Online Group-Tuition Programmes

Acadamy Programmes

Beginning - 05 Feb 2022

Uncovering the real Carolan: a fresh look at the music of Ireland’s most famous harper


I will share with you the discoveries I made, during my recent PhD research, about Carolan’s playing style; information that has been left out of modern Carolan editions. I will show you valuable hints to be found in 18th- and 19th-century editions, and work you through fascinating Carolan compositions transcribed at speed, in the 1790s, directly from some of the last old Irish harpers, and which survive now in only one manuscript. We will find evidence for Carolan’s accompaniment style, said to be lost forever but I think I know what it is now! And the most pleasing discovery I made? Carolan’s performance idiom was much simpler than we think; this was also remarked on by someone who actually heard him play. My discoveries should help less advanced players play his music more easily, and will hopefully get all who participate in these classes a bit closer to the ‘real’ Carolan. 

In this course students will 

  • develop their ability to evaluate modern Carolan editions critically
  • learn where to find the best historical sources of his music (also online)
  • become familiar with 18th-century printed Carolan editions and the surviving direct transcriptions from Irish harpers
  • discover characteristic features of Carolan’s style that are generally not known or reproduced in modern performance
  • explore a historically plausible (and player-friendly!) lower-hand accompaniment for his music
  • learn how to arrange and play Carolan tunes in a plausible 18th-century, Irish-harp style, incorporating all the latest evidence and discoveries in Carolan studies 

Course Duration

6 Sessions


Intermediate +

Class Time

2.00pm – 3.15pm




Saturday | 2.00pm – 3.15pm

05 Feb

Session 1

Carolan’s Music: Problems, Solutions, Discoveries – An illustrated talk

Carolan’s Music: Problems, Solutions, Discoveries – An illustrated talk

We think we know the music of Ireland’s most famous, eighteenth-century harper but often we really don’t. The most reliable sources – transcriptions made from live performance by old Irish harpers pre 1800 – have generally been ignored in favour of nineteenth-century transcriptions from melodic instruments, or piano arrangements, both used by the Carolan scholar, Donal O’Sullivan, in his seminal, 1958 Carolan publication. This talk highlights long-standing problems, presents highly significant but neglected Carolan sources, and outlines my discoveries about Carolan’s likely performance idiom, including my new hypothesis about what his lower hand played. 

12 Feb

Session 2

'Planxty Connor' – Recognising characteristics of Carolan’s style

'Planxty Connor' – Recognising characteristics of Carolan’s style

No field transcription from an old Irish harper survives of this well-known composition. But even the piano arrangement of the harp-music collector, Edward Bunting, gives clear pointers towards a characteristic Carolan performance idiom no longer transmitted in modern performances of the piece. We will briefly touch on why this is the case, examining a 20th-century edition and related issues. We will take note of Bunting’s suggestions in our playing of the piece, also discussing plausible historical fingering, idiomatic string damping, and be inspired by the Irish-language song lyrics to shape our phrasing of this happy, lilting song air. 

19 Feb

Session 3

'Carolan’s Farewell to Music' – Arranging a ‘new’, more plausible melodic source

'Carolan’s Farewell to Music' – Arranging a ‘new’, more plausible melodic source

The familiar version, now widely performed, was not collected from an old Irish harper, and is unlikely to get us very close to what Carolan actually composed. We will briefly discuss why that is, before playing a more plausible – but generally unknown – version, found in no fewer than five historical collections from Ireland and early 19th-century New York. We will look at completing the texture for both hands in a historically plausible way – much less complicated than typical Carolan arrangements – exploring fingering, string-damping and phrasing as we go. 

26 Feb

Session 4

'Bridget Cruise' – An 18th-century harp setting different to the more familiar melody

'Bridget Cruise' – An 18th-century harp setting different to the more familiar melody

The best-known version of 'Bridget Cruise' is actually a 1950’s recomposition of a 19th-century piper’s setting. Though no field transcription survives, a different version seems to have been collected from the venerable virtuoso, Dennis O’Hampsay, in the 1790s, the harper whose life overlapped with that of Carolan for perhaps forty years. We will learn where we might situate this gorgeous air on our harps in terms of scales / ‘keys’, and work towards playing it, with an historically-informed lower hand to accompany the melody. 

05 Mar

Session 5

'Mr Connor & Jig' – Reverse-engineering from a non-harp source to reconstruct Carolan’s idiom

'Mr Connor & Jig' – Reverse-engineering from a non-harp source to reconstruct Carolan’s idiom

'Mr Connor' is one of several Carolan compositions for his patrons that has a jig following the main tune. The source is The National Library of Ireland’s Compositions of Carolan, an intriguing fragment of a printed source from Dublin after 1742, associated with Carolan’s son. This elegant, lilting composition contains ‘hidden’ Carolanesque compositional features that you will hopefully now be able to recognise at this stage of the course. The jig sits under the fingers very comfortably, and we will hope to get through 'Mr Connor', and the jig, over the final two classes of this course. 

12 Mar

Session 6

'Mr Connor & Jig' – continued from previous class

'Mr Connor & Jig' – continued from previous class


What to Expect

  • Six live classes, each lasting 1.25 hours, in an online Zoom room, shared with other participants
  • Each session is video-recorded and available to you, 48 hours after the live event, until your course-access period ends
  • You will have access to downloadable PDF and / or audiofile class materials 

Technical Requirements

  • A laptop, desktop or tablet computer; we do not recommend using a phone to participate
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Access to a printer for downloadable course materials
  • Access to the Zoom platform; further information to help you get set up for participating over Zoom will be sent after you have registered

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