By Mattie Lennon

       When a passing stranger sees the bronze bust in the quiet hamlet of Finuge, County Kerry does he or she ask if it is commemorating a local, a soldier or a literary figure. In fact it commemorates all three. When we hear Shanagolden, Red Haired Mary or The Beating of the Drum do we think of the author?

   Sean McCarthy wrote 164 songs, an autobiography, several stories, articles, poems and newspaper columns. He was a soldier, labourer, MC, storyteller, broadcaster, singer and all round entertainer. A visitor to that part of Kerry during the August weekend wouldn’t have to ask any questions about its famous son. His memory is kept alive every year since 1992 by the Sean McCarthy Memorial Festival. It consists of competitions, Ballad-sessions, storytelling and a bog-walk; all the things that Sean loved. One of the people on board from the beginning is Finuge native Minister fot Arts, Heritage and the Gaelteacht, Jimy Deenihan.

   Sean McCarthy was one of ten children. He was born in Listowel, County Kerry, on 05th July 1923.   He didn’t ever make any secret of the poverty as he was growing up. In a radio interview in 1987 he said, “ . . .the only saving grace was the imagination.” (In one of his articles he wrote, “My uncle Jim was as honest a man as hard-times would allow.”)

   He started school at five years old.  Brian McMahon, his teacher remembered, “merry mutinous eyes where gaiety and an absolute freedom of the spirit had wondrously mated.” 

   In his first song, written when he was seven with a little help from his uncle, “the tailor” Roche, he professed his superior intellect;




I’m intelligent Sean McCarthy

And I’m known to all the boys,

I live at the foot of Healy’s wood

With muck up to my eyes.


   He grew up in a home which was a house of entertainment. Years later in America, on Arthur Godfrey’s Radio Show, Sean was disappointed at his own attempt to describe,  “. . . the sheer magic, lunacy of the Rambling house as experienced by a barefoot boy.” 

   In his book I Never Saw a Purple Cow he wrote, “I heard music in the shining water of the river Feale, laughter in the flight of the wild geese, sadness in the passing of a friend and hope in the crying winds that tormented the bogs near my home.”

   From an early age he had what he described as, “. . .  an ache in my brain to write a song that would be put down on paper” but, his sensitivity and artistic leanings could be the cause of ridicule. “A songwriter was regarded as a sissy the heroic game was football.”

   There is a strong bird motif running through many of Sean’s Songs; “Wild Geese, “The proud eagle” etc. His friends claim that this symbolises freedom.

   Willing to partly relinquish the freedom of the open country, at fourteen years of age, he headed for Limerick to join the Irish Army. He was accompanied by Willy Sweeney, who was six months older, but of course they were both rejected. They spent four days picking potatoes for a west Limerick farmer who told them the story of “Willie” who died during the troubles. A quarter century later, in an apartment high above Manhattan, Sean wrote the story in song when he remembered the potato-field in “Shanagolden.”

   When he left Listowel the railway company may have suffered a minor loss of revenue. Recounting his departure  Sean refereed to, “dodging from carriage to carriage.” His literary career was influenced by poachers, politicians, footballers, storytellers, tragedy, pain and death. And, as Byran McMahon observed, he “… took as the natural food of his mind the rompings of the wren-boys and the grace-noted songs of the ballad singers.”  And ” . . . the tensions of a people whose land was broken in two.”

   He had an unusual insight into the Irish rural psyche. Exploitation in any form pained him. Like John B. Keane with Sive, Sean emphasises the tragedy of a young girl being forced to marry an older man for economic reasons in his poem Darling Kate.

You are fair of face, dear Kate, now you’re nearing twenty-one,

I hesitate to spoil your dreams, when your life has just begun.

Your father, he is old, a grah, and I am far from strong,

A dowry from John Hogan’s son would help us all along.

Just think of it, my darling Kate, you would own a motor car,

You’d wear fine linen next your skin and travel near and far.

Hogan’s lands stretch far and wide, from Rathea to Drummahead;

He owns sheep and cows and fine fat sows; pyjamas for the bed.

I know he’s tall and skinny, Kate, and his looks are not the best,

But beggars can’t be choosers, love, when you’re feathering your nest!

