Sean McCarthy’s The Songs of Sean McCarthy

cover, The Songs of Sean McCarthyMattie Lennon wrote this review.

Sean McCarthy was born in Listowel, one of ten children, on 5 June 1923. Known to audiences worldwide through songs like “Step it out Mary” and “Shanagolden,” he remains an honored figure in his own community. Since his death in 1990 McCarthy has been honored there with the Sean McCarthy Memorial Weekend, which has been going from strength to strength since it started in 1991, and includes a trek through Killocrim bog, which he so loved. The “Weekend” has secured the immortality of his work within his community, but now it has been copper fastened for a wider audience by The Songs of Sean McCarthy, a video of 15 of his 160 songs sung by his friend and fellow Kerry-person Peggy Sweeney. The video covers a wide range of emotions, feelings and levels of consciousness, just as his songs did.

Although his songs are well known, many readers may not know about the man. McCarthy grew up in a “rambling house” — a house of entertainment; usually the house of a small farmer where neighbours would gather on winter nights to exercise their talents of singing, story-telling, dancing and lilting. Decades later, on Arthur Godfrey’s Radio Show, in America, McCarthy was disappointed at his own attempts to describe “the sheer magic lunacy of the rambling house, as experienced by a bare foot boy.”

His first song, written when he was seven (with some assistance from a local songwriter) went;

“I’m intelligent Sean McCarthy
And I’m known by all the boys,
I live at the foot of Haley’s wood,
With muck up to my eyes.”

Recognition of his own talent was not arrogance or intellectual snobbery, for McCarthy was the humblest, kindest and most unassuming of men. Sensitivity, the power of observation and love of words — all 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, his 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,” McCarthy once described himself as “a Kerry bogman who couldn’t spell and had no idea where commas went,” but nothing discouraged him. In later life he said, “In North Kerry a songwriter was regarded as a sissy, the heroic game was football.” But from a very early age, he had a keen interest in the compositions of local songwriters such as Paddy Drury. Although fitting in anywhere from Carolina to Camden Town or Fort Said to Philadelphia, his heart was always in North Kerry. “You don’t grow up in the bog … you grow up with the bog.” he explained. He wrote songs tragic, touching, sad, sentimental, lyrical, and light. 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. Another came from the tragic story of his sister, Peggy, who had a child out of wedlock in the 1940s. Because of prevailing attitudes, so-called moral values, and ignorance, she died of shame. Uncharacteristically, because of this calamity, McCarthy carried a resentment, against Church, State and society for decades. 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 on the video, and accompanied with footage of Listowel Church, The European Gardens and suitably rural shots of Causaway.

McCarthy’s attachment to places was not lost on the video production team. The visual aspect is the result of superb camerawork, meticulous editing and subtle and sensitive planning. The film accompanying each song was shot in the area that inspired it. Pat and Billy Donegan, of Pat’s Tracks, who recorded the soundtrack and the video, took no shortcuts. “One Mile From Tralee Town” was actually filmed a mile from Tralee town. “Shanagolden,” written in a Manhattan high rise apartment, was a story heard in a Limerick field 25 years earlier. It is heard at it’s best among the scenes of the village on the video.

A chance meeting with an old toil-worn Irishman, in The Mother Redcap pub in Camden Town, resulted in 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. After writing it, he claimed his previous songs were lacking in depth. This “brutal” song was depicted by people sleeping under cardboard, and scenes of pseudo-Irishness in a London familiar to Sean McCarthy, where he was many things, from a labourer with Murphy’s building company to manager of The Crubeen Club at Clapton Junction. Tales of the Crubeen Club became first rate entertainment in on their own, and here the multicultural clientele became a sounding board for his songs. Chart-topping “Step it Out Mary” was first heard in the club.

McCarthy appreciated the groups and solo artists worldwide who recorded his songs. But in Cork’s Regional Hospital in 1990, he summoned only one singer to his death-bed; Peggy Sweeney, the woman he had literally hounded for 18 years to record his songs. On his last night on earth, 31st October 1990, he asked her to move his bed, so that he could see the stars, and to record his songs. She complied with both requests. The respect and admiration which the songwriter and singer had for each other was founded on reality and did not constitute a Mutual Admiration Society. “It was a two way situation.” Sean had no doubts about the potential, ability and dedication of the singer, having known her since she won her first competition at seven years old.

This feeling is evident in the scene where Peggy, while singing “My Kerry Hill,” places a single red rose beside a weathered tombstone bearing the surname, McCarthy. It has a poignancy which could hardly be achieved by mere thespian perfection. Two great talents have left us with a gem in their music, beautifully portrayed in this film.

(Pat’s Tracks, 2001)

“The Songs of Sean McCarthy” may be available from Kerry Music.

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