Steve Cooney’s arrangement of ‘Si Bheag Si Mohr‘ (Carolan’s melody begins at 1:32).

It started with a visit to the eye doctor’s back in October, when the case positivity rate for Covid-19 was low enough to allow for routine medical appointments. My eye test came back with signs of the very beginnings of something called wet macular degeneration, an age-related condition that causes central vision loss. I was referred to a retina specialist who worked me in a few days later, ran some more tests and determined I didn’t have WMD yet.

So I breathed a sigh of relief, and he set up an appointment for me to come back in six months. That second visit was just the other day, and the new tests showed I was stable. (Woo hoo! I’m stable!) So now I’m scheduled to come back in the fall for another six-month checkup. Another sigh of relief.

But the stuff runs in my family, and it’s probably not a matter of if I get it but when. So it’s been a wakeup call.

And that’s where the Serenity Prayer comes in. It teaches us to ask for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I learned it at a time when I was largely hostile or indifferent to organized religion, and I wasn’t in the habit of praying. But I was in 12-step recovery, and it was part of my program. I found it was good advice — when something came up, I’d either assign it to “can change” or to “can’t change,” and act accordingly. The 11th Step, similarly, counsels us to “[pray] only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry that out.” More good advice, I think.

Fast-forward 25 years or so, and now I’m a member of a mainline church, but I’m still guided by the 11th Step. Oh, I’ll pray for other people when the need arises, and I join in corporate prayers at church services and similar occasions. But when it comes to praying for myself, I try to be disciplined about praying only for knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out. I don’t have any of this worked out to a logical conclusion, though, and I’ve been known to blurt out “thank you Jesus” when I narrowly miss a road accident or … oh, let’s say for example, when I get a good report back from an eye doctor.

And that’s where Turlough O’Carolan comes in.

Back in October, when I was sweating out that first tentative diagnosis, I did a lot of thinking. I had no trouble at all assigning WMD to the “can’t change” column. If I get it, I get it; if I don’t, I don’t. And that’s about all there is to say about it. But what about the “can change” side of the ledger?

And that’s when I thought of Carolan. (Same guy: The convention in Ireland is to call him “O’Carolan” when his first name is used, and “Carolan” when it isn’t.) Wikipedia says when young Turlough lost his eyesight, his patron, Mary MacDermott Roe of County Roscommon, set him up as an itinerant harpist:

Mrs. MacDermott Roe gave Turlough an education, and he showed talent in poetry. After being blinded by smallpox at the age of eighteen, Carolan was apprenticed by Mrs. MacDermott Roe to a good harper. At the age of twenty-one, being given a horse and a guide, he set out to travel Ireland and compose songs for patrons. […] For almost fifty years, Carolan journeyed from one end of Ireland to the other, composing and performing his tunes. 

Well, I thought, Carolan was blind, so there’s something I can do. Music. In fact, there are blind musicians in several cultures. Stevie Wonder. Ray Charles. Blind Lemon Jefferson. Wikipedia has a whole page on them (I’d forgotten about Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin). In October we were about six months into the pandemic, and I’d hardly picked up my dulcimer since our regular jam sessions at the Hickory Glen senior high-rise went on hiatus back in March. But this at least gave me something to think about.

There’s something else about Carolan I found encouraging. According to legend (and there were many such legends), he was well into his teens when he learned to play the harp, and his technique wasn’t all that good. One story, as retold by Geoffrey Cobb for Irish America magazine, is that he began his career by composing the well-known tune of Si Bheag, Si Mohr because he couldn’t play very well:

O’Carolan’s first stop on his journey away from the McDermott Roe estate was at the landed property of Squire George Reynolds. Legend has it that the squire, who was himself a harpist and a poet, did not think much of the young harpist’s talent. “You might make a better hand of your tongue than of your fingers,” the Squire is reputed to have said. He suggested that O’Carolan compose a tune about a legendary battle between the fairies that took place in the nearby hills. O’Carolan complied and his “Sheebeg” is still played today.

Whatever the authenticity of this particular story, Carolan put his hand to good work, composing at least 214 tunes that have come down to us. He’s considered the last of the Irish bards and an iconic symbol of Irish culture.

Well, I don’t pretend to be a composer (although I do play by ear and it’s been pointed out to me that in jam sessions I tend to wander off into melodies of my own improvising that bear no relationship to what everyone else is playing). But I was inspired by Carolan’s story. Hey, I can do that.

Play music, I mean. Not compose it.

In October, I was spending way too much time doomscrolling the election coverage; tracking the seven-day Covid-19 test positivity rates and ICU admissions; and hoping central Illinois would avoid the worst of the fall surge. So it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of time.

But my good intentions remained in that shadowy realm of things I really ought to get around to. The election came and went. More doomscrolling. The holidays came and went, as the second wave of Covid infections — or was it the third? — spiked in January. As the post-election uncertainty and violence peaked and receded, things began to look more hopeful. Gradually I stopped doomscrolling.

And bit by bit, I started noodling around with my dulcimers. Nothing heavy. Just noodling.

At the first of the year, my teacher and mentor Ralph Lee Smith passed away, and I tuned up a very traditional instrument I’d ordered in one of his non-credit classes at Western Carolina University. Played it that night sitting by the fireplace. Remembered a time he took our class through the mountain heritage museum on campus, and we lingered at the exhibits showing how home life in Ulster and the North Carolina mountains centered around the hearth.

“All they need is a dulcimer by the fireplace,” Ralph said of the mockup of a North Carolina log cabin.

And I sat by the fireplace, I remembered two things: (1) We don’t have as much time in life as we think we do; and (2) wasn’t I going to get around to playing the dulcimer more often?

Our allotted time on earth fits precisely into the “can’t change” column of the Serenity Prayer, and Ralph’s death was a reminder of that. Debi likes to sit by the fireplace while she works on her book project in the evening, so I joined her that night and played some of the tunes I’d learned at Western. A few nights later, I joined her again by the fireplae.

It’s been three months now, and I’m still playing by the fireplace in the evening. I’m working on Si Bheag, Si Mohr and a couple of the tunes Carolan wrote for his patrons (he called them planxties). But mostly I’ll play Irish airs and some of the less raucous pub songs. (The reels are too fast for me on the dulcimer.) Also shape-note folk hymns I sang from the Sacred Harp and the New Harp of Columbia. Ballads. Southern Appalachian ballads and folk songs. Lately I’ve been learning arrangements of “The Parting Glass” and “Star of the County Down” in B-minor. I didn’t even know you could play B-minor in the tuning I most often use!

So most of my repertory is Celtic, either Irish, Scottish or southern Appalachian. But I’m not dogmatic about it. When Oley the cat ambles into the room to sit on Debi’s lap, I’ll play Lille Katt (little cat), a Swedish children’s song written for a 1972 movie adaptation of Astrid Lindgren’s Emil of Lönneberga. (Debi’s family emigrated from Lönneberga, a rural parish in southeastern Sweden, so it’s sort of a family thing, too.) None of this is great music, I want you to understand. But for me, it’s an answered prayer.

[Published April 3, 2021]

One thought on “How a trip to the eye doctor’s and the Serenity Prayer renewed my interest in Turlough O’Carolan, the blind Irish harper

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