infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Carolan's Concerto: a toast to the three sacred pastimes of old Ireland: Music, Storytelling and Whiskey

by Caiseal Mór

(Earthlight, £6.99, 491 pages, paperback, published 4 February 2002.)

I wondered at first if this book, a fictionalized biography of the harpist and composer cover scanTurlough O'Carolan, could really be fitted into the fantasy genre. However, it becomes rapidly clear that Carolan owes his musical skills to the Faerie folk, who reappear from time to time at crucial points of his career. And of course the story is part of that widely written Celtic Mist sub-genre of taking Irish legends and rewriting them as Big Commercial Fantasy for today's market; I have a whole list of them on my website but particular examples include Gregory Frost, Randy Lee Eickhoff, Kenneth C. Flint and Morgan Llywelyn. Caiseal Mór's innovation is to apply this to a relatively recent historical figure rather than Cuchulain or Finn MacCool.

The other element of fantasy is in the framing narrative, set in 1788, many decades after Carolan's life, with young rebel Edward Sutler listening to the stories told by the musician's aged former assistant, Hugh Connor. The portrayal of Irish society of the time is completely unhistorical, and obviously owes much more to memories of the early twentieth century than any serious study of the late eighteenth. (Soldiers, for instance, are automatically English rather than Irish; there is no mention of the Irish parliament which had gained autonomy in 1785; Sutler takes pot-shots at army officers more as a plot device to get him into the narrative than for any particular reason of politics.)

The author's grasp of Irish geography also appears a little shaky; although place-names are mentioned where historical fact requires, it's surprising that he sets large chunks of story invoking the supernatural in Roscommon without taking us to the ancient fortifications of Queen Maeve of Connacht at Cruachan; the two feuding villages of Ballynew and Buntrane appear to be located on a lake near Sligo yet also, improbably, on King William's route from the Boyne to Limerick; and the location of the framing narrative is never specified, which is perhaps wise.

However, this is a fantasy novel and one shouldn't fault the author too much for taking liberties with history or geography. One technical point that he has got devastatingly right is his graphic and painful description of the consequences of over-consumption of whiskey. Storytelling as a patriarchal (using that word in the best possible sense) social activity is well depicted too, and I was motivated to search out my few recordings of Carolan's music, clearly a large part of the inspiration for the book. The stories themselves are engaging and entertaining, and there are much worse examples of Celtic Mist around.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)