Book Review: Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper – Donal O’Sullivan

Book Review: Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper – Donal O’Sullivan

A review of the reissue of Donal O'Sullivan's Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper.

It was a great pleasure to be asked to review this book for the JMI; a pleasure augmented when I actually received my review copy — which was the paperback version. Just around the same time I was able to examine the hardback version and I was even more impressed. The book is a joy to handle and the design and layout are beautiful. In day to day use it is also a pleasure!

I would like to declare a peripheral interest at this point: I had a small input into the production of Ossian’s very first publication in 1980. Also, Ossian publishes a number of books of arrangements of mine along with the CD O’Carolan’s Feast featuring the Douglas Gunn Ensemble (DGE). Perhaps I should say something about the contents of the book and its author. Donal O’Sullivan was born in Liverpool in 1893. After a career in the Civil Service in London and Dublin he was called to the bar in 1922. He became clerk of the Senate in 1925, retiring in 1936 to devote himself to study and research in Irish traditional music having been editor of the Journal of Irish Folk Song Society from 1920. He was one time Director of Studies in Irish Folk Music and Song at UCD and was also a member of the International Folk Music Council.

The book is a reissue — updated — in a single volume, and in a slightly larger A4 format, of Donal O’Sullivan’s (nearly-) definitive work Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, originally published in two volumes in London by Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1958 (the ‘nearly’ is explained below). The new single volume format is much more convenient and weighs only 1.3kg in paperback (the hardback is 1.6kg) as against the combined weight of the 2 volumes of the original edition at 1.9kg! The six sections into which the book is divided give some indication of the breadth and range of subject matter:

(1) Part one: The Life and Times — 29 chapters covering all aspects of Carolan’s biography, influences, anecdotes, etc.

(2) Part two: The Music — All the tunes known in 1958 to be by Carolan — including some doubtful attributions.

(3) Part three: The Notes to the Tunes — Invaluable, detailed and extensive background notes to the tunes. A vast amount of information.

(4) Part four: The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill — O’Neill was one of the blind harpers who attended the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. He formed a lasting friendship with Edward Bunting who had been commissioned to write down the music that the harpers played. He dictated these memoirs to Bunting. They make absolutely riveting reading.

(5) Appendix to the 2001 edition — This section is the work of the Harpist Bonnie Shaljean. It is excellently researched and presented. It corrects a number of points in the original text and represents ‘findings which have come to light since O’Sullivan published his original work’, some of which significantly effect the validity of a number of O’Sullivan’s conclusions. Included are about twenty tunes newly attributed or discovered. So it is probably never possible to describe a book such as this as ‘definitive’ — there will always be ongoing research.

(6) Indexes — There are six indexes: ‘Index of The Tunes’, ‘ … of Persons’,
‘ … of Places’, ‘ … of First Lines’,
‘ … of Tunes mentioned in the text and notes’ and ‘General Index’. Computer re-setting has allowed the indexes to be somewhat expanded and made more useful.

In connection with the latter point, a practical detail is the positioning of the page numbers on the page. It makes a big difference to the ease of use of the indexes. Take the following as an example: I want to look up a particular reference to Belfast, but cannot remember exactly where it is — a common enough occurrence I find! There are 14 references to Belfast in the index, covering in all 23 pages of text. At the best of times this is a tedious task, tending to fray the nerves, so anything that makes it more taxing is to be avoided at all costs: page numbers in the middle of the page are in this category! Especially if your next task is to look up a reference to Balanagare, which has 18 entries in the index covering goodness knows how many pages! I know that there is no consensus amongst typographers and book designers on this, but in a book like this where the above scenario is likely to be a constantly repeated, may I ask for the page numbers to be near the outside edge of the page — bottom preferably? Maybe I’m being fussy, but I think it does make things easier.

Strangely, the 1958 edition had no index of tunes, presumably because the tunes were in alphabetical order. But this did not allow cross-referencing where a tune may be known by more than one title, and O’Sullivan tended to opt for the more ‘correct’ title rather than the more popular. As a result there were several extraordinary anomalies that thankfully have been removed in the new edition. For example, ‘Carolan’s Concerto’ was listed under P for ‘Mrs Power’, and ‘Carolan’s Receipt’ was under S for ‘Dr John Stafford’! O’Sullivan doesn’t mention ‘Carolan’s Welcome’ as a title at all (no. 171, and listed by him as ‘without title’). This has intrigued me since I did an arrangement of the tune for my Ensemble, which we included in the O’Carolan’s Feast CD mentioned above. I now learn by courtesy of Bonnie Shaljean’s excellent appendix that the title came about because the Chieftains played it to welcome the Pope on his visit to Ireland in 1979.

One small detail, understandably, passed Bonnie Shaljean’s net, and I certainly would have communicated it had I known that this book was in the pipeline. It came to my attention in a letter I received from Máire Sweeney of County Clare after a programme about Carolan that I presented, with the DGE, on RTÉ Radio in 1977. In introducing the tune Lord Inchiquin and talking about the only extant portrait of him painted from life, I mentioned, quoting O’Sullivan, that the family seat of the 4th Earl of Inchiquin was Dromoland Castle. However, Máire Sweeney pointed out that whereas the Lord Inchiquin of the time was certainly the 4th Earl of Inchiquin, Dromoland was never the seat of an Earl of Inchiquin. His line had an ancestral seat and estate at O’Brien’s Bridge. The Inchiquin Earldom died out in 1855 at which time the O’Briens of Dromoland succeeded to an earlier title, that of Viscount Inchiquin (also Lord). So the Lords Inchiquin were at Dromoland only from that point onwards. A small matter perhaps but worth taking on board in a future edition. It doesn’t affect O’Sullivan’s argument one way or the other. Incidentally this portrait is beautifully reproduced on the front cover of the book.

Carolan has on occasion been criticised for the ‘crudity’ of his occasional phrases of 7 bars. Two examples spring to mind: ‘Bumper Squire Jones’ and ‘Lord Louth’. O’Sullivan does not hesitate to ‘correct’ the latter, but leaves the former alone. Why? Because of course we have the words of ‘Bumper Squire Jones’ to confirm the phrase length. Carolan was a devotee of the music of Corelli. Anyone who has studied or performed Corelli, especially perhaps the Trio Sonatas, will know that 7 bar phrases (and other irregular lengths) abound! We have given countless performances of both pieces (and indeed the Trio Sonatas!) and no-one has ever commented on the irregular phrase lengths.

This was O’Sullivan’s most important work and we should be grateful to Ossian Publications for making it available once again to an ever widening public for Carolan’s music. It is a magnificent production for which John Loesberg and his team (including the printer: Colour Books of Dublin) have good reason to be proud and are to be thoroughly congratulated.

Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper
Donal O’Sullivan.
Ossian Publications, Cork
Hardback £35.95 Paperback £27.95

Published on 1 July 2001

Douglas Gunn specialises in early music and is perhaps best known for his work with the Douglas Gunn Ensemble. He has made a special study of music by Irish composers of the 17th and 18th centuries and has arranged, performed and recorded much of Carolan's music. He is also a composer.

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