‘A Hidden Ulster – people, songs and traditions of Oriel’ – Order Here

Carolan in Oriel

‘Twelve million welcomes to you to the land of ancient Oriel … ‘

    Dhá mhilliún déag fáilte dhaoibh go fearann Oirghialla glúnmhar ….

                                                                  The Omeath poet, Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta welcoming Carolan to Oriel c.1720

Toirdhealbhach ó Cearbhalláin, known widely now as Carolan, has significant connections with Oriel: his songs and tunes survived in the oral Gaelic song tradition, in musician’s repertoire and in scribal manuscript, and the memory of his playing still lingers in existing houses and in the ruins of mansions in which he played for gentry and patrons in County Louth.

ORIEL ARTS has researched and collated here, information and evidence of Carolan’s connections with Oriel, which have not been previously fully recorded, including manuscript collections, oral tradition recordings, Irish language manuscripts and social history. It helps to bridge the gap between Irish language scholarship and Irish traditional harp studies research.

Carolan who visited Oriel sometime before 1733. Detail from a portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland.  Painted from life by Francis Bindon (1690-1765)

Of particular interest is that Carolan wrote music for patrons and gentry living in County Louth, and he also met with two of Oriel’s leading poet/harpers,  Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, c. 1650-1733 and Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin c. 1666-1733 (AHU p. 338, 344); that some of his compositions were transcribed in a music manuscript by a local scribe; that his music, and a song of his, survived until recent times in the local tradition; that an identifiable house in which he visited is still in use, and that ruins of a mansion, still standing in County Louth, evokes memories of Carolan’s life and times as a professional musician.

He was the most famous of all Irish harpers – a composer, performer and singer and a professional musician – who was born in Nobber in County Meath, in 1670. His life and music is well chronicled. Other harpers admired and played his compositions, which were written, mainly, for patrons and gentry, and which came under European classical influences as well as old Gaelic harp traditions. His music survived in the oral harp tradition and was mainly written down by and for the County Armagh collector, Edward Bunting (AHU pp. 372-3), from other harpers in 1792 onwards.

Carolan married one of the Maguires of Fermanagh – Mary Maguire in 1728 – whose family was probably instrumental in bringing him to County Louth. He died in 1738.

Reputedly Carolan’s Harp in Clonalis House Roscommon. According to harper, Ann Heymann it may have been Charles O’Connor’s harp – who was a student of Carolan. Copyright Glynn’s Historical photography 2017.

Additional new insights into the songs and tunes of Carolan are given here on the ORIEL ARTS site, which may bring a new awareness and interest to these songs and airs, and their context in the life of the local community during and after his death. There are at least four songs in the Oriel tradition with words and lyrics written by Carolan: one in the song tradition and three reconnected to their respective airs, in praise of local patrons – the MacNeills and Lord Louth.

Patrick McGahon and Music Manuscripts 1817

Some of Carolan’s tunes were played by Oriel harpers: Patrick Linden, Patrick Quin and Patrick Byrne, and four of his compositions were written down in staff notation, in a locally transcribed music manuscript in c. 1817 by Patrick McGahon, also known as a prolific Irish language scribe called Pádraig Mac Gatháin from Dungooley in County Louth.

Of particular interest is the facsimile music manuscript which was published in A Hidden Ulster-people, songs and traditions of Oriel of music notated by this local scribe. In his manuscript there are at least four Carolan compositions written down c. 1817  –  a short 25 years after the Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast in 1792:  Plangsty Bourk, Plangsty Connor, Ple raca na Rourkaugh and Bumper Square (sic) Jones (See Nos 81, 82, 83, 86 Patrick McGahon Collection in A Hidden Ulster).

Plangsty Connor No. 86 Patrick McGahon Collection c.1817 (having been computer cleaned for publication) in A Hidden Ulster p.461.

So, Carolan’s music would appear to have been well established in the tradition of Oriel by the time the McGahon manuscript was transcribed in 1817. But, what can explain this scribe’s musical literacy – a skill which was quite unique in Irish scribal manuscript records –  and the transcribing of some of Carolan’s compositions at that time.

