Sean McCarthy

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Poet, author, folklorist and traditional music aficionado, that was Sean Mcarthy.

“The Bog isn't a Place, it's a Feeling..”

With article excerpts from by Mattie Lennon 

Sean McCarthy was born in the village of Finuge near the town of  Listowel, one of ten children, on 5th July 1923. He attended Listowel Primary School and his first teacher was Bryan McMahon who later said of him; "He was always a special person. I'll even go so far as to say he was unique" And unique indeed he was. A fact much appreciated by his fans world-wide and particularly his friends in North Kerry.

Self-recognition of talent was not arrogance or intellectual snobbery, for he was the humblest, kindest and most unassuming of men. Sensitivity, power of observation and love of words; tools of the songwriter, were his. " 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".

On his first day in school teacher, Bryan McMahon, noticed; "Those merry, mutinous eyes where gaiety and an absolute freedom of the spirit had wondrously mated". With ".....This ache in my brain to write a song that would be put down on paper", he once described himself as;" a Kerry bogman who couldn't spell and had no idea where commas went", (I know the feeling) but nothing discouraged him. Although fitting in, anywhere from Carolina to Camdentown or Fort Said to Philadelphia, his heart was always in North Kerry. "You don't grow up in the grow up with the bog." he explained.

His heart was always in the bogs of North Kerry. He once said; " The bog isn't a place it's a feeling. You don't grow up in the bog... you grow up with the bog". He wrote 160 songs, 24 of which have been recorded on two albums by Peggy Sweeney. Many of his songs feature the area around his childhood home, which he described as "a house of entertainment".


Once on Arthur Godfrey's radio show, in America, he expressed what he perceived as his own inability to describe "... the sheer magic lunacy of the Rambling House as experienced by a barefoot boy". He had a very early awareness of the power of words and once said; " The writing of songs, 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 a wasted week".

Among his best known songs are "Shanagolden", "Red Haired Mary", "Highland Paddy", "Murphy's Volunteers",, "Step it out Mary", "Mountain Tae, (Hills of Connemara) and "In Shame Love, In shame".

Over the years Sean entertained and delighted thousands of listeners to "Sunday Miscellany" and "Thought for the Day" on RTE Radio. His songs are available at the Literacy Centre, The Square, Listowel, Tel: 068 22212
He played a major role in promoting "The Rambling House" on Radio Kerry, which is now continued at Sheahan's Thatched House, Finuge over the winter months.

A festival in honour of McCarthy, is held every August in his home village of Finuge, County Kerry.

"Poet, author, folklorist and traditional music aficionado" Mattie Lennon has written a play about the life and works of Sean McCarthy entitled "And All his Songs Were Sad". It was produced by the Pantagleize Theatre Company.

He wrote songs tragic, touching, sad, sentimental, lyrical and light, and all had a story. Despite sharp wit and great humour, the sad song became his trademark. "Why is there no humour in your songs?" he asked Ewan McColl, who - probably trying to beat a Kerryman at his own game- answered with a question: "Why does somebody die in all your songs?"

He wrote on many subjects but his sensitivity sharpened when writing of death. "Step it Out Mary" was inspired by a skipping rhyme heard on a fair day in Kanturk. Then the tragic story of his sister, Peggy, who had a child out of wedlock in the 'forties. Because of prevailing attitudes, so-called moral values and ignorance she died of shame.

Uncharacteristically, because of this calamity, he carried, for decades, a resentment, against Church, State and society. Eventually he told Bryan McMahon how the hatred was eating his soul. Sagacious Bryan advised; " write about the bloody thing", which he did, "to get the hatred out of my system and unsnarl my gut". The hate diminished each day after he wrote "In Shame Love in Shame" sung with such feeling by Peggy Sweeney.

"Shanagolden", written in a Manhattan high-rise apartment, was a story heard in a Limerick field 25 years earlier. And a chance meeting with an old toil-worn Irishman, in The Mother Redcap, gave us the moving "John O' Halloran", which Sean described as brutal, (not as in rude or coarse but a savage account of a whole spectrum of human experiences) He claimed his previous songs were lacking in dept.

"The Key Above The Door", 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 it's own, an entity that is the essence of all the life and thoughts and grief's and joys that have gone before" And his biographer's account of how he ".... was particularly sensitive to the atmosphere, to the aura and to the sensitivities of people" would fit snugly into a description of McCarthy.


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