Friday, March 1, 2013

O'Carolan's Beautiful Tunes

A couple weeks ago I attended the Hiram Irish Music Session organized by Professor Tina Dreisbach and her husband Paul. At this particular session Ellen Eckhouse played her harp. Among the songs she played was the O'Carolan tune "Eleanor Plunkett." I don't have a video of Ellen playing, but I found a nice video on Youtube of a fellow playing the tune, alterntating these instruments: Low D whistle; regular D penny whistle; and guitar. Here it is:

Turlough O'Carolan lived from 1670 to 1738 in Ireland. He was born in County Leitrim and grew up there and in County Roscommon. O'Carolan was struck with smallpox at age 18, which left him blind. To make a living, a patron apprenticed him to a harper. Three years later, with a horse and a guide, O'Carolan began traveling Ireland and playing and composing for his living. Often he would compose "planxties" to honor a patron--lots of these are extant and played throughout the world today. His tunes were accompanied by Irish lyrics. But what has survived to the present are the tunes; I've never even heard his lyrics sung.

It is said that his first tune was "Si Bheag, Si Mhor," which translates something like "Little Fairy Mound [or Hill], Big Fairy Mound." It is a magnificent tune, and one of my favorite. I first heard it around 1975 while at an old-timey fiddler festival near Union Grove, North Carolina--I was there with Timmy Jenkins (who, as far as I know, lives in Gays Mills, Wisconsin now). I can play this tune on piano, guitar, and whistle.

Other favorite O'Carolan tunes include:

Loftus Jones
O'Carolan's Draught
O'Carolan's Farewell to Music
Planxty Irwin
Fanny Power

I've heard these tunes on many recordings, including the works of Malcolm Dalglish and Grey Larsen, Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies, Patrick Ball, and many others. Many O'Carolan tunes are played at the Hiram session.

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