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Celtic Cats Play for The Shamrock Show

If you ask Dick Rees, fiddler of Yreka's Celtic Cats, who is his favorite composer of Irish tunes, the answer comes quickly &

"Turlough O'Carolan, of course!" In fact all the members of the Celtic Cats have a special love for the tunes of O'Carolan, the Irish harpist who lived several centuries ago in Ireland.

The Celtic Cats appear with the Theater Street Dancers for The Shamrock Show, Saturday, March 17 at the Yreka Community Theater. The show will include several songs of O'Carolan. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under and can be purchased at the Yreka Chamber of Commerce, Nature's Kitchen, or the Village Grind. Door open at 730 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m.

Around the age of 18 O'Carolan was blinded by smallpox. But since he had already studied the harp for three years, he had a way to earn his keep. For forty-five years the blind O'Carolan would travel throughout Ireland composing tunes (planxties) for his patrons.

O'Carolan was never highly regarded as a performer. His gift was in musical composition and poetry. His practice was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was opposite of the traditional Irish practice. Although music was always important, prior to O'Carolan, poetry always took precedence.

There were three musical traditions in Ireland, art music, folk music and the harper tradition. The harper tradition served as a bridge between art and folk music and was the primary conduit for the oral tradition. O'Carolan created a unique style by not only combining the two art forms but by adding elements then-contemporary composers, including Vivaldi and Corelli. He greatly admired Geminiani, whom he probably met in Dublin.

O'Carolan's melodies survive only as single line melodies, without a clue to how he accompanied or harmonized them. The National Library of Ireland has the only copy of O'Carolan's works. The book lacks a title page and was originally thought to have been published in 1721 in Dublin.

O'Carolan's music reflects his personality. He was "cheerful and gregarious" enjoying ludicrous stories, practical jokes and was excellent at backgammon. Like many harpers, he drank a great deal and he had a temper.

Several anecdotes illustrate these characteristics. O'Carolan was drinking with an old friend, McCabe when MacCabe challenged O'Carolan to a contest. Whoever got drunk first would pay for all of the drinks. After some time MacCabe fell silent. Unable to see, O'Carolan asked why and was told MacCabe was sound asleep. Suspecting MacCabe would refuse to honor the bet, O'Carolan called for a sack and tied MacCabe up. MacCabe slept through the night. MacCabe woke, somewhat annoyed, but forced to concede the bet to O'Carolan. The incident led, however, to an exchange of "scolding" poems between the two men. O'Carolan scolded "smelly-fingered Charles, son of Cabe" for not taking the joke as intended and McCabe bid "bad luck and ill-chance befall" O'Carolan, and berated him for his "insignificant, elementary humor."

"My favorite O'Carolan tune is called 'One Bottle More,'" reports Jerry Murphy, guitar player for the Celtic Cats. "But we all have different favorites. Ron Mahugh prefers his "Planxty Fanny Power," and several players prefer O'Carolan's "Sheebeg Shemore," a nice little tune that honors an ancient battle between fairy kings on two separate hills in Ireland."

The Celtic Cats appear with the Theater Street Dancers for The Shamrock Show, Saturday, March 17 at the Yreka Community Theater. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 13 and can be purchased at the Yreka Chamber of Commerce, Nature's Kitchen, or the Village Grind.