The Songs of Sean McCarthy
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 thebog.....you grow up with the bog." he explained.
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
The video covers a wide range of emotions, feelings and levels of consciousness. "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.
His 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, which inspired it and Pat and Billy Donegan, of Pats Tracks, who recorded it, took no shortcuts. Shanagolden, is heard at it's best among the scenes of that village.
"One Mile From Tralee Town" was filmed a mile from Tralee town. And the "brutal" "John O' Halloran" was depicted by people sleeping under cardboard, and pseudo-Irishness, in a London familiar to Sean McCarthy, where he was many things, from a labourer with Murphy's to manager of The Crubeen Club at Clapton Junction.
His tales of the Crubeen Club was first rate entertainment in itself, and here the multicultural clientele became a sounding-board for his songs. Chart-topping "Step it Out Mary" was first heard in The Club.
He appreciated the groups and solo artists, world-wide, who recorded his work. 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, after she won her first competition at seven-year old.
And the filmed scene where Peggy, while singing "My Kerry Hill", places a single red rose beside a weathered tombstone bearing the surname, McCarthy, has a poignancy, which could hardly be achieved by mere thespian perfection.
Two great talents have given us a gem.
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