Saturday, October 12, 2013

Turlough O'Carolan, the Last of the Irish Bards (1670 - 1738)

by Arthur Russell

Who was the original composer of the music of The Star Spangled Banner?

In 1913, a high powered commission was formed to establish the authorship of the music that is now associated with “The Star Spangled Banner”, the National Anthem of the United States of America.  At that time, it was being sung as a patriotic song, but it was not until 1931 that the music with the accompanying high sounding words and sentiments was officially adopted as the nation’s anthem.

Turlough O'Carolan
Where did the music for the Star Spangled Banner come from? The commission sat long and in many venues across the country, deliberating this question, examining evidence from a variety of sources. They finally came to the conclusion that the music originated on the other side of the Atlantic – most probably in Ireland.

There was much debate that the origin was a London drinking song called “Anacreon in Heaven”, authored by John Stafford Smith in 1793. Strangely Smith never claimed copyright to the music as his own. This suggests that the music had earlier authorship. In an age when copyrighting was not as well developed as it is today, such things could and did happen.

Some expert opinions attribute the music to one of two possible Irish musicians who lived during the 18th century, one William McKeague from Co. Fermanagh who is credited by some for having composed it originally as the Regimental song for the Royal Inniskillings.

The other possibility is the man now considered to be  “The Last of the Irish Bards”, Turlough (pronounced ‘Tur-lock’) O’Carolan, who has left a truly impressive legacy of music which still inspires musicians, not just in Ireland, but all over the world.  It is considered that the structure and form of the music of the Star Spangled Banner is very similar in style to many pieces he composed over the course of forty years as a journeyman musician and composer.

Above - Turlough O'Carolan playing in an Irish "Big House"

Left - Statue of Turlough O,Carolan in his native Nobber, Co Meath

The O’Carolan composition considered the likely “ancestor” of the music is a piece called “Bumper Squire Jones” which honours the named gentleman as one of the composer’s patrons. This was composed by O’Carolan in 1723. The theory is that subsequently the tune of Squire Jones found its way to London where it was used by John Stafford Smith who added his own words to make a drinking song called “Anacreon in Heaven”. This was done at the behest of a gentleman’s club in London, which was dedicated to “wit, harmony and the god of wine”.

This song was apparently a “big hit” in certain circles during the late 18th and early 19th century before it traveled across the Atlantic; where it was modified and used by Francis Scott Key as music for his composition commemorating the Battle of Fort MacHenry in September 1814. In this battle the occupying British Navy was defeated by the embryonic American Navy.

From there the song became first a patriotic song throughout the United States, until it was eventually declared the National Anthem in 1931, two years after the fact that the nation had no official anthem was brought to the attention of millions of Americans by the popular 'Ripley's Believe it or Not’ radio programme.

Who was Turlough O’Carolan?

The so-called “Last of the Irish Bards” was born near the oddly named village of Nobber in County Meath in 1678, where he lived the first 18 years of his life.  His father was a small farmer and blacksmith. Turlough’s earliest works (musical and poetic) were dedicated to his first love, Bridget Cruise who lived nearby. In all he composed four pieces in this young lady’s honour.

At about this time, two significant events occurred in the young man’s life.

For some unrecorded and unknown reason, the entire O’Carolan family moved from Meath to the North Roscommon/Leitrim area west of the River Shannon where John Carolan was hired as blacksmith by the MacDermott Roe family of Alderford, near the village of Ballyfarnon. No doubt, the pain of his departure from his beloved Bridget inspired young Turlough's artistic heart to compose some his earliest pieces that still bear her name.

The second watershed event which occurred around this time was when Turlough was struck by the dreaded disease, smallpox, for which there was then no known cure. Resulting from this, Turlough O’Carolan would spend the rest of his life sightless.

For many at that time, to be blind was an unimaginable tragedy and meant that one so afflicted was likely to have nothing but beggary to look forward to in life. Perhaps recognising a hidden talent in the young man, the lady of the MacDermott Roe household caused him to be taught to play the Celtic harp, a instrument equipped with steel as opposed to gut strings, as was normal in Continental Europe.

After serving an apprenticeship with a local harpist, during which he mastered the instrument without being particularly brilliant as a performer, Mary McDermott Roe supplied him with a horse, a little money and a guide and sent him forth to visit and entertain the great and the good of society in the immediate district, hoping he would thereby make a decent living for himself. This was how O’Carolan found his place in society, as well as in the history of Ireland.

As he travelled from one “Big House” to the next, he entertained with his harp. He never quite succeeded in becoming a brilliant harpist. It was as a composer of music that he made his reputation. As he travelled far and wide his popularity grew so that he was welcomed into the houses of the gentry. He ranged far and wide over in the northern half of Ireland, composing music for patrons who were generous with their support and warmly recommended him to neighbours and friends.

