O’Carolan The Harper

The ancient Irish harpers were professionals of the highest order. Because their status was one of great honor, their training was long and rigorous. It generally began before the age of 10, and the student had to become the absolute master of three forms of Irish music, the history of the instrument, its maintenance, and all of the scales and arpeggios related to it. It’s no wonder that then, that the excellence of Irish harpers was recognized world wide. Dante praised them with rare admiration, as did Francis Bacon, who wrote, “No harp hath a sound so melting and prolonged as the Irish harp.” In 1165, Giraldis Di Barri wrote, “On musical instruments the Irish are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen.” Vincenzo Gallileci, famed opera master of Florence, revealed in 1581 that the Italians derived their knowledge of the harp from Irish masters.

Harpers were so highly respected that Irish Kings competed to maintain the best in service to their court, and there are many accounts in ancient Irish manuscripts that indicate the esteem in which they were held. One reads, “At the banquet, there were nine seated in front, with nine blue flowing cloaks and nine brooches of gold. Nine crystal rings were upon their hands, a thumb ring of gold on the thumb of each, clasps of gold on the ears of each, a torque of silver on the neck of each, and nine shields with golden emblazonment above them on the wall. There were nine wands of white silver in their hands for they were the King’s nine harpers.”

Originally supported by Gaelic aristocracy, Irish harpers later found patrons among the Norman Irish families like the Butlers and Fitzgeralds. However, that was soon to change. One of the ways in which England tried to subdue Ireland, was by replacing her heritage, culture, and traditions with English values. But the bards and harpers kept that ancient tradition alive.

Because their song and verse praised Ireland, freedom, and their Gaelic lifestyle, the English considered harpers, rhymers, and poets as dangerous and seditious persons. By the close of the 17th century, laws were enacted forbidding Norman or English homes from supporting Bards and Harpers. As Gaelic aristocracy was gradually subdued or disenfranchised, many of the harpers lost their patrons and took to the roads in an effort to keep their tradition alive. Across the face of Ireland, they composed and sang of their Gaelic past in return for a night of food and shelter.

Of all the Bards Erin ever produced, the last and perhaps the greatest was Turlough O’Carolan. Born in 1670 in Co. Meath, he was blind – either from birth or from a childhood bout with smallpox. A kindly local woman named McDermott Roe felt that she could help, and had the young man trained on the harp. The young O’Carolan was inspired and truly motivated by music. It was obvious that he was gifted with a natural ability, and Mrs. McDermott Roe became his patron. O’Carolan absorbed not only the sean nos, or old style, singing of his forebears, but the contemporary music of his own time. He became renowned as a poet, musician, and composer, singing his own verses to his harp. When he decided to take to the road to expand his learning and to share his ability with others, Mrs. McDermott Roe bought him a beautiful harp and a horse with which to travel.

O’Carolan seemed destined for his calling for he was gifted with an extraordinary memory. Once when challenged by another musician to a test of skill, O’Carolan played back the challenger’s composition note for note with enhancements that made it a far superior composition – a feat that was later attributed to Mozart.

O’Carolan married once in his career and had several children, but when his wife died in 1733, he took to the road again, gladly received and provided for in return for his beautiful compositions – more than 200 of which have survived to this day.

Most have become a standard part of the musical repertoire of some of the most respected classical companies and artists in the world. Throughout the years, O’Carolan’s melodies, originally composed for the harp, have been translated to dozens of instruments by hundreds of artists and used to support various sets of lyrics. One O’Carolan Planxty, used to support a poem written by the President of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century amateur musicians club in London, became their official song. In 1814, that tune was used to support a poem called the Defense of Fort McHenry which was published as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1992, Shanachie Records released a CD entitled The Music of O’Carolan containing 14 of his works performed by classical guitarists.

O’Carolan remained a wandering minstrel until March of 1738. It was then that the ailing 68-year-old Bard returned to the Alderford, Co. Roscommon home of the McDermott Roe family, where he was met at the door by the surviving members of the McDermott Roe clan. “I have returned,” he said, “I have gone through it all, and only death is left. Shall my patrons still provide like when I got my first learning, and my first horse?” The old Bard was led to an upstairs bed to be cared for. On the 25 of March, he called for his harp, and lifting his beloved instrument he composed his last beautiful melody – O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music. Then God’s angels welcomed the master into the heavenly choir.

Flight of the Earls

Four hundred years ago the last of Irish royalty left Ireland and the Gaelic system of government came to an end. It would be known in history as the Flight of the Earls and it happened on September 4, 1607. Most are familiar with the English incursions into Ireland over the years since the Norman invasion and the opposition of the Irish Chieftains. Some led rebellions, others sought cooperation, and a few tried both.

