Reading · Word of the week

Word of the week: McCarthy

As you may know, McCarthy is one of the more numerous Irish surnames. According to this page on the Irish Genealogy website, detailing the 20 most common surnames in Ireland from an 1890 study, it was 13th on the list. There have been plenty of prominent McCarthy’s in living memory, including Mick (past and current manager of Ireland’s national football team), Mary (author of “The Group” and “Birds of America”) and John (the journalist who was held hostage in Lebanon for over five years). They are all mentioned in “The Road to McCarthy”, the second and final book by travel writer Pete McCarthy.

I see from previous pieces that I have mentioned him before on this Blog, referring to him as “the late, great travel writer Pete McCarthy”, first of all here and then in this piece about education. I stand by my description of him. I read his first book, “McCarthy’s Bar”, soon after it was published at the start of the century. My mother was a fan of his travel shows on Channel 4 but she died a few years before the book came out. She would have enjoyed it. It introduced me to the concept of always stopping for a drink in any pub that has your name above the door. There are plenty of bars named after people called McCarthy in Cork, and that’s the inspiration for the book.

Over the weekend I finished reading its follow-up “The Road to McCarthy”, which I bought soon after it was published in 2002: 17 years to read a book that had been moved around and prominently displayed on various shelves in three different homes. By contrast it took me 36 years to read Margaret Drabble’s “The Ice Age”, which prompted my most recent “Word of the week”, so maybe 17 years isn’t so bad. I had dipped into “The Road to McCarthy”, and read the chapters set in New York City, more than once. He wrote about the time he spent in Rocky Sullivan’s on Lexington Avenue. He met the same people I met, saw the same bands I saw, did the same things I did. It was my favourite bar in the world, and is long gone. Reading those paragraphs again made me nostalgic for New York City, and sad for the people and places that are no longer with us. The book follows a trail of McCarthy’s to numerous locations around the world, including Cobh, Tangier, Tasmania, Montserrat, Butte Montana and a town of that name in Alaska, with a population of 17. It’s a good read.

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of Pete McCarthy’s death from cancer at the age of just 52. It was a month before my son was born, on 9 November, which was also McCarthy’s birthday. “The Road to McCarthy” records some anxious moments during flights and this passage on page 128 of my edition (in the chapter titled “Unrepentant Fenian Bastards”) leapt out at me. He is on board a plane:

“I do develop a chest pain which in the course of the flight relocates itself to my shoulder blades, but in a way this is a plus, as it induces dark thoughts of the probability of cancer, which takes my mind off the likelihood of crashing.”

Within two years of those words appearing in print he was diagnosed with cancer, and he died several months later.

While reading of his travels, during which he met and researched dozens of people who share his surname, I realized that I cannot remember ever meeting anyone called McCarthy. Statistically this seems unlikely, but nobody comes to mind. Back in July I mentioned many of the surnames that appear in my childhood autograph book, “noted down by long-deceased family members. There are Reilly’s, O’Reilly’s, Ghee’s, O’Hara’s, Kelly’s, Galligan’s and Dunne’s, gathered from Cavan, Longford, Dublin, Kilkenny and indeed London”. Other surnames, from family friends, included Byrne and Murray. Along with Kelly and O’Reilly those names appear in the Top 20 of Irish names referred to in the opening paragraph. For the record, the 20 surnames are (in order):

Murphy, Kelly, O’Sullivan, Walsh, Smith, O’Brien, Byrne, Ryan, O’Connor, O’Neill, O’Reilly, Doyle, McCarthy, Gallagher, Doherty, Kennedy, Lynch, Murray, Quinn, Moore

I have met, went to school with, or have worked with, at least one person with each of these surnames, except for McCarthy. I have been going through lists of people (in my mind, nothing written down) to see if I’ve missed anyone. Most of the kids at my primary school were of Irish descent: Murphy, Maher, Fitzgerald, Whelan, Keohane, Power, Sheehan. I met many people involved with Film Festivals, journalism and film-making in Ireland: Dwyer, Twomey (and to my shame I didn’t know it was pronounced too-mee), Hannigan, Connolly, O’Flaherty. Many of the priests who passed through this and neighbouring parishes have, unsurprisingly, had Irish origins, along with the parishioners themselves: Dwyer again, Dunne, Donovan, Johnson, Lyons, O’Gorman, Doyle, Flynn, Ryan, Kennedy, Lynch, O’Sullivan. Not a McCarthy in sight. Whenever I do meet someone with that surname I’ll recommend the books written by their namesake. They’ll probably know about them already. They might even be related to him.




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