The William Neilson Connection

It is quite probable that Patrick McGahon attended a school, which was set up by the Gaelic scholar and Presbyterian minister, the Revd William Neilson in Dundalk. c. 1800, and which welcomed all denominations, “Théadh gach aicme creidimh go dtí an scoil mhór lae agus cónaitheach a bhí aige i nDún Dealgan, (‘all denominations would attend this great day and boarding school which he had in Dundalk’,  Diarmaid Breathnach: ainm.ie). McGahon lived a few short miles away from this school, in Dungooley on the Armagh/Louth border.

Ple Raca na Rourkaugh No. 82 and Plangsty Bourk No. 83 Patrick McGahon Collection 1817 (having been computer cleaned for publication) in A Hidden Ulster p. 459 copyright ORIEL ARTS

There was a vibrant interest in Irish music and Irish language in the local Presbyterian community at that time. There was an Irish and Scottish Gaelic speaking enclave in nearby Ballymascanlon, centred around the extended MacNeill family who had Gaelic speaking clergymen ministering to them. One of them, the Rev. Patrick Simpson had lived in Dungooley, the birthplace of Patrick McGahon.

The memory of the 1798 rebellion, and the involvement of Presbyterian radicals in it, was still fresh in the memory of that community. One Samuel Coulter, who was a patron of Peadar Ó Doirnín and other Irish language scribes, lived in nearby Carnbeg, between Forkhill and Dundalk, at the end of the 18th century, and was one of a number of Irish language patrons in the culturally aware community to which Neilson ministered, and in which there was an active interest in the oral Gaelic arts and harp music.

William Neilson was appointed a minister to the Presbyterian congregation in Dundalk, County Louth in 1796, which was mainly Irish and Scottish Gaelic speaking. He was the author of Introduction to the Irish Language, published in 1808, which was a unique source of the Irish language of County Down. He left Dundalk in 1818 on being appointed Head of the Classical School and Professor of Classical Hebrew and Irish Languages in the Belfast Academical Institute, the year after MacGahon had begun to compile his music manuscript.

Before him in Dundalk was another minister and a friend, the young Revd Andrew Bryson, who was also an Irish language enthusiast, who was asked to assist with the Belfast Harpers Assembly of 1792, and who died in 1797. His brother Samuel Bryson was a collector of scribal manuscripts in Irish, and later a director of the Irish Harp Society (AHU pp. 436-7n).

Bumper Square Jones  No 81 Patrick McGahon Collection 1817 composition (having been ccomputer leaned for publication) in A Hidden Ulster p. 458

This Bryson/Neilson connection with Dundalk, the harper Arthur O’Neill’s visits to Dundalk and south Armagh, the Harper’s Assembly of 1792 in Belfast, the Irish Harp Society, the collecting of manuscripts and Neilson’s interdenominational school in Dundalk, are all interconnected and might well explain how some of Carolan’s music came to be written down in staff notation in 1817 by Patrick McGahon from County Louth. It has been suggested by fiddler Seamus Sands that McGahon may have had access to John Lee’s 1778 collection of Irish tunes, as there are some similiarites. Access to published works of Irish music, such as John Lee’s, may have been through contact with Neilson’s school and the local Presbyterian community. McGahon was of humble stock but was literate in language and music, and an Irish language scribe of note. He could well have attended Neilson’s school, as ‘hedge’ school teachers of that period, who were the educators of the lower classes, were not known to have musical literacy.

The Hawk of Ballyshannon

Arthur O’Neill from Annals of the Irish Harpers. (1911) Charlotte Milligan Fox

One of the pieces played by County Tyrone harper, Arthur O’Neill at the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly in 1792 was the air of Inghean Uí Mhórdha or The Hawk of Ballyshannon. It was written down by Edward Bunting from O’Neill, in 1792. It had lyrics by Carolan, but the original music was attributed to harper, Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin, with Carolan adapting and changing it as a song of his own. Of particular interest is that the lyrics of this Carolan/Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin composition had survived in the Oriel oral song tradition until 1931, when a fragment was recorded from a singer called Máire Ní Arbhasaigh (AHU pp. 391-2), of Crossmaglen, County Armagh. We do know that music attributed to Carolan was popular with Oriel harpers, as listed in the repertoire of Patrick (óg) Linden, Patrick Quin and Patrick Byrne (AHU pp.346-8; pp.351-7), but it is very unusual to find a song in the repertoire of the songs of the people.

