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Stairway to Carolan – An Irishman’s Diary on the part a blind 18th-century harper played in the ultimate rock anthem

Turlough Carolan as depicted on the £50 note

The musician Turlough Carolan, who died 280 years ago today, is sometimes said to have been a “rockstar” of his era.  

This doesn’t mean he took drugs, bedded groupies, or trashed hotel rooms. But there is at least one respect in which he measures up well to latter-day rock gods. He may have written the intro to Stairway to Heaven.

Among the 200-odd tunes the blind harper composed (or “improved” from traditional sources) was one called Carolan’s Dream, the melody of which bears a striking resemblance to the Led Zeppelin song, widely considered the greatest of all rock anthems.

Ireland’s national composer, as Carolan is also known, is not in a position to sue for plagiarism. But as it happens, the intro to Stairway has been the recent subject of litigation, thanks to another band from Zeppelin’s heyday, Spirit.  

He had a song called ‘Ascension to Heaven’. Bert Jansch then did that on guitar, and I’m telling you, ‘Ascension to Heaven’ by O’Carolan, is ‘Stairway to Heaven’

In 2014, they took a case against their more famous contemporaries on behalf of a former – and by then dead – guitarist, Randy California (real surname Wolfe), seeking a posthumous credit for the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven.  

Their case was that the latter was inspired by a Spirit song called Taurus, written two years before Stairway in 1968, and that Led Zeppelin would have been aware of that song because they had been the warm-up act for Spirit on a 1969 tour.

A Los Angeles court ruled in 2016 that plagiarism had not occurred, although the decision has since been appealed.  

But in the meantime, another Randy – Bachman, of Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame – who had been a friend of California, weighed in with his version of how the Stairway intro came about.

As quoted by the website of a US rock radio station, KSHE95, he claimed the music was in fact hundreds of years old: “I have something from the 14th century, a harpist, who’s (sic) name was Turlough O’Carolan, who was blind. He went from yard to yard – he had a dog that led him. He would stand at your front gate, ’cause he couldn’t see the house – and play this little harp. He had a song called ‘Ascension to Heaven’. Bert Jansch then did that on guitar, and I’m telling you, ‘Ascension to Heaven’ by O’Carolan, is ‘Stairway to Heaven’.”

If the rock station quoted him correctly, Bachman was three centuries out in his placement of the harper, who was born in 1670. Nor is Carolan’s Dream listed anywhere I can find as Ascension to Heaven.

But the Bert Jansch connection is certainly plausible, and would explain a lot.  

The Scottish guitarist and songwriter was prominent in the British folk revival of the 1960s, did indeed play Carolan tunes, and influenced many musicians on either side of the Atlantic. He may well have sown seeds that grew into Stairway.

The official history of the song’s origins is that the intro was written when Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were staying in a cottage in northwest Wales in 1970. So perhaps a different Spirit was implicated: Carolan’s still-wandering one, floating across the sea on a breeze.

When played on fiddle or pipes, it sounds very Irish. On harpsichord or dulcimer, it veers towards the stately European Baroque

If not “yard to yard”, the harper did spend all his adult life travelling from house to house in Ireland, playing and composing in return for hospitality. Thus the titles of most of his tunes, which are usually just the names of patrons. The nearest to a suggestion of the rockstar lifestyle in any is Carolan’s Quarrel with the Landlady.  

That said, he did also compose variations on a Scottish air called Cock Up Your Beaver, which would not sound out of place in the spoof rockumentary Spinal Tap, although in fact it’s a very old song, dating back to a time when (as mentioned in Hamlet), a beaver was a helmet-visor. The title means nothing ruder than “show your face”.

His accidental rock-stardom aside, Carolan’s music straddles two worlds. When played on fiddle or pipes, it sounds very Irish. On harpsichord or dulcimer, it veers towards the stately European Baroque of such Carolan contemporaries as Bach and Vivaldi.  

Half a century after his death, interestingly, when his music featured at the United Irishmen’s Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, one of the older performers, Carolan’s contemporary Denis O’Hampsey – by then almost 100 – complained it was too “modern”.

Carolan himself lived to be a mere 68. Sensing the end, he had returned to the home of his regular patrons, the MacDermott-Roe family of Ballyfarnan, where he died on Saturday, March 25th, 1738. The last tune he played there, before setting aside his harp forever, is known as Carolan’s Farewell to Music.