He’s been to college in the town; his shirts are always new,

What does it matter if he’s old, he’s just the man for you.

I know you love young Paddy Joe, him with the rakish eye,

I’ve seen the way you look at him whenever he goes by.

I will admit he’s handsome, Kate, but he doesn’t own a car,

Sure, he likes to fight and drink all night above in Sheehan’s bar.

Did I ever tell you, Kate a grah… that I was pretty too?

The summer days seemed longer then, and the sky was alwas blue!

I was only gone nineteen, and your father fifty-three,

But he owned the land on which we stand and he seemed the man for me.

There was a young man lived next door, I loved with all my might,

It was his face that haunted me when your father held me tight;

I longed, dear Kate, down through the years, for the soft touch of his hand.

But young love is no substitute for ten acres of fine land.

You will wear a long white dress and a red rose in your hair,

I will throw confetti, Kate, the whole town will be there;

You will make a promise true, to honour and obey,

I will stand on your right hand, and I’ll sell my love away.

Tears are not for daytime, Kate, but only for the night,

You’ll have a daughter of your own and teach her wrong from right;

Rear her strong and healthy, Kate, pray guidance from above.

Then one fine day when she’s nineteen—she might marry just for love.


    Each one of his 164 songs tells  a story.

 “The Key Above The Door“, (put to music by Jim Gornal) encompasses the titles of the works of Maurice Walshe with whom Sean shared a profound sense of place. Maurice said ” A place acquires an entity of its own, an entity that is the essence of all the life and thoughts and grief’s and joys that have gone before.”  And Sean was in total agreement with that sentiment.

   As Brendan O ‘Reilly of RTE said, ” Against the backdrop of his beloved Kerry with its mountains and flowers, its toughness and gentleness, its harmonies, rhythms and outrages of nature, he has written about life and love.” When he first attained prominence as a songwriter Bryan McMahon said, “A new and vital voice was raised in the land.”     `

   During World War Two, in England, he wasn’t too young to be conscripted into the BritishArmy. He said he was a reluctant soldier who left the army “not having seen an angry German.”  While there he wrote a song called, Rudolph Hess which was sung all over the Middle East; A comic song written by a man who wrote mostly of sadness. “Why is there no humour in your songs” he once asked Euin McColl. McColl, probably because he was talking to a Kerryman, answered with a question, “Why does somebody have to die in all the Sean McCarthy songs?”

  His consciousness seemed to rise and his sensitivity sharpen when he wrote or talked of death.

   John O’ Halloran, an 83 year old toil-worn Kerryman died a lonely death in London. There were four people at his funeral including a Priest and Sean McCarthy, who went back to his digs and wrote John O’ Halloran a song about life in the raw. Sean described it as “brutal.”

   It was judged “The Best Contemporary People’s Song” by the English Folk Song and Dance Society but proved unpopular with women. Not so its author who had a Joyceian ability to empathise with females. In his Kerryman column McCarthy’s Women he profiled 100 of the fairer sex. As one old Kerry nun put it, “His women came out best, no scar or ill favour found an outlet but with his light gossamer touch he brought out the good, the honesty, the joyousness of one and all . . .“

   At one stage he claimed the affections of a, seemingly, soft-hearted New York policewoman, Marie Adele Baraloni, for whom a sentimental ballad meant tears. Sean was impressed … until he remembered the words of his uncle “the tumbler” McCarthy, “Remember Seaneen be careful of the mule with the calm look. You know what to expect from the mule with the mad eyes, but the one with the docile eyes will kick you when your mind is on other things.”       

        His wit and talent paled beside his generosity and compassion. Perhaps if there were more like him his sister Peggy wouldn’t have met a tragic end on 10th February 1946. Peggy McCarthy gave birth out of wedlock and a victim of the times, of attitude and of gossip she died of shame.

Sean, uncharacteristically harboured a resentment for years until, I suppose you could say, he became a child again, spoke to his old teacher Bryan McMahon, telling him how the hatred was festering and eating his Soul.

”Write about the bloody thing” was Bryan’s advice, which Sean took, as he said himself, “to try and get the hatred out of my system and unsnarl my gut.” The hate grew less and less each day after he wrote, In Shame Love in Shame. Tony Guerien’s play Solo Run is based on the same tragedy.

