While traveling in County Limerick in June, I visited Lough Gur, a site steeped in historic significance and folkloric-mythic associations. To our delight, it also turned out to be the burial site of the 17th century harper, Thomas Connellan.
First there is the prehistory: Lough Gur was a busy settlement site over 5,000 years ago. In an afternoon we visited the ruins of a burial dolmen, medieval hut circles, and the impressive Grange stone circle.
While stopping to walk in a shade-dappled churchyard at Teampall Nua, the New Church, we happened upon a stone placard on the side of the ruined stone church which read, “In an unmarked grave ‘sleeps’ Thomas O’Connellan, renouned poet-harper of Cloonamahon, Co. Sligo, who died in Bourchier’s Castle, Lough Gur in 1698 A.D.” We had found a harper’s gravesite. As I walked the grounds of the handsome, roofless church, I reflected on the curious shock it must have been for the people of the castle to have a visiting harper perhaps unexpectedly die. How could Connellan have known that he would end up in a lonely churchyard at the edge of Lough Gur? Gazing at the low hills and the shimmering water, and then toward the mountains, I recognized that one could do much worse than be buried in this place. Apparently, three centuries later, the local people honored Connellan with a graveside ceremony at Teampall Nua. And now for the eerie folkloric connection: Evans-Wentz, in that classic text, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, writes that the fierce goddess Aine, of Lough Gur, keened Connellan the harper at his funeral. That would surely have rattled the bones of the living!
Now here is a perplexing chronological conundrum: Connellan’s death date is cited as 1698 at the gravesite, but according to Colm O’Baoill’s 1970-72 article, “Some Irish Harpers in Scotland,” the date of death should be 1717. Simon Chadwick’s reliable Early Gaelic Harp Info site states that dear old Connellan (Thomas, that is, and not his brother William) was made a burgess of the city of Edinburgh around 1717. Hmm. Might the dates be wrong, or was it a posthumous honor? Note, too, the Scottish people’s honoring of an Irish harper.
Who is Thomas Connellan, anyway? He was a harper whose works included Limerick’s Lamentation (known in Scotland as Lochaber No More), Celia Connellan, Lady Iveagh, and the Dawning of the Day. I pulled out my copy of Edward Bunting’s 1840 edition of The Ancient Music of Ireland, and took a look at the Belfast harpers who played any of Connellan’s tunes at the festival: Arthur O’Neill and Charles Byrne played some of Connellan’s tunes for Bunting.
I recognized that my small repertoire does not yet include a tune by Connellan. Having visited this lonely, most beautiful place, I must learn one of his tunes.