Many of the pieces that were subsequently written and preserved for posterity bear the names of his many patrons. Many are called “Planxties” and are bright lively pieces. Some pieces were composed to commemorate historical events of his time and favour older, traditional Irish musical forms, slow and sorrowful, but nonetheless sweet and memorable. Some reflect the various traumas of Ireland during O’Carolan's lifetime. One such is the “Lament for Owen Rua O’Neill” which commemorates the death of the capable general who might have, had he lived, offered much sterner resistance to Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides who ravaged Ireland between 1649 – 52. Such distinctly “Irish” pieces are considered by purists to be superior to O’Carolan’s other work.

While his music was grounded in the ancient Celtic style, the composer was influenced by the Baroque style which was then becoming increasingly popular among both Anglo-Irish and residual Irish gentry. O’Carolan is thus regarded as a bridge between Irish and non-Irish musical styles, helping the older forms to survive so that they could be heard and appreciated by subsequent generations.

The Gregarious Music Composer

There is no shortage of interesting, many of them amusing stories and anecdotes about O’Carolan’s peregrinations around the Irish countryside of his day. All attest to his gregarious nature as well as his popularity. His chosen musical profession gave him plenty of opportunities to combine two of his favourite pastimes – music and social drinking! No wonder such titles as O’Carolan’ s Cup, Carolan's Cap, Carolan's Draught, Carolan's Dream, Carolan's Frolic, Carolan's Maggot, Carolan's Quarrel with the Landlady appear in his impressive repertoire of compositions.

During his travelling he rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of Irish Society. He counted Dean Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels and Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin) among his many aquaintances with whom he shared music as well as (no doubt), the odd alcoholic beverage. The Dean is known to have commented on O’Carolan’s fondness for “the juice of the barley”.

The itinerant music maker also met foreign musical composers who visited Dublin, some of whom showed professional interest in his music. Geminiani, the Italian master, actually challenged him to compose a piece in Italian style, which O’Carolan duly did. This opus now goes under the title of “O’Carolan’s Concerto” which is performed by many modern artists.

In spite of his busy itinerary over so many years, he found time to marry a lady called Mary Maguire from County Fermanagh, with whom he had 6 daughters and one son. Mary died in 1730, an event which affected O’Carolan deeply and probably accelerated his own demise seven years later. Obviously, life and destiny had conspired that he would never marry his first love, Bridget Cruise, though he never forgot her. There is an interesting story about a pilgrimage he made much later in life to St Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, County Donegal, where he helped a lady pilgrim disembark from the boat that carried pilgrims to and from the island. Apparently after so many years; he recognized by touch the delicate hand he was holding as that of his beloved Bridget from the birthplace he had left as a young man.

O'Carolan's grave in Kilronan churchyard

In March 1737, feeling death was close; he returned to the house of his first patroness, Mary McDermott Roe in Alderford, who nursed him through his final illness. It is recorded that his funeral was a major event, lasting 3 days, and was attended by thousands, among whom were many of his hosts and patrons from four long decades. He was laid to rest in Kilronan graveyard, near Keadue in County Roscommon.

O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music

His final musical composition, “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” was composed just days before he died in Alderford. One of the finest versions of this evocative piece is probably that recorded by Derek Bell, the former harpist (now sadly deceased) of the world renowned Irish traditional music group, The Chieftains, who have faithfully interpreted and performed O’Carolan music for going on six decades. They more than anyone else have brought the music of the old master to new audiences in Ireland and the world.

 As for O'Carolan's authorship of the music that eventually became "The Star Spangled Banner", absolute certainty may never be possible to absolute prove. I as a fellow "Nobberigini" (as we citizens of Nobber are sometimes called), have to admit to being seriously biased on the issue. I simply cannot think of a more worthy composer of the prestigious piece than Turlough O'Carolan, the Last of the Irish Bards. I like to think of it as our rural village's gift to the American nation.

Further Reading - The definitive story of Turlough O’Carolan, is told in the well researched two volume publication - The Life and Times of an Irish Bard by Donal O’Sullivan (1983), which tells not just the life and times of Turlough O’Carolan, but sets down over 200 of his musical pieces, along with the story of each, where such information is available.


Arthur Russell is author of ‘Morgallion’, a historic novel which is set in medieval Ireland during the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce (1315-18), the last High-King of Ireland. Morgallion is the old name for the district in County Meath, where Turlough O’Carolan, the Last of the Irish Bards, was born and grew up.

See more on website


  1. There was also a delightful novel by Caisal Mor, Carolan's Concerto, but it's a fantasy novel and suggests that he got his abilities after a night with the fairies who, however, take away his sight via the illness in return for the gift of music. The author is himself a musician who plays the Celtic harp and composes music for it.

  2. Thanks for this interesting snippet. One of his earliest "professional" compositions is called "Sí Beag, Sí Mór" which was inspired by two hills that spoke to each other at night (Sí is the Gaelic word for fairy) - so he was obviously aware of the fairies.
    I will try to find Caisal Mor's novel. Thanks again.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.