Although not a composer in the classical sense, O’Carolan is considered by many to be Ireland’s first great composer. Harpers in the old Irish tradition are still living as late as 1792, and ten, including Arthur O’Neill, Patrick Quin and Donnchadh Ó hAmhsaigh, attend the Belfast Harp Festival. Ó hAmhsaigh plays some of O’Carolan’s music but dislikes it for being too modern. Some of O’Carolan’s own compositions show influences of the style of continental classical music, whereas others such as O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music reflect a much older style of “Gaelic Harping.”
O’Carolan is born in 1670 in Nobber, County Meath, where his father is a blacksmith. The family moves from Meath to Ballyfarnon in 1684. In Roscommon, his father takes a job with the MacDermott Roe family of Alderford House. Mrs. MacDermott Roe gives Turlough an education, and he shows talent in poetry. After being blinded by smallpox at the age of eighteen O’Carolan is apprenticed by Mrs. MacDermott Roe to a good harper. At the age of twenty-one, being given a horse and a guide, he sets out to travel Ireland and compose songs for patrons.
For almost fifty years, O’Carolan journeys from one end of Ireland to the other, composing and performing his tunes. One of his earliest compositions is about Brigid Cruise, with whom he is infatuated. Brigid is the teenage daughter of the schoolmaster at the school for the blind attended by O’Carolan in Cruisetown. In 1720, at age 50, O’Carolan marries Mary Maguire. Their first family home is a cottage on a parcel of land near the town of Manachain, now Mohill, in County Leitrim, where they settle. They have seven children, six daughters and one son. Mary dies in 1733.
Turlough O’Carolan dies at Alderford House on March 25, 1738. He is buried in the MacDermott Roe family crypt in Kilronan Burial Ground near Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon. The annual O’Carolan Harp Festival and Summer School commemorates his life and work in Keadue, County Roscommon.
A bronze monument by sculptor Oisín Kelly depicting Turlough O’Carolan playing his harp is erected on a plinth at the Market Square, Mohill, on August 10, 1986, and is unveiled by Patrick Hillery, President of Ireland.
A statue is erected to him at his place of birth in 2002, during the Annual O’Carolan Harp Festival, the first of which is held in Nobber in 1988.