Also known as An Dall Mhac Chuarta, Blind McCourt, James Courtney
(See A Hidden Ulster pp.217-23; 337-43 for full references and further information)
Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (c.1650-1733) is known as a poet rather than as a harper, but he had close connections with harpers and harp songs, and is believed to have played the harp.
It is reputed that he collaborated with poet and harper Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin on composing airs for his songs; he and Mac Giolla Fhiondáin also met with harper Carolan on the Cooley peninsula at the beginning of the 18th century, who remarked to Mac Cuarta, on first hearing him play: ‘Is bonn bog bréagach a sheineas tú’ (Your playing is soft and sweet but untrue), suggesting that Mac Cuarta, like many of his fellow and sister poets, played the harp. They reputedly met in Strandfield House at Ballynascanlon, where Captain Malcolm McNeill and his daughter Betty MacNeill lived (AHU p. 338) and for whom he composed a song.
Carolan also composed songs for the MacNeills.
Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta is ranked as the ﬁnest of the south Ulster poets. Much of his life was probably spent in Omeath, as he is very much associated with that part of Louth, both in his poems and in local folklore. He also travelled around parts of Louth and along the Boyne in County Meath. The local gentry – the MacNeills of Ballymascanlon, the Plunketts of Rathmore, County Meath, Halls of Narrowater Castle in Warrenpoint and Baron Fleming of Slane – featured in his poems.
Some of his songs – both words and music – were collected by Edward Bunting at the Harpers Assembly of 1792 in Belfast and later. This suggests that these songs were in the repertoire of the harpers of the area, including James Duncan (1747- c.1800) from nearby County Down who attended the meeting in 1792, who gave Bunting Ailí Gheal Chiúin Ní Chearbhaill (The Charming Fair Eily) which is written by Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta..
One of his songs, Caoin Róise, was written down with lyrics, before 1809 by a piper called James Cody , who was employed by Edward Bunting. Written on top of this music manuscript, giving its source, is “ ‘Dall Mhac Cuart ro chan’ (Blind Courtey sang). It was a song that was well known in the Omeath tradition when Irish was the community language there (AHU pp. 217-9).
He wrote some very fine personal poems, but many of his poems were written in the old Bardic metres and others, especially those written in praise of patrons, were composed for harp accompaniment and in new song metres. Ailí Gheal Chiúin Ní Chearbhaill is a good example, and was written in praise of Ally/Ellie O’Carroll mother of Patrick and Jenny Hall of the Hall family of Warrenpoint. He also wrote songs for Patrick and Jenny. One has survived in the song tradition of Donegal called Jenny dheas a dhéigh bhean.
These compositions are, possibly, what Arthur O’Neill might have referred to as ‘new music’ as distinct from older harp compositions. The air or Chrming fair Eily, Ailí Gheal Chiúin Ní Chearbhaill, was collected by Edward Bunting in 1792 and published in 1809. Although it is arranged for piano here, it is the version that most closely fits the metre of the lyrics.
Ailí Gheal Chiúin Ní Chearbhaill did not survive in the oral tradition of Oriel but fortunately it was possible for singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin to reconnect words and music from the above Bunting 1809 version, with lyrics from a manuscript from the County Meath scribe, Peter Galligan, and return one of Mac Cuarta’s songs again to the living tradition.
Some of Mac Cuarta’s song poems, such as Ailí Gheal Chiúin Ní Chearbhaill, were likely to have been written and sung in praise of members of the families who gave him patronage. This would suggest that, even though the old Gaelic order had collapsed and with it the privileged role of the poet in Gaelic society, he nonetheless enjoyed the patronage of some of the local gentry, as did the harpers, too.
Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta was acquainted with the harper Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin (Carolan) for whom he wrote a poem welcoming him to the district: ‘Dhá mhillean déag fáilte dhaoibh’ (Twelve thousand welcomes to you) as did the harper poet, Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin.
On that occassion, before 1733, when Carolan visited the MacNeill family of Ballymascanlon to meet with Mac Cuarta, he wrote a song of praise for Betty MacNeill, a member of the MacNeill family. He also wrote a tune for her father Captain MacNeill, which was listed by Edward Bunting, with fragmentary words headed Plangsty Mhic Neill. Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta, who was also well acquainted with the MacNeill family, wrote a poem in praise of Betty MacNeill (AHU p. 338)
Mac Cuarta collaborated with local poet and harper Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin (Patrick Linden/MacAlindon, 1666-1733) a superior harper, who reputedly composed the music for all his poetry (AHU p.338). Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin , who wrote a poem welcoming Carolan and Brighid Cruise, also met with Carolan on that occasion as possibly did his young son, Patrick Linden, who boasted about having met with Carolan in his youth (F. O’Neill, Irish Minstrels and Musicians 1913).
Mac Cuarta’s blindness gave rise in folk tradition to stories of how he lost his sight and was given the gift of poetry. A fairy nymph fell in love with him and coming by night to the barn where he slept, sought admittance at the door. On being rejected by young Séamus she blew this enchantment upon him, there and then, which caused the loss of his eyesight. Some time afterwards in the harvest he was herding Niall Óg’s cattle and sat in the gap of a cornﬁeld to keep the cattle from getting at the stooks. It must have been evening at the time for the fairy nymph again accosted him and asked him did he recognize her voice. ‘The fairy then told him who she was and as a recompense for the loss of his eyesight, gave him his choice of two wishes:
“Gé acu is féarr leat,” a deir sí, “fonn nó focail?” “Is féarr liom na focail,” a deir Séamus. “Bíodh focail agat!” a deir sise.
(“Which do you prefer,” says she, “the air or the words.” “I prefer words,” says Séamus. “Have the words!” said she”)
Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta’s last poem is reputedly Is fada mé mo luí i Lughmhadh (I have been a long time lying in Louth) which has became his own death poem:
Cha ndearn mé aithreachas ariamh mar ba chóir damh
Acht ag déanamh ceóltaí ar feadh mo shaoghail
Acht anois ó tá mise tráith-lag breóite
A Dhia déan trócaire ar Shéamus Chaoch
(I never repented as I should have
But making songs throughout my days
Now that I am sick and weary
May God have mercy on Blind James.)
His exact burial place is uncertain. ‘The Earl of Louth had such a regard for him that thro’ love and friendship he would not allow to have him interred amongst his ancestors in the grave-yard of Newtown near Slane, his proper burying place, but caused to have him buried in Louth Churchyard just beside his own place of internment.’ (AHU p.339)
Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin’s elegy gives us the date of Mac Cuarta’s death as February 1733. Over fifty poems attributed to Mac Cuarta and comprising about 2,500 lines of his poetry have survived in manuscript.
There are two of his songs with music notation published in A Hidden Ulster (AHU 217-23) and one of them is recorded on Ceoltaí Oirialla – Songs of Oriel CD 2017: Ailí Gheal Chiúin Ní Chearbhaill with harp accompaniment from Helen Davies.
The above video was filmed in 2016 at Éigse Oirialla in Omeath, the homeplace of Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, with accompaniment from Sylvia Crawford on the early Irish wire strung harp.