Carolan’s songs, with a few exceptions, did not generally filter into the oral song tradition, to the extent that his music did into the harp tradition. His songs generally tended to be in a style unlike the mainstream song types found in the oral tradition of the people, and, with some exceptions, were written, mainly, to flatter patrons.  The range in many of his songs generally tended towards the octave and half, which is greater than the range usually favoured by traditional singers.

Mrs Mary Harvessy and her daughter Mary c. 1915. Photo Peadar Ó Dubhda. copyright A Hidden Ulster 2017

However, a version of Inghean Uí Mhórdha – The Hawk of Ballyshannonplayed above by Oriel harper Sylvia Crawford, was known in the Oriel song tradition and also the Donegal tradition (Enrí Ó Muirgheasa, Dhá Chéad de Cheoltaibh Uladh p. 61/2).

It was recorded as part of the Wilhelm Doegan project in 1931 from Máire Ní Arbhasaigh of Clonalig near Crossmaglen, County Armagh. Máire’s mother was a renowned singer, also named Mary Harvessy/Máire Uí Arbhasaigh (AHU pp. 391-2).

Wilhem Doegan (AHU pp. 386-7) and his assistant Karl Tempel, were generally more interested in recording the spoken word, and did not usually encourage singers to sing, but rather to recite the song. Here is Doegan’s recording of Máire Ní Arbhasaigh reciting a fragmented version of Carolan’s song.

Ó, a Chaitríona Ní Mhórdha, an óigbhean mhaiseach a thug barr deise ar Vénus,
Sí seo an chúileann mhúinte bhéasach, a gile gan smúid a fuair cliú ban Éireann,
An fhaoileann óg is milse póg, ‘Chaitríona Ní Mhórdha is sástaí,
In ainm na ríbhean láidir, is minic a thug cíos ins an áit seo,
Ó a lon dubh an tséin is na gcraobh ildaite, is í siúd atá mé a ráitigh

(O, Katherine O’More the comely young woman who surpassed Venus in beauty)

Harpers and Poets Meet

At the suggestion of Constantine Maguire of Fermanagh, the blind Carolan was brought to meet with the blind poet Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta at the MacNeill residence in Ballymascanlon, near Dundalk in County Louth. The poet and harper Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin (McAlindon/Linden) was also in attendance, as was, possibly, his son, Patrick Linden (see Francis O’Neill, Irish Minstrels and Musicians reference to Linden boasting about meeting Carolan in his youth)

The MacNeills were Scottish Gaelic speaking settlers from Kintyre, who had come to the Ballymascanlon area in the late 17th century, and had three houses in the locality. It is most likely that the two Oriel harper-poets met with Carolan in Strandfield House. Carolan refers to Betty as living ‘by the sea’ – le taobh na mara – and Malcolm MacNeill’s home was, indeed, by the sea at Strandfield House – now adjacent to a popular cafe and flower shop.

Strandfield House, Ballymascanlon

Strandfield House, Ballymascanlon where Carolan met Mac Cuarta and Mac Giolla Fhiondáin

The meeting would have occurred, at least, before 1733, the year in which both Mac Cuarta and Mac Giolla Fhiondáin died.

Two poems were written by Oriel poets welcoming Carolan to Ballymascanlon: one poem was written by Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin (AHU pp. 343-6) welcoming Carolan and Brighid Cruise (AHU p 338);  another poem was written for the same occasion by Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta (AHU pp. 337-43), welcoming Carolan to Oriel:

Dhá mhilliún déag fáilte dhaoibh                            Twelve million welcomes to you
Ó áras Mheadhbha, iníon Eochaidh                        From the house of Méave, daughter of Eochaidh
Go fearann Oirghialla glúnmhar, grinn                  To the land of Oriel, ancient and keen eyed
Lérbh ionmhain éachta Chon Chulainn.                 Beloved of Cúchulainn’s feats

These poems were, most likely, sung to harp accompaniment, as one of the poets, Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondáin (McAlindon/Linden) was a celebrated harper, while the other, Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, was known to play the harp, but with less skill. Both poems have survived in manuscript.

Music for Louth Gentry

For that same occasion, Carolan composed two pieces in praise of the MacNeill family – one for Betty MacNeill and the other for her father Malcolm MacNeill – the ‘Captain’ who lived at Strandfield. [In Irish the ‘Mac’ and ‘Ó’ can be interchangeable].

