Carolan : the life times and music of an Irish harper
Last updated: 17.12.19
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O'Carolan - retun of the definitive Biography.
O'Sullivan's definitive biography of the 17th/18th century itinerant Irish harp player, composer, poet, troubadour and carouser Turlough O'Carolan, was originally published in two volumes in 1958. It has been reprinted many times since but latterly became unavailable to all but the most assiduous secondhand bookstore browsers until revived by Ossian Publications in Cork (with help from Taylor & Francis) in 2001. Sadly and ironically, the new publication preceded by only a year the death of Derek Bell, the greatest exponent of O'Carolan's work in our times.
Described on the sleeve notes of of one Bell's album's as "the book that should be on every Irish musisian's shelf", O'Sullivan's work is monumentally and impressively thorough. O'Sullivan was a civil servant and his prose at times reads like a Green Paper the style may in places be short on charisma but this book is long on facts and represents a life's work of the most thorough research (contrast Brian Keenan's recent novel "Turlough" which brings O'Carolan to life in a totally different way). Particularly impressive is O'Sullivan's overview of Irish history which sets O'Carolan's life and work beautifully in context. The prose is not all "civil service" it is laced with wit and at times rises to the occasion, when describing some of the more colourful episodes of Carolan's roisterous life.
But the most wonderful aspect of this book is its breadth. O'Sullivan is equally at home describing Irish political history, the social history of the Irish aristocracy or the academic detail of Carol's music and poetry. In addition to the most remarkably thorough research on Carolan's life and his patrons, the book contains single line scores of everything that he ever wrote that survives and a complete list which even includes material that does not survive. The book is full of wonderful snippets of information, such as the fact that a previous owner of the only portrait of O'Carolan to have survived (now in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin) was so attached to it that he carried it with him wherever he went, including on his travels around Europe. The book also contains short biographies of many other Irish musicians.
The new edition contains an excellent postscript Appendix by Bonnie Shaljean updating the state of the art in O'Carolan research since O'Sullivan's death. There is also an excellent index with 6 different classifications, one of the benefits of modern technology.
The new book is beautifully presented. It is in A4 format so the scores can be used for sight reading. It is available in hardback or softback editions to suit every pocket.
If you have ever tapped your feet to the Chieftans or Ceoltoiri Chualann, buy this book. If you don't know O'Carolan through his music but enjoy historical biography, buy it anyway, but prepare for a road to Damascus experience.