Up to the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), southern Ireland had been divided into properties ruled by ‘earls’ created by the Crown. They were mostly independent but Henry VIII introduced a new dimension to the status quo when he broke with the church in 1534 and declared himself the head of the Church of England. The Pope excommunicated him and many of Ire-land’s earls sided with the Catholic Church. The earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas Fitzgerald, denounced his allegiance to Henry, arguing that excommunication had stripped him of legitimacy. Henry responded with force and in 1537 Fitzgerald and five of his uncles were executed in London. Henry made the Protestant faith a priority of his reign, a policy continued by his successors. Thus was the centuries-old struggle between the Irish and English transformed into one between Irish Catholic and English Protestant.

Henry’s plan for Ireland led to many conflicts. His successors, Mary (1553-58) and Elizabeth (1558-1603), fought many up-risings trying to impose British authority and the Church of England on the Irish earls. They fought Shane O’Neill (1560-67) and the Desmond Fitzgeralds (1569-73, and 1579-83), as well as daily violence against Crown loyalists. In 1587, Spain was preparing her Armada to invade England and Elizabeth realized she could not muster her full resources against the Spanish while the threat of rebellion existed in Ireland. Though Anglo Normans con-trolled the south, the major clans of the north remained un-conquered, and she was deter-mined to resolve that issue. The English decided to capture Enniskillen, Hugh Maguire’s fort at the Gap of the North the main access to Ulster. Hugh O’Donnell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell, answered his call for aid, and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the Eng-lish before them; they broke through the Gap of the North, and recaptured Enniskillen, then routed the English at the Ford of the Biscuits. They next moved on Fort Monaghan, and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert, where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Clan O’Neill had taken the field, and at their head was Hugh O’Neill, England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone. He had announced at last, destroying an English company in the bargain. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains, the three Hughs of Ulster were now a national force with O’Neill commanding; he had 1,000 horse soldiers and 7,000 foot soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west. The Nine Year’s War had begun. O’Neill took the title, “The O’Neill,” essentially proclaiming himself high king – a position not held since Brian Boru’s death in 1014. His goal, he made clear, was to gain protection for the Catholic religion and to ensure that Ireland be ruled by the Irish.

The three Hughes scored victories against Crown forces, most notably at the Battle of Yellow Ford in 1598. But a huge British force under Lord Mountjoy eventually ended the Nine Years War at the Battle of Kinsale in late 1601 in which Hugh Maguire was killed. O’Neill kept up guerilla raids while O’Donnell went to Spain to negotiate aid hoping to outlive the aging Elizabeth who would be succeeded by the Catholic James Stuart. Offers of leniency were refused by O’Neill, but when he learned that O’Donnell had been poisoned in Spain, the greatest Irish Chieftain of his age came in, on March 30, 1603, to surrender to Lord Mountjoy. He pledged obedience before the Irish Parliament on April 3. Then, after the ceremony of submission he was told: Elizabeth of England had died on March 24! James Stuart of Scotland was now James I of England. O’Neill had won and never knew it. He and his nation had outlasted the Queen only to be tricked into submission by Lord Mountjoy before agreements with James could be ratified. O’Neill was allowed to keep his land, and his earldom, but lost his lordship over Ulster’s chieftains who were all made earls of the Crown, ending the Irish title of High King forever.

In the years that followed O’Neill’s rebellion, the restored earls of Ulster still possessed clan lands, but faced a growing number of English settlers and a hostile administration. Then, in 1607, London summoned O’Neill and O’Donnell’s successor to answer charges of planning another rebellion. Knowing that English planters were ready to seize their lands, O’Neill and O’Donnell surmised that their destruction was at hand. Their only course was escape. The hearts of the Irish were broken as the noblest princes of Erin Ruari O’Donnell and his brothers; Conor Maguire, brother of the slain Hugh; Hugh O’Neill and his three sons and 100 other earls sailed from Lough Swilly in what became known as The Flight of the Earls. The last Irish defense against English tyranny went with them.

They eventually landed in the Spanish Netherlands and from there proceeded to Rome. Their hopes of returning to liberate Ireland with a Catholic army soon dissipated and they lived out their years on meager papal pensions. O’Neill died there in 1616. The English government seized the opportunity and the fleeing earls were tried in absentia and convicted of treason, the penalty for which was forfeiture of their land. With 500,000 acres of land now in its possession, the Crown began a settlement program known as the Ulster Plantation. Its ultimate goal was to create a loyal population in Ulster through the settlement of thousands of non-Irish Protestants. Although it took a few decades to take hold, the Plantation of Ulster had a dramatic impact on the course of Irish history. Not only did it wipe out much of the province’s native Irish leadership by eliminating the holdings of the 101 Irish Earls who fled, but it threw open the province to settlement by tens of thousands of English and Scottish Protestants. By the 1630s, in six Ulster counties, Protestants owned 3 million out of the 3.5 million acres of land.