Bettí Nic Néill – Betty MacNeill

The words and music of Bettí Nic Néill are a good match and are quite singable. The lyrics were transcribed by an Oriel scribe called Muiris Ó Gormáin in 1771, who had a hedge school near Forkhill and was thought to be from County Monaghan (Ainm.ie).

Betty MacNeill – notation Darren Mhag Aoidh copyright ORIEL ARTS

                              [sample playing here by a Japanese dulcimer musician: youtube.com/watch?v=7-_-mu4A6UI ]

Ar mo chuairt go Baile Í Sganláin                                      On my visit to Ballymascanlon

Is fearrde me i gcéill ‘s i dtuigse                                          I am the better in sense and understanding,

Air leanbh dheas na mbachall cas                                      Of the lovely child with the curling tresses 
Do árd-fhuil Néill                                                                From Neill’s noble blood.

Is geal a piob ‘s is caol a mailigh,                                        Her throat is fair, her brows are slender
Bettí bhíos le taobh na mara,                                               Betty, who lives by the strand   
Shíolraigh ón aicme sin                                                       Descended from that class
Do shár-fhuil Ghaedheal.                                                   Of the great blood of the Gael

An uaisle is fearr ‘s nach dtarlaigh i gceasnaoi                  The finest gentry, unattached
Bíd go bráth i ngrádh le Bettí                                              Are all in love with Betty,
Dar leam ní nár, is deas a lámh                                          I do believe, it is no shame   
‘S is bán atá a déad.                                                            For her hand is fair, her teeth are white.

Dá mbeinn ‘mo phrionnsa nó rí na Fraince                         If I were a prince or King of France
Nó mar Shéarlas Emper bhéinn a’ caint léith                     Or Charles Emperor, I’d be in conversation
Is b’fhearr leam agum í                                                        With her, for she is fairer
Nó stór a ‘tsaeghail.                                                             Than all the world’s finest.      

Is breagh do chúl ‘s is sáimh do shúil,                                 Your back is fine, your eye is soft
‘S is mór mo dhúil in do chomhrádh ciúin,                          I love your gentle conversation.
Ach lion suas a’ copán                                                         But fill up the cup   
Agus ól orm féin                                                                  And have a drink on me!.  

(Tomás Ó Máille. Amhráin Chearbhalláin ITS 1915, Translation: P. Ní Uallacháin)

 Plangstí Mhic Neill – Captain MacNeill

The other piece by Carolan in praise of her father, Captain MacNeill of Ballymascanlon, was listed in Edward Bunting’s collection, but only discovered in recent times as Captain O’Neill, having survived in a Scottish collection for over 200 years, and was published in the Appendix 2001 edition of Dónal O’Sullivan’s CAROLAN. It was apparently taken down from an Irish harper who died in 1790 in Scotland – Echlin O’Kane – who, according to harper Arthur O’Neill, was from Drogheda: ‘I knew an Ackland Keane, a blind harper, a native of Drogheda who was taught by Lyons and an excellent performer‘ (Memoirs, Dónal O’Sullivan, Carolan. 2001). According to harp scholars, there is little doubt but that it is by Carolan, and that it is the missing Captain Mac Neill piece listed by Edward Bunting.

In the Bunting Manuscript Collection in Queens University Library, Belfast, there is short nine line lyric manuscript, of a toast, probably for the same Captain MacNeill, entitled Plangsti Mhic Néill, (Planxty McNeill), which mentions McDonalds and McLeods – alluding to MacNeill’s Scottish background. On initial scan of the music, it would seem that the lyrics of Planxty MacNeill do not match the notation of Captain O’Neill.  However, singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin has established that the lyrics of the toast were likely to have been sung to a section of the tune, as a toast at the end of the instrumental sequence, beginning at the 11th bar of music. In this arrangement the lyrics are a perfect match to the music and were, probably, also written by Carolan. This adds further credence to this music manuscript being the missing ‘Captain MacNeill‘ title listed in Bunting’s notebooks from 1792.

