The Blind Musician

March 15, 2018 by

Image of a violin and guitar

Most people think of “time travel” as the stuff of science fiction. But when we observe a star though a telescope we are watching a reality that existed long before we existed. When we pick up the Book of Psalms and read aloud, we are voicing the inspired thoughts of an ancient shepherd king and passing them on to listeners in a language he never spoke. If you were to write down a poem, a good one, there is a chance that someone might read it and be stirred by the same thoughts that stirred you – many years after you have gone.

Music also travels across time. Instrumental music needs no translator; it simply carries a beautiful expression across the centuries from one musician to other musicians – to be enjoyed by listeners of all languages.

It is in this sense that I especially love the works of Turlough O’Carolan.

Lord Inchinquin

Born in 1670 in County Meath in Ireland, O’Carolan lost his sight from smallpox as a teenager. To find a trade that a blind man could pursue he studied music for three years. A kind-hearted landlady named Mrs. McDermott gave him a horse and a harp so he could eke out a living as an itinerant harper. He travelled through Ireland for forty-five years, composing tunes that he dedicated to his patrons in exchange for room, board, and a modest compensation.

O’Carolan never attained great skill at playing the harp but he was exceptionally gifted in composition and Gaelic verse. His approach was unusual: he would first compose his tunes and then write the lyrics. His musical style, while based in an Irish folk tradition, was influenced by classical composers of his time like Vivaldi, Corelli, and JS Bach.

Grainne Yeats, historian of the Irish harp, writes of the blind musician, “He bridged the gap between continental [European] art music on the one hand, and the Gaelic harp and folk music on the other. . . he wrote music that is distinctively Irish, yet with an international flavour.”

To listen to a homegrown Australian “brown grass” tune by the McKernan family, check out Joe McKernan’s last post.

O’Carolan’s music reflects his personality. He was cheerful and outgoing; he enjoyed tall tales and practical jokes. Like many of his clan, he enjoyed a drink and had a temper. At one point a doctor advised him to stop drinking for a period of time to improve his health. After complying he began to feel worse instead of better – so he found another doctor who gave him the opposite advice.

Loftus Jones

During his travels, O’Carolan met and married Mary Maguire. They settled on a farm in County Leitrim where they had seven children, six daughters and a son. His son is credited with eventually writing down and archiving O’Carolan’s many tunes.

Over two hundred of the blind musician’s works survive today in single line melody but without any notes on how he harmonized or arranged them. An interest in his work rekindled some years ago and a number of contemporary guitar, flute, and fiddle players have taken his tunes and created their own arrangements in styles ranging from folk to classical to jazz. His original lyrics were in Gaelic but I have mostly heard his work performed with instruments only.

Music needs no translator; it simply carries a beautiful expression across the centuries from one musician to another. 

I am sharing two of O’Carolan’s tunes called “Lord Inchinquin” and “Loftus Jones.” These were played and recorded by some of my family members and in-laws on fiddle, guitars, and Irish whistle. We love playing this stuff.

While listening, remember to think “time travel” and picture yourself in Ireland 320 years ago. The Lord Inchinquin was obviously a wealthy patron but historians say Loftus Jones was only a young man at the time of O’Carolan’s death. Why would a piece be named for him?

I like to think his parents Thomas and Susanna Jones of County Sligo were patrons, and this song was written by the blind harper to celebrate the birth of their son! See what you think – it certainly expresses an abundance of joy.


If you enjoy these old Irish tunes and would like a few more from the same musicians for your St. Patrick’s Day playlist, I’d be happy to send you our recordings of “O’Carolan’s Concerto,” “O’Carolan’s Draught,” and a traditional Irish fiddle medley called the Tarbolton set. Comment below if you are interested and I’ll get in touch with you. Make sure you enter a valid email address. (We will not share your information, or use it for any other purpose.)

Performers on the tracks embedded above: Geordie McKernan, fiddle; Nancy McKernan, Irish Whistle, Johann Bazeley, guitar.

Joe McKernan lives with his wife, Nancy, at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in NSW, Australia.


About the author

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan lives with his wife Nancy at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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  • Joe...Lovely, lovely music. Wonderfully beautiful playing, honestly and earnestly expressed. A joy. Please, by all means send me more as you can,. I will treasure. John

    John Fisher
  • Thank you Toby So happy to see your post and to hear that you stay connected through reading these articles. Nancy & I have many warm memories of your Jerry - he was a brother with a very big heart. Jerry & I used to sing and play Bob Dylan songs together by the campfire. Joe and Nancy [High] McKernan

    Joe McKernan
  • Thank you so much for this! The music brought me back to fiddle-playing days at Irish festivals and jams. Please send me your your other Irish recordings, I would enjoy hearing them as well.

    cheryl godding
  • Thank you for sending me the Voices Blog....I enjoy reading it every week and seeing how the bruderhof has changed since I left in 1981!!

    Toby Kadish Sherman
  • Thanks Tommy. A few of us gathered last night on the porch to share a Guinness and read the legends of Patrick and his mission to the Irish druids. Several memories were shared of the times you visited our communities and helped our children to learn (and even to write) songs about peace and reconciliation. We ended the evening singing Down by the Lagan Side. All the best to you and your loved ones in the old country! Joe McKernan

    Joe McKernan
  • Your music is lovely! I would be happy to receive a few more recordings of tunes.thank hou very much.

    Shari Clarke
  • This is lovely - thank you!!

    chris kennedy
  • Thanks for the thoughts on O'Carolan and the lovely musical illustrations from the family. Happy St Patrick's Day.

    tommy sands