In Memoriam Ciaran Carson

The Irish Traditional Music Archive greatly regrets the recent death in Belfast of Ciaran Carson, a founding Board member of the Archive in 1987, at the age of 70.

Photography of Ciaran Carson by Leon McAuley

Born on the Falls Road, Belfast, in 1948 and reared in an Irish-speaking family, Ciaran was a prolific and highly regarded poet, prose writer and translator. He was the first director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Queen’s University Belfast, 2004–2016, a member of Aosdána and a fellow of the Royal Society for Literature. His literary legacy includes fourteen volumes of poetry, beginning with The New Estate in 1976; a variety of highly original prose works, including The Star Factory (1997) and Shamrock Tea (2001), which centred on his Belfast experiences and imaginings; and prize-winning translations from Irish, Italian and other languages which included An Táin and Dante’s Inferno. In recent years he has become increasingly the subject of international academic studies. A new volume of his poetry will be published later this month.

Irish traditional music also played a central part in Ciaran’s life and work. Enamoured of the music since the revival of the 1960s and a player of the flute and tin whistle, he joined with musician friends in Belfast folk clubs and country sessions, especially with his wife, the fiddle player Deirdre Shannon (‘the ideal space for traditional music is a small back room... where practitioners and listeners can see each others faces’). From 1975 to 1998 he was officer for the traditional arts with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. There he was responsible for such initiatives as an annual ‘Festival of Traditional Singing’ held in towns from Downpatrick to Portrush, a ‘You and Yours’ series of province-wide tours by groups of traditional singers and musicians, and a 1980s Ulster programme of archival field-recording. Arts Council publications produced on his watch included the traditional music ‘broadsheet’ Slow Air (1976–77) and sound recordings edited by Seán Corcoran: Here is a Health: Songs, Music and Stories of an Ulster Community (1986, collected by Corcoran), Harvest Home 1; Songs and Crack from West Tyrone (1991, collected by James Foley) and Harvest Home 2: It’s of My Rambles (1993, collected by Len Graham). With his professional approval the Irish Traditional Music Archive received its first financial grant from the Council in 1989, a funding relationship which has continued annually since. Traditional music was a frequent theme and source of inspiration in Ciaran’s poetry, and his reviews and articles on traditional music appeared over the decades in the Honest Ulsterman, Ulster Folk News, The Belfast Review and other periodicals; most recent are a series of reflections on Irish traditional music in The Journal of Music. But his most enduring traditional music publications are two unique books: the often-reprinted Pocket Guide to Irish Traditional Music (Belfast, 1986; Japanese edition, Tokyo, 1998), and Last Night’s Fun, (London, 1996 & 1997; New York, 1997; variously subtitled), his hallucinatory prose and poetry memoir of ecstatic contact with the music and musicians.

The Board and staff of the Archive extend their sympathy to Ciaran’s wife Deirdre and to their family.


Nicholas Carolan
11 October 2019