Carolan’s Draught – Irish Tune for the Mountain Dulcimer

When I began to play the mountain dulcimer, I soon discovered that Irish tunes sounded great on the mountain dulcimer.  Irish tunes were sprinkled throughout dulcimer tablature books which I  purchased for learning the dulcimer. I soon discovered dulcimer tablature books devoted completely to Irish music as well as lots of “session” tune books for fiddle, mandolin and pennywhistle. There are so many types and styles of Irish tunes — jigs, slip-jigs, reels, slow airs, hornpipes and folk tunes — and it seems that most could be adapted for the dulcimer. I spent today on this nice spring day adapting one of Turolough Carolan’s tunes for the dulcimer, “Carolan’s Draught,” going back and forth between the dulcimer and piano to figure out an arrangement.

Turlough Carolan was a blind Irish harper who lived from 1670 to 1738. He was probably the last of the well-known Irish harpers and has been called “Ireland’s national composer” by some. When Carolan was a teenager, his father moved the family from their small farm to the county of Rosecommon. The father became employed by Mrs. McDermott Roe of Ballyfarmon. When Carolan was eighteen years old, he contracted smallpox which left him completely blind. This made it difficult to find an occupation. So Mrs. McDermott Roe taught him to play the harp with the goal of becoming an itinerant harper.  To play the harp, it was not necessary to see– the strings were close together–or read music. A harper was an occupation dating from ancient times which was held in high esteem in Ireland in the 1600’s as the harpers traveled from home to home performing on their harps. When he was ready, Mrs. McDermott Roe gave Carolan a horse and a guide, and Carolan set out to travel across Ireland playing the harp, composing music and poetry and entertaining as he stopped at a gentleman’s home.

There was apparently many itinerant harpers in Ireland at the time. It was Carolan’s skill at writing poetry that set him apart. Carolan’s first house was that of Squire George Reynolds of Lough Spur. The song Carolan played apparently didn’t impress Squire Reynolds who suggested that Carolan take to writing poetry.  Not to be outdone, Carolan composed his first song, “Si Beag Si Mor,” about the legend of a war of two fairies armies. This is a beautiful song. Squire Reynolds liked it and so do dulcimer players!

Carolan style was to compose the melody of the song first and then the lyrics which was opposite of most harpers. In any event, his music is appealing and around 220 compositions have survived all these years. Carolan often wrote tunes in honor of the patron of the home he stopped at. These are called a “planxty” such as “Planxty Eleanor Plunkett.”  He wrote several tunes entitled, “Bridget Cruise,” which was about his first love.  After Carolan passed away, his music continued to be played and it survived in the repertoires of fiddlers, pipers, and the last of the old Irish harper/singers. Over time several collections of his works were published beginning with Edward Bunting and his assistants in 1792 in The Ancient Music of Ireland / Bunting’s Collections.

Irish Tune, “Carolan’s Draught,” on the Moutain Dulcimer

I picked one of Carolan’s tunes from The Complete Works of O’Carolan — Irish Harper and Composer (1670 – 1738) published by Ossian Publications, Ltd. in 1984, to transcribe for the dulcimer. “Carolan’s Draught”  didn’t look easy — but at least promising.  I spent most of the day coming up with an arrangement and by the end of the afternoon came up with a pleasing song — at least in my opinion. What is a “draught?” There are several definitions of “draught.” Since it is known that Carolan liked to drink liquor, I might presume that this could refer to “draft” beer.  Just a guess on my part.

The collections of Carolan’s tunes give only the melody line — with no indication of how they are to be played or interpreted. This source does say the tune is to be played in a “spirto” manner–it shouldn’t sound like a slow dirge. Carolan’s tunes definitely not typical dulcimer “fiddle” tunes with a “bum-diddy” type strum. The music flows in phrases which often go for several measures; the melody doesn’t often repeat in predictable folk-type patterns but seems to change and morph throughout the song.

Since these songs were written by a harper, they have long runs of notes — not easy to play on the dulcimer. This tune is noted in the key of G in the literature. So I tuned the dulcimer to DAD and played the song in the Key of G. This means that your dulcimer must have a 1-1/2 fret on the middle string to play all the “C” notes and “C chords.” There is just no way around it when playing this arrangement in Key of G while tuned to DAD. And at one point in the first part of the song, the melody also includes a C# note or a “2 fret” on the middle string and an “A chord.”

To make things easier with the long runs, I tabbed the song across the fretboard — from the bass string to the melody string — rather than up and down the melody string. This means that the song — going over two octaves — goes only to the fifth fret on the melody string! Quite manageable.

I found the melody of the tune of “Carolan’s Draught” to be rather “bland.” Adding chords changed things entirely — and made a beautiful song. I added chords which I thought were pleasing to the tune — they differ slightly from what I hear on the internet U-tube songs. Well, it’s my choice and on another day, I might play different chords!

I’ve included two arrangements — one with only the melody notes — so you can see how the tune “progresses” across the strings. This arrangement can be flatpicked or fingerpicked — notes only. A second dulcimer player or guitar player can add the chords which are written above the top staff so that the tune is played as a duet. The second arrangement includes harmony notes on one or all of the three strings for a complete arrangement by one dulcimer player. A little more tricky to play but beautiful.

Enjoy Carolan’s tune on the dulcimer. Challenging but achievable. So this is how I spent a May morning; now to perfect playing the song!  I have learned to play several of Carolan’s tunes on the dulcimer. Some of his tunes can be played in “jam” settings, but this one is definitely meant as a solo or duet piece. It is a welcome change from playing the same folk and fiddle tunes that I’ve played for years.

I included are both JPEG’s of the song and also the corresponding PDF files which you can download and play:





And here are the PDF files of the two versions:

Carolan’s Draught – 3 strings – Key of G – Flatpick or Fingerpick

Carolan’s Draught – 3 strings – Key of G



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