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Rhythm A Day Blog for March 25, 2020: Passing of Turlough O'Carolan

Posted by Wolf Murphy on

Passing of Turlough O'Carolan

Turlough Carolan memorial - Dublin, Ireland

Lady Morgan's tribute to blind harpist O'Carolan,
in St. Patrick's Cathedral (Boomur/CC BY-SA)

Turlough O'Carolan, born in 1670 in Nobber, County Meath, was a blind Irish harper, composer and singer, considered by many to be Ireland's National Composer. As the memorial above states, many also consider him to be the last of the real Irish Bards.

He was blinded by smallpox at the age of eighteen. His father's employer had provided education for the boy, who showed talent for poetry, so she apprenticed him to a good harper. At 21 he was given a horse and a guide and travelled Ireland to compose songs, mostly for paying patrons. For nearly 5 decades he journeyed the whole of Ireland, composing and performing

In 1720, at 50, Carolan married Mary Maguire. They had seven children, six daughters and one son. Mary died in 1733; Turlough passed on March 25th of 1738.

He composed in a variety of styles. Numerous of his tunes are termed "Planxties," and there is a great deal of debate about the term!

planxty (n.)

The OED defines planxty as a "harp tune of a sportive and animated character" and states the word is of unknown origin. Carolan is the first known to have used the term.

The most likely origins for the word include:

  1. Latin plangere "to strike, beat" (from the ProtoIndoEuropean root Plak-, meaning to strike").
  2. Planc, the Irish word for a beat.
  3. Planncadh, the Irish term for striking a harp, + Tí/Tigh, house; thus perhaps meaning the striking of the harp for the house of _____; plausible because the Planxties are named after Carolan's Patrons, for example, Planxty Burke.

To me, this indicates that a Planxty was an upbeat composition with a rhythmic potency to it. From examining the tunes Carolan termed Planxties, we know that it was not a time signature reference, nor was it a reference to the key of the music; the interpretation I enjoy the most is that is refers to a composition that does not follow the predictable structures of other Irish harp tunes.

Typical Irish dance tunes have a very predictable 8 bar repeating structure of phrases—for example, AABB AABB AABB, eg. The Planxties often deviate from this; many have longer B sections than A sections and many also have very long
melody lines without direct repeats of phrases. For these reasons—unpredictability and surprising composition—these are among my favorites in all traditional Irish music.

Planxty Burke by Turlough O'Carolan
(Public Domain)

For today, we are going to celebrate Turlough O'Carolan by adapting Phrase A of his composition Planxty Burke for Djembe. This is a valuable technique for soloing: the ability to hear a musical expression, whether it is vocal, instrumental or percussive, and imitate it on your own instrument. So we are going to play the first 8 bars. 

Today's Vlog Lesson


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