Captain O’Neill – notation Darren Mhag Aoidh copyright ORIEL ARTS 2017

                                [sample playing here by Japanese harper, Keisuke Teramoto, youtube.com/watch?v=A8e6SXjsXow ]

Líon sin ól sin                                              Fill that drink that

seinn a’ ceol sin                                           play that music

nidh ba dual dod’ chairde                           that which your friends would do

‘sé dúbhairt Mac Dhomhnaill                     MacDonald said

agus Mac Leóid                                           and McLeod

is uaisle mhór na hÁlba                              and the great nobilty of Scotland

go nólfa Mac Néill                                      that MacNeill would drink

le fearuibh a’ tsaoghail                               with the men of the world

dama fíon go léair                                      if wine were the whole of

an fháirge                                                   the ocean.

(Bunting Mss QUB Bunting. Belfast Ms 26/178. Trans: P.Ní Uallacháin)

Plangsti Mhic Neill

Plangsti Mhic Neill / Bunting Mss QUB Belfast Ms 26/178  by kind permission

Following the publication of this website, Ní Uallachain was invited by the directors of Nós Nua – the Louth Youth Folk Orchestra in Dundalk, to teach her song arrangement of this discovered Carolan piece to the young musicians. In spring of 2019 the orchestra performed it in the National Concert Hall Dublin for An tUachtarán, the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, in a full auditorium. The singer is Pearse McMahon of south Armagh and, with the orchestra, can be heard here singing Plangstí Mhic Neill.


Maitiú Pluincéad – Lord Louth 

The final Carolan composition, with connections to Oriel, is Lord Louth. The Louth family mansion was at Tallanstown, where Carolan would have visited and played. Carolan composed a song-toast to Matthew Plunkett, who was the 9th Baron of Louth (see Dónal O’Sullivan, Carolan 2001), and who was one of his patrons. It tells us that he visited Lord Louth there: Go Baile an Talúnaigh rachad don réim-se (To Tallanstown I will go).

The Plunketts were also patrons of Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Molaí Nic Giolla Fhiondáin and Arthur O’Neill. Lyrics to Matthew Plunkett or Lord Louth by Carolan have also survived, which match the music and are quite singable.

Lord Louth – notations Darren Mhag Aoidh copyright ORIEL ARTS 2017

                                           [sample playing here on piano by J.J. Sheridan here: youtube.com/watch?v=skiDT8qA8Uk]

Go Baile an Talúnaigh rachad don réim-se                                To Tallanstown I will go for this journey

Mar a bhfuil an sgafaire is geanamhla cáil                                Where lives the hearty one of fond renown

An Tiarna breaghdha súgach do fhréimh-shliocht na n-úr-mhacThe fine merry Lord of the race of generous sons

Choinnigheas a’ tsúgradh go buan choidhché air fághail.          Who keeps forever alive the sport and play


Ní fearr a sgapas an fhairrge a saidhbhreas                               The ocean does not spread her wealth better

Ná an tiarna Maitiú le fearaibh na hÉireann                              Than Lord Matthew with the men of Ireland

Bí bocht nó bí saidhbhir is cuma cia hé féin                                Be he poor or be he rich no mater who he be

Ach gheabhaidh sa teaghlach-sa fáilte                                       But will receive a welcome in the family.


Buidéal is bumpars gan chunntas go rabairneach                       Countless bottles and bumpers generously

Fíon agus brandy dha phlancadh go hacfuinneach                     Wine and brandy plonked energetically

Siúd ort! do shláinte! agus sgaoil thart dh’ os ard í                     Here’s to you! Your health! and toast him loudly

‘S is aoibhinn an áit a bheith láimh leis.                                      How pleasant a place to be by his side

(Ó Máille, Amhráin Chearbhalláin. ITS. 1915. Trans: P.Ní Uallacháin)


Louth Hall, Tallanstown, Co. Louth

Louth Hall, Tallanstown, County Louth, home of Lord Matthew Plunkett -patron of Carolan

The account above is the first comprehensive chronicling of Carolan’s music in Oriel, and gives a vivid recall of the harp environment in which Carolan’s music was composed at the beginning of the 18th century, and the extent to which it found its way into the repertoire of Oriel musicians during the 19th century.

Carolan’s visit to Ballymascanlon in County Louth – an event that occurred c. 300 hundred years ago, was a significant, historical musical occasion. The extent to which evidence of this event survives, in place, house, patrons, manuscript, images, Scottish connection, scribes, poets, harpers, family, tunes, songs and poems, may well be unique.

P. Ní Uallacháin/Oriel Arts © 2020