An Irish Harper’s Tune for Dulcimer

Here’s a beautiful tune composed by blind Celtic harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670 – 1738). It has a long name, “Squire Wood’s Lamentation on Refusal of His Halfpence” and an interesting story to go with the title. However, don’t let the name stop you from playing it on the dulcimer. With practice, it is possible to fingerpick this song with grace and skill. While rummaging through old boxes of tablature, I discovered a version for dulcimer which was passed out in a workshop many years ago. As a beginning dulcimer player, I could only hope to barely decipher the tab. Now playing the tune is quite managable. I re-arranged the tablature and am posting the tune for my February blog post — even though St. Patrick’s Day is a month away. Let’s get ready.

I first learned this tune and received the tablature at a workshop taught by Rob Brereton, a dulcimer player from Connecticut. The theme of the workshop revolved around “smooth playing.” He shared techniques to effortessly move one’s left-handed fingers over the frets to make the tune sound smooth and polished rather than choppy. I believe that Rob either fingerpicked or flatpicked the notes, so “smooth playing” is important for this genre of playing. If you get the opportunity, I’d recommend taking a workshop from Brereton on this topic. I was pleasantly surprised — when I found the tablature tucked away in stacks of music — that I could play the tune this time on the dulcimer. Some of the ideas which Rob taught have stuck with me through all these years!

Story of the tune’s title, “Squire Wood’s Lamentation on Refusal of His Halfpence”

Turlough O’Carolan was one of the last reverend, blind harpers who traveled across Ireland composing music and playing it in homes and estates. O’Carolan became blind from smallpox at the age of 18 years. The family’s employer taught O’Carolan how to play the harp. Then she gave him a horse and driver (guide) as well as a harp. O’Carolan — as well as other blind harpers — traveled throughout the countryside, staying in the homes of wealthy partrons. These harpers composed songs, called “planxtys,” as a tribute to the aristocrats living in the Irish mansions. O’Carolan was particularly skilled at writing lyrics for his songs and beautiful melodies on the harp.

The tune, “Squire Wood’s Lamentation on Refusal of His Halfpence,” has an interesting story. During the 1600s and 1700s, Ireland was controlled by the King of England (even though there was an Irish Parliment). Squire Wood obtained a patent and contract, facilitated by a bribe to the King’s mistress, to mint halfpence for use in Ireland. Irish shopkeepers, as well as the Irish Parliment, resented the copper halfpence which were inferior in size, weight and quality. They feared that the coins would be harmful to the Irish economy, causing an outflow of gold and silver coins. Plus, the coins were easy to counterfit and there was concern that Woods would flood the country with the coins for his own profit. In 1724, Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish author and clergyman — best known for authoring Gulliver’s Travels — wrote a series of pamplets called The Drapier’s Letters encouraging shopowners to oppose the copper halfpence. He wrote under the pseudonym of “Drapier” or a person who draped and sold fabric wholesale. The pamplets were extremely successful and contributed to rebellion in Ireland against the king. The English government was forced to remove the coins from circulation and recind Squire Wood’s patent.

Turlough O’Carolan was a contemporary of Johathan Swift and Squire Wood and knew these men. O’Carolan wrote a tongue-in-cheek song about the incident.

The tune is a slow air; a “lament” or sad song about Squire Wood’s loss of his halfpence business. Although the song originally had lyrics, only the melody is typically played today. Here is the halfpence.

Playing the tune on the dulcimer

While I enjoy all of O’Carolan’s music, this tune is particularly melodic. The tune works well when it is fingerpicked rather than strummed as this seems to emulate a harp, in my opinion. I reviewed the tune’s melody on several Irish music internet sites in addition to using some of the elements of Brereton’s arrangement. Since my arrangement is for fingerpicking, I added my own touches and passing tablature notes. One of the joys of playing the dulcimer is “making the song your own” by individualizing how it is played. Everyone will have a unique twist to playing this fingepicked tune — playing single notes and/or arpeggios. My next feat is to memorize the tune and then to learn to play it differently each time around.

There are many places in this arrangement where hammer’on’s, pull’off’s and slides may be used. These are not shown in the tablature, adding them depends upon your style of playing.

This tune is almost always noted and played in the Key of G. However, for the dulcimer, I wrote the arrangement in DAD tuning for the Key of D. My arrangement does not require a 1-1/2 fret which is nice for a change. However, the tune does have a C-natural note or “6” fret in the second part, which gives a contrasting feeling of suspense. If is not a transcription mistake. Wonder if O’Carolan had to flip a lever on his diatonic Celtic harp to play this note?

I hope you enjoy this tune — for St. Patrick’s Day. Plenty of time to practice “smooth playing.” It is rewarding to play some of these more challenging arrangements. When I was a beginning dulcime player, this song seemed overwhelming. Now it is quite achievable. Hurray!

A PDF file is located after this image which you can download to play.



    1. Hello, Thanks for asking about a fete this year. It seems like this just wasn’t the time for our club to try to put on the massive undertaking of a 3-day fete this year. We may have a one-day workshop sometime this spring or summer. We do miss the fete, too!


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