by Ken MacDermotRoe

 In the twilight of the Gaelic culture as the English occupation lay heavy upon Ireland, a young blind harpist set out on a journey to compose and perform music for the gentry. In the course of his fifty year journey, the blind harpist created a body of work that did more to preserve Irish culture than ten regiments of soldiers. His name was Turlough O'Carolan and his patrons were the MacDermots Roe.

O'Carolan (1670-1738) was born near Nobber in County Meath. His family like many others lost its land to English confiscation and was compelled to move west of the Shannon. They settled in the vicinity of Carrick-on-Shannon.

O'Carolan's father, John, found employment with the MacDermot Roe family of Alderford in Kilronan Parish of County Roscommon. The MacDermots Roe operated iron foundries at several locations in Kilronan including at Ballyfarnon near Alderford.
It is likely that John O'Carolan was a blacksmith as this skill would have been extremely useful in the ironworks operation.

When Turlough O'Carolan was a teenager, he was afflicted with small pox. While the disease did not take his life, it took his sight.

Mary Fitzgerald MacDermot Roe, the wife of Henry Baccach, took young O'Carolan under her care. At the time, Mary was a young woman, perhaps only 5 years older than O'Carolan, and probably had young children of her own. Nonetheless, she saw to it that O'Carolan's education continued despite his blindness. The two continued to have a close relationship throughout their lives.

As a blind youngster in the 17th century, O'Carolan's career opportunities were greatly restricted. Recognizing that the boy had musical ability, Mary had O'Carolan instructed in the harp by a MacDermot Roe cousin. The harp was the instrument most closely associated with traditional Irish music. It had been used to entertain Irish chiefs and their clans at gatherings from time immemorial.

When O'Carolan was about 21, Henry and Mary gave Turlough a horse and a servant and encouraged him to travel around Ireland to perform for gentry. Since there were many itinerant harpers in Ireland at the time, no one knew that the MacDermot Roe patronage would have a profound influence on Irish culture.

O'Carolan's first stop was at the home of George Reynolds of Letterfian, County Longford. Reynolds suggested to the harpist that he try composing an original composition based on a competition between the fairy hosts of two neighboring hills. The result was O'Carolan's first composition, "Sheebeg and Sheemor". The tune, among the most beautiful of all his songs, demonstrated his great gift as composer.

Until his death, O'Carolan traveled from home to home, composing and performing songs for his distinguished hosts. In addition to the MacDermots Roe, O'Carolan was especially close to their friends the O'Conor's of Belanagare. O'Carolan instructed Charles O'Conor, 1710-1791, the famous historian, in the harp. The O'Conor's while in exile from Belanagare lived for many years at Knockmore, Kilmactranny, within walking distance of Alderford.

In the tradition of ancient bards, O'Carolan set his songs to words of praise for his host. He would often compose tunes while traveling and then create lyrics for the family he was next to visit. It is generally agreed that his artistic fame rests on his music rather than his lyrics. However, the songs are an important source of historical information about the prominent Irish families in the region in which he traveled.

O'Carolan was greatly in demand for special events. He performed for the O'Conors on the occasion of their first Christmas in their new home at Belanagare. He, also, performed at patrons' weddings and composed elegies on the death of famous Irishmen.

The great romantic interest of O'Carolan's life was Bridget Cruise who lived near Nobber, Meath. He composed several songs for her. Unfortunately, the love was unrequited. Bridget married a member of the prominent Anglo-Irish Barnewall family of Meath.

In 1720, O'Carolan, now 50, married young Mary Maguire. The couple had seven children, one boy and six girls and lived in Mohill, County Leitrim. Mary died in 1733.

Throughout his career, O'Carolan often returned to stay with the MacDermots Roe at Alderford. He regarded them as his second family and composed many songs in their honor. Among those which have been preserved are "Henry MacDermot Roe", "Elizabeth MacDermot Roe" and "Mrs. MacDermot Roe".

In 1738 when O'Carolan sensed that his end was near, he returned to Alderford to be with Mary MacDermot Roe and her family. Mary personally attended to O'Carolan during his final illness. She was at his bedside when he died along with Eleanor O'Conor who married Mary's youngest son Charles.

As news of O'Carolan's passing spread, Ballyfarnon, the village by Alderford, was engulfed with mourners. After a wake of four days, O'Carolan's body was loaded on a hearse by pall bearers that included Mary's sons, Charles of Alderford and Father Thomas MacDermot Roe, later Bishop of Ardagh. At the burial attended by upwards of 60 clergymen, O'Carolan was interred in the MacDermot Roe chapel at nearby Kilronan Abbey.

O'Carolan has been called the last of the great bards. The tradition of traveling harpers performing for the gentry declined to virtual extinction in the 18th century. Harp playing itself became something of a rarity of in the 19th century.

Fortunately, musicologists preserved many of O'Carolan's compositions. His songs played a crucial part in the revival of Celtic music which began in the late 20th century. Important musical groups such as the Chieftains with famed harpist Derek Bell included many of O'Carolan's compositions in their repertoire. Indeed, today there are a tremendous number of CDs available featuring O'Carolan's works. Among those that are exclusively devoted to his composition is "Celtic Treasure, the legacy of Turlough O'Carolan", Narada Media, 1996.

Irish music is a very important part of Irish culture. It has, also, played a very important role in the music of North America. Irish music is incarnated in North America in such forms as blue grass and country music and these musical genres in turn have a strong influence on popular music globally. It may be said that in their patronage of O'Carolan, the MacDermots Roe helped preserve the Gaelic musical tradition, not just for Ireland, but also, for the world.

 Copyright Biatach 2014

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