   He said, “The writing of songs or poetry or indeed any type of creative writing is a drug to me, I can do without whiskey, wine, even food for long stretches but a week without writing something if only a four line poem, would be to me a wasted week.”

 For a number of years Sean ran the Crubeen Club at Clapton Junction in London. He had a Dublin man who used to “acquire “ glasses for him. In the beginning he was bringing in “hotel-quality” glasses, too posh for the Crubeen Club. So Sean had a word with him and he started to supply more modest imbibing receptacles.

     One night a young Dublin singer Danny Doyle walked up the rickety stairs and heard Sean McCarthy singing. That was when Danny’s singing career took off and he makes no secret of the fact that it was launched by Sean McCarthy. He reached the top of the charts with his first record, “Step it Out Mary.”The song, based on a skipping rhyme, was later recorded by 26 other artists.

    On one memorable occasion, on Friday 31st October 1969, somewhere over the Atlantic, Sean was straying around the aisle of an Aer Lingus plane and a stewardess eventually got him seated beside Carol Hannon, an American of German and Irish/French parentage.   This meeting prompted Sean to dismiss the advice of his uncle “The Tumbler” who told him, “ . . . a woman is different from a greyhound. When the greyhound can’t chase the hare anymore he can sit by the fire. But once a female has you fettered to a piece of Holy Paper she’ll sit by the fire and nag you day and night.”    Carol and Sean were married on Saturday 16th January 1971 and it was such a good arrangement that, ever after, Sean would describe himself as “a happily married bachelor.”

   When Sean returned from his global travels and settled back in his beloved Kerry he was one of the founders of The Rambling House programme, which went on to win a Jacob’s Award, on Radio Kerry.

   Weeshie Fogarty of Radio Kerry has this to say, “Kerry has produced many legendary sporting men and women down through the decades. And even away from the sporting fields The Kingdom has given many sons and daughters who helped shape the destiny of this country. If a list was compiled of these legendary people in my opinion Sean McCarthy would stand shoulder to shoulder with many of those great names.

 I was fortunate and privileged to have met and spend time with him and he was one of these people who you came away from and felt so much better in yourself. Very few people have this gift but Sean was special and unique. And indeed I suppose the word unique would be as accurate as any to describe this native of North Kerry. I have never met anyone remotely as charming and special in that unique way as Sean.

He had a wonderful way of telling stories and his songs all written by himself have stood the test of time and are still frequently heard on radio and wherever people celebrate together.  His melodious and highly distinctive voice is for me a joy to listen to and he was one of these people of whom we can safely say ‘there will never, ever be another Sean McCarthy’. He was a once off.” 

  In 1992 when I was compiling a programme for RTE Radio 1, on Sean McCarthy, that other Kerry historian and songwriter, the late  Dan Keane told me, “If I was sad he would cheer me. If I was in need he would help me. If I was a child he would love me.”

   Sean was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1989 and on 31st October he was visited in Cork Hospital by award-winning singer Peggy Sweeney. Sean had often said that Peggy was “the only one who can sing my songs. He asked her to do two things; to turn him in the bed “so that I can see the stars” and “Won’t you record my songs?” She complied with both requests. Sean died on 01st November 1990 and on 15th January 1991 Peggy Sweeney launched her album “The Songs of Sean McCarthy.”  She brought out a DVD of the same name and, later, another album  More Songs of Sean McCarthy. They are available from; or from the singer herself at; Mountcoal, Listowel, Co. Kerry.

   At his graveside his old schoolmaster Bryan McMahon said, “When a schoolmaster stands at the grave of a beloved scholar there is a sense of loss added to loss . . . The voice of Kerry was in Sean. He had a very lovable personality and a profound truth.”

   I wrote a play And All his Songs Were Sad about Sean’s life and works. I kept fairly faithful to the true story. It was staged by the Pantagleize Theatre Company in Fort worth, Texas in 2010 (My script, including stage directions, must have been all right, because I only got one trans- Atlantic phone-call during rehearsals. It was from Richard Blake, the Technical Director; a Texan actor had asked him how to pronounce “Lyreacrompane.”) But so far no company in Ireland has bothered to produce it.

This year’s Sean McCarthy festival is 01st August to 04th August.

      Mattie Lennon


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