Lament for Charles MacCabe
Back to Lament for Charles MacCabe
LAMENT FOR CHARLES MACCABE. Irish, Slow Air (3/4 time). A Minor. Standard tuning (fiddle). One Part. Composed by blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738).
This tune, according to Donal O'Sullivan (1958), emanated from the result of a practical joke played upon the bard by Charles MacCabe, one of his most intimate friends, and who, like O'Carolan, was an itinerant poet and harper. Not much more is known about MacCabe, however. The tale of the composting of the lament was told around the year 1830 by Bartholomew O'Dowd (retold by Donal O'Sullivan, 1958). In the guise of a stranger, MacCabe waylaid O'Carolan (who was journeying to a patron) on the road near the churchyard of the village of Fenagh, County Leitrim, giving him the country greeting "God bless ye!" Carolan replied likewise and asked about the news of the area, at which MacCabe replied that the only news of import was the passing of "a jovial and pleasant strolling harper who amused the old and young, the rich and the poor of this neighbourhood." Of course, O'Carolan inquired his name, and was distressed when the stranger told him it was Cathaoir an tsiansa-Charles the pleasant. Shocked, O'Carolan asked if he could be led to MacCabe's resting place, and was duly led to the pretended grave by the disguised MacCabe himself. When they arrived O'Carolan asked to be left alone for a bit, but that he should be attended to when he called. MacCabe retired a short distance and heard O'Carolan grieving and weeping, and then heard him spontaneously compose his "Lament for Charles MacCabe." According to one account (Walker, Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards', Dulbin, 1780), MacCabe then revealed himself to the bard, and "rallied the good-natured bard on his giving such a sincere proof of his affection for one who had so often made him the butt of his wit." He offered to show the harper to his grave, and upon reaching the spot O'Carolan spontaneously composed this lament. In the end, however, it was MacCabe who wrote the elegy for O'Carolan upon his death. O'Sullivan (1958) finds printed versions of the words to O'Carolan's lament to be generally unsatisfactory and variously problematic, even incorporating some of MacCabe's elegy for O'Carolan. He quotes one such line in Irish, which translates as:
There is no pain, no torment, no distress so heavy and grievous
As the death of friends and the parting of comrades.
This line has led to alternate titles for the tune, such as "Parting from a companion" (Petrie, 1855). Edward Bunting (1773-1843) played the melody on the piano-calling it "The Parting of Friends"-on the occasion of a gathering of friends and supports for the Irish patriot Wolfe Tone and his family, on the eve of their departure for exile in America. During the hearing Mrs. Tone burst into tears, and it must have made an impression on her, for she alluded to O'Carolan's song in an interview in New York nearly half a century later.
Source for notated version: "(The Irish collector William) Forde" [Stanford/Petrie].
Printed sources: Complete Collection of Carolan's Irish Tunes, 1984; No. 209, p. 144. S. Johnson (The Kitchen Musician No. 3: Carolan), 1983 (revised 1991, 2001); p. 13. O'Sullivan (Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper), 1958; No. 209. Stanford/Petrie (Complete Collection), 1905; No. 1022, p. 261.