THE CAROLAN THREAD
Years ago, on Tinakori Road in Wellington, there was a junk shop I would pass on my way to and from work. Inside, the shop was narrow and deep, its dim lighting both concealing layers of dust and casting an appealing lustre upon an eclectic array of second-hand goods. I often stopped to peer through the front window; sometimes, on paydays, I would step inside and browse.
The crystal bowl travelled with me when, in the 1980s, I took up residence in a small, Celtic country. From the Isle of Man, Ireland could be reached by ferry during the summer months; sometimes, on a particularly clear day, its coastline was even visible from the top of Snaefell, the island's highest point. Irish traditional music seemed to drift across the water on the least breeze, and it was not long before I became aware, for the first time, of Ireland's great composer, the blind harper Turlough O'Carolan. Even so, the move from awareness to appreciation was a gradual process.
Then, years after I had resigned myself to never hearing the ultimate melody, it arrived so unobtrusively that it took me a minute or two to realise what I was listening to. At the time, I was already playing a number of O'Carolan compositions, laboriously working my way through both Captain O'Neill's collection of Irish music, as well as some of the ancient pieces collected by Edward Bunting at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792. I could play an almost acceptable version of O'Carolan's Welcome on my low D whistle, had fallen in love with his Eleanor Plunkett, and the even more exquisite Fanny Poers. But, the internet being the all-powerful tool that it is, there came an evening when a single mouse click launched the sound of Sean Molony, a flautist from East Galway, playing, with great delicacy, O'Carolan's Farewell to Music.
I happened to be sitting quietly, and alone, in front of a decent fire on a winter's evening; creamy church candles burned on the mantelpiece, their glow reflecting in the old, foxed mirror which covers the chimneybreast. As the music drifted up out of my laptop, everything seemed to still, until it felt as if the whole, empty room was listening. By the time the final notes faded, I had, in my amazement, ceased to breathe.
On the website which provided the link, someone had suggested that the tune must have been a gift to the great harper from the daoine sídhe (deena shee), the beings believed to live underground in fairy mounds, or in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans, literally, the Gods and Goddesses of Ireland. And who is to say that there is not something in this other-worldly connection. Perhaps there is a quality inherent in greatness which has the ability to transcend mortality; Brian Keenan, the Belfast schoolteacher kidnapped by fundamentalist militiamen in Beirut and held hostage by them for four-and-a-half years, maintains that in his prison cell he was visited and sustained by the presence of Turlough O'Carolan who had died centuries earlier.
The other thing I love about this piece is that Carolan is so very present in it. His wandering, questioning life is all there within the first part of the tune, which seems to move, through harmony, from one pool of shining light, to the next; listening to it, one imagines 17th century Ireland, its handful of blind, itinerant harpers traversing landscapes as wild and beautiful and dark as death. The octave leap at the beginning of the second part, subtly played, has the sound of a spirit lifting up and away, abandoning the earthly struggle, while the little repetitive phrases that follow are a last, gentle insistence on the power of beauty, of art. Finally, in a waterfall of notes, O'Carolan bids farewell to the world, and especially to the music that has been both his life's passion and his source of sustenance.
It is strange the way a single word, a name, engraved upon the silver lid of a crystal bowl, can enter one's life almost casually yet end by becoming an indispensible part of the whole. Now, a day spent without the pleasure of playing or listening to O'Carolan's music would be an empty day, and if his Farewell To Music should be the last sound I hear on earth, there will be no complaint from me. Looking back, the name Carolan seems to have become threaded through my life in a way that has all the appearance of something that was meant from the beginning, or even from before the beginning, a gift from the Gods, indeed.