Carolan tune collation

Donal O’Sullivan’s book, Carolan: The life times and music of an Irish harper was published in two volumes in 1958. It presented a biography, and 213 tunes presented as corrected typset melody lines, and also with quite detailed notes on each tune including some lyrics. This book has defined Carolan studies ever since, and the book has been reissued a couple of times, and there have also been derivative works.

I think there are a number of big problems with this book, which have never been addressed to my knowledge. One is that Donal O’Sullivan’s edited versions of the melody have become used as sources for performance, even though many of them are arbitrarily changed from the early source versions. Another problem is that O’Sullivan relied heavily on late fiddle and pipe sources, rather than respecting earlier harp transcriptions. Thus he also ignored harp idiom in the early sources including key, basses and ornamentation.

He also was very hasty to associate titles, lyrics and melodies, sometimes making demonstrable errors. He also included every tune he could find that had even the slightest hint of an association with Carolan. This last trend has been continued and amplified by Bonnie Shaljean, who edited the 2001 Ossian re-issue of O’Sullivan’s book. CatrĂ­ona Rowsome’s 2011 book uncritically accepts all of O’Sullivan’s and Shaljean’s suggestions, giving a corpus of 226 tunes.

To Donal O’Sullivan’s credit, he did include references for all of his source material. However his referencing system is very tricky to use, with sources given by index letters, requiring constant cross-checking between pages and volumes. Also, many of his sources are still not easily available in facsimile.

I have been working on a collation of all the different versions of each of the tunes attributed to Carolan. I have entered all the information from Donal O’Sullivan’s book into a spreadsheet, and tried to unpick the different strands presented. I have put the spreadsheet here on Google Docs for you to look at and interact with.

You can use the spreadsheet to sort by source, or by Donal O’Sullivan’s number. I have also put a tentative rating beside each tune, to show how likely I think that Carolan had anything to do with the tune. These can be edited later if new information comes to light.

Rather shockingly, only a bit over half of the tunes have a solid and reliable attribution to Carolan; about 1/4 are almost certainly spurious.

There’s a lot more work to be done on this, and in time I will update the spreadsheet. But I thought it was in a useful enough state at the moment to show it to you,

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