The novel did not start out as story and history. It started as music and landscape. Music I first heard in 1981, thanks to a Derek Bell recording called ‘Carolan’s Receipt’. I was twenty, a Canadian tending bar in County Limerick for a summer. My big discovery, I thought, was a new Dublin band called U2. But in the village where I lived, the wistful, light-infused melodies of a harper dead for more than two centuries cleared all contemporary furniture from the room of my imagination. The room stood empty, save for the sound of plucked brass-strings, while my eyes flooded with a landscape.
Ruins. They were everywhere. Across from the bar was a thousand-acre estate still occupied by the last ‘earl’ of a clan that had retained the title since before the reign of Elizabeth. By the river near his manor stood a friary and a castle, now the fringes of a golf course. The castle dated from the 13th century, the friary from 1464. Its spire was crumbled and its transept floor was covered in graves. Birds sang from lofts. Sunlight angled through gaps in the wall.
I even courted a girl in the friary, a French waitress. The courtship — what a word for a twenty-year-old U2 fan to employ — was no less sweet or tinged with melancholy. It played out like one of those Irish melodies, grace notes expressive and sad. It played out like Carolan’s music echoing in ruins in a rain-muffled landscape. Time, layered and indifferent. Human dramas, furtive and predictable and soon forgotten.
Next came the history. The 18th century, I was taught at graduate school in Dublin, functioned as a kind of interim. We studied the collapse of old Ireland, culminating in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. We charted — did we ever in 1983-84, with the latest ‘Troubles’ raging in the North — the rise of the modern state, borne, it was argued, from the rebellion of 1798. But in between those dates was little or nothing. Nothing major, at least. Nothing to merit the rank of history with a capital ‘H.’ There were the Penal Laws, petty legislation aimed at extinguishing Catholic ownership of land. There were famines and foreign wars and some unusually bad weather.
Plus Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, author of Gulliver’s Travels and the thinly-disguised Drapier Letters, among other great works. He went mad on account of Ireland, it was said. He alone provided a worthy monument from a minor age. W.B. Yeats famously summarized it: ‘Swift has sailed into his rest/Savage indignation there/Cannot lacerate his breast.’
I wondered about this. In the basement of Fred Hanna’s shop in Dawson Street was a copy of Carolan: The Life Times and Music of an Irish Harper by Donal O’Sullivan. The book, first published in 1958, had lately been reissued in two volumes, the bulk of the text being transcriptions of music, along with notes on the sources. The volumes cost 22 pounds. That was a week’s rent of my bedsitter. That was the price of multiple restaurant meals superior than anything I could cook. I debated the purchase for a winter and spring.
The dates for Carolan jumped out: 1670-1738. He had been born into the Restoration and come of age around the tumult of the Boyne. As an adult, he’d had a passing acquaintance with the lacerated Swift. Carolan, moreover, had not only been renowned in his lifetime but contributed dozens of tunes to the permanent Irish repertoire. Gulliver’s Travels was indeed an 18th century classic. But so were ‘Mr O’Connor’ and ‘Fanny Poer’ and the finest of the ‘Bridget Cruise’ compositions.
Except that few who heard those melodies now realized they belonged to an actual man, rather than to the proverbial artist known as ‘traditional.’ Except that Carolan’s life, which I gleamed by skimming chapters, included one or two facts and many more embellishments and legends. He was, in effect, as obscure as the epitaphs on those friary graves. Indecipherable or rubbed clean by weather. Erased, like so much else, by time.
In the end I bought the biography, without quite knowing why. I did not glance at the volumes again for nearly twenty years.
The music, though, took up residency in my head. I listened to Carolan’s tunes while working on all kinds of projects. I had them ‘on’ while travelling to countries profoundly unlike that Ireland of landscape and history. Eventually I began to know the melodies the way one knows a friend. I liked the person who had composed them. He had to be fine fellow, genial and refined, in a rough-hewn sort of way. He was probably inclined to melancholy, if never to piety or undue self-regard. He surely composed with the same ease that birds sing. The notes flowed too perfectly, and were too perfectly right, for it to be otherwise.
Slowly, an image emerged for this Carolan, the first inklings of a story. The image was almost a cliche: two travellers on horseback along a country path. Knight and squire. Lord and manservant. It was Quixote and Panza and Diderot’s Master and Jacques. It was a thousand tales of itinerant musicians and actors found soaked and starving in miserable circumstance. Landscapes were grander back then and men were, in one sense, more humbled. A hundred mile journey was epic, full of incident and, often enough, peril. Regular folk rarely ventured a day’s walk from where they were born. The far slopes of that valley, the lands beyond those hills, were distant indeed.
The image sent me back to O’Sullivan’s book. In the biographical sketch were compelling details about the harper. He went blind from small pox at eighteen. He learned to play the harp only afterwards, and never played it well. He was admired for his music but loved for his conviviality. He held sobriety in disregard. Of his wife, little was known; of his seven children, sired late in life, even less. It was said he was reunited with his childhood love, Bridget Cruise, by the shores of Lough Derg, in the wake of having made the pilgrimage. It was said he often composed on horseback, fingers clacking on cloak buttons. Duh-dah-dah-dah, clacked Carolan. Dah-la-lah-la. Another lovely tune, just like that.
Here, I decided, was one rider on the path. Here was the blind harper.
And the other? In the figure of the foundling, the young man or woman of no means and uncertain destiny, the 18th century had its favourite literary subject. Tom Jones and Moll Flanders are the best known of the cast. The world was widening. Beyond the sea lay adventure and opportunity, be it as a soldier-for-hire or an immigrant to the colonies. Beyond the sea lay places where a man might be allowed to transcend his station. Philosophers were thinking more and more about individual rights and liberty. The air was bright with ideas free from the ancient shadows of religion and duty and humility before king. It was enough to get a foundling believing his talents might win out.
Men and women, I might add, doomed still to anonymous lives and deaths, all spirit and energy notwithstanding. For some reason, I knew that orphan as well. It could be because my ancestors fled to Canada during another famine in another century. (When checking the source of the tune ‘Mabel Kelly,’ I discovered she had hailed from Ballyforan, County Roscommon.) More likely, I knew the fellow, and instinctively liked him, because hopeless ambition and shy longing, the worry of belonging nowhere, of being of no real use, is something writers just know about, in their bones.
Here was the other rider on the path. Here was the guide.
Carolan and Owen Connor. Harper and guide, master and servant. Father and son, friend and friend. Finally, the story I could tell in that landscape and against the backdrop of that history. Finally, the story I could set to that wistful, light-infused music. All I needed now was to command their horses to walk, cluck-cluck with my writerly tongue, and it — the journey of Carolan’s Farewell — could begin. Easy as that.
— Charles Foran