark looking up the main street in Mohill, Co Leitrim. This is the village where the blind harper, at the age of 50 in 1720, on being given land by his patrons, the Crofton family, finally built a home of his own about 1720.

Yesterday harpers and a piper, stood on the site of O'Carolan's home. Now only a pile of stones and rubble remain. The ruins of the Crofton mansion, Lakefield House, continues to stand. It is a house in which O'Carolan often played his tunes, the music lingers as does the enduring presence of the minstrel who was so revered that his wake in 1738 spanned four days.

O'Carol-an's music was celebrated in two concerts during the weekend's Leitrim Fleadh. Performed by the members of the National Harp Orchestra under Janet Harbison, O'Carolan's tunes, of which more than 200 survive, thanks initially to the power of the oral folk memory and from the mid-19th century, to the work of Edward Bunting who notated the work and helped preserve it, the music retains its sense of period as well as its mood shifts from the lively to the melancholic.

On Sunday evening in the ballroom of the local hotel, 17 members of the National Harp Orchestra, took their places and performed some of the pieces O'Carolan had written for patrons, many of whom were also friends. The ethereal quality of the harp was complemented by the haunting keening of the uilleann pipes as played by Ryan Murphy from Cork. The absence of local man, writer John McGahern was noted and a tune was played, in honour of his memory.

Tunes such as Planxty Brown, Eleanor Plunkett, Planxty Irwin, Fanny Brown and Hewlett as well as his most famous work, O'Carolan's Concerto first performed in the home of Jonathan Swift, shimmered on the air. The melodic music is delicate and precise, the work of Ireland's first great composer.

O'Carolan was the Irish Vivaldi, shaped in part by the Italian school and a product of the age of the Baroque.

Among the harpers playing on Sunday was a young Co Tipperary girl, aged 15 and already one of the finest Irish dancers in the world. As the music played on, she waited for her note and then left her harp, and took her place on the small platform and executed intricate dance steps and high leaps without ever allowing the sheer athleticism of her performance overshadow the grace. There was an otherworldly quality about her dancing. Ciara Callanan Ryan lives in Leap Castle, the most haunted house in Ireland.

Earlier in the day, the orchestra had performed an outdoor recital on a stage erected beside O'Carolan's monument which depicts him in bronze, larger than life, and playing his harp. The rain poured down, but the music continued as did the various musical competitions. Almost 20 teenagers competed in the tin whistle event. Through his career as a wandering musician, Turlough O'Carolan, who had been born in Nobber in Co Meath in 1670 and was blinded by smallpox at the age of 14, travelled throughout the northwest and was always guaranteed a welcome. His one enemy was the rain. And on Sunday it rained on the current generation of harpers, most of whom say it was O'Carolan's music that inspired them to play the harp, and several of the younger ones want to travel the world, playing the master's tunes.