Paul Roberts and Jessica Peterson to bring Celtic music to Sunday Night Unplugged

By Jessica Peterson
Special to The PREVIEW

My husband and I have a favorite ritual: Sunday Night Unplugged. We’ve come to rely on it every month. Hearing the music, unwinding into the silences and contemplating the readings ground us.

Luckily for me, the silences and readings can be appreciated just as well from the musicians’ spot at the front of the church, because this Sunday at 5 p.m. at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church (225 S. Pagosa Blvd.), Paul Roberts and I will be providing the music.

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, Roberts and I were asked to do a Celtic program. We began to search through manuscripts for music fit to honor Ireland’s patron saint. I ended up sitting in a pile of sticky-note-filled music books. It was overwhelming. Then Roberts, who had been restringing his cittern, got it tuned up and began to play — from memory.

That’s all we needed. The pile was pushed aside. The frustrating search was off. One by one, we recalled the tunes we wanted. Some sweet tunes, some powerful tunes, but all running deep, the way Celtic tunes do; all tugging at our souls, stirring us, whether calling us to wander or to come home.

Some of the music that tumbled into our heads was written by Ireland’s beloved harper-composer, Turlough O’Carolan. Talk about wandering. This is a man who wandered for almost 50 years. And, in the end, he found his way home.

O’Carolan was blinded by smallpox at 18, and, so, having little choice, he turned to music to make his living. He was able to study harp thanks to Mary MacDermot Roe, whose family employed his father. When O’Carolan was 21, that same kind lady gave him a horse and servant, and he hit the road as a traveling harper. Or, I should say, a traveling aspiring harper.

O’Carolan’s first patron, Squire Reynolds, was unimpressed by the young musician’s playing skills and suggested he turn his hand to composing.

“He might make a better fist of his tongue than his fingers,” the squire remarked.

O’Carolan rose to the challenge and presented Reynolds with “Sidhe Bheag, Sidhe Mhor” (“Sheebeg, Sheemore”). This evocative tune tells the story of the fairy mounds, said to be the scene of a great battle, and now inhabited by the souls of two ancient warriors buried there. The squire was pleased and O’Carolan’s first composition was the beginning of the young harper’s fame.

As a composer, O’Carolan is unique. His music was based on the ancient Celtic style, yet he admired and tried to copy the modern-at-the-time classical forms he heard in the homes of his wealthy patrons. The resulting mix of old and new carried his melodies through centuries and across oceans.

I find a natural grace in the form of O’Carolan’s music and in the arc of his life. Wandering through Ireland for almost half a century, he spread his gifts: music, wit and cheer. Yet, somehow, he knew where home was and when to return.

O’Carolan ended his wandering where he began it, at the home of Roe, the woman whose kindness changed his life. When he arrived, she was there to meet him at the door.

He said to her, “I have come here after all I have gone through, to die at home at last, where I got my first schooling and my first horse.”

He composed his final piece, “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” and he played it for Roe. He died holding her hand.

It’s likely that as you read this, several of O’Carolan’s pieces are playing somewhere: streamed digitally, performed live in pubs, scratched out by beginning fiddlers, looped in online role-playing games or hummed in kitchens.

It’s more than likely that, on Sunday evening at St. Patrick’s, several of O’Carolan’s tunes, including his first composition — “Sheebeg Sheemore” — will be played, alongside music of ancient Brittany, Scotland and more. Come and join us as we celebrate St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, and O’Carolan.

This story was posted on March 11, 2017.