By Mattie Lennon
A new musical And All His Songs Were Sad, which is based on the life and works of singer and songwriter, Sean McCarthy, is being brought from page to stage for the first time in Ireland. The Irish premier is in Saint John’s Theatre Listowel, on August 26th. Sean McCarthy wrote 164 songs. Many of them were recorded by singers worldwide but for years he pestered one award-winning, female recording artist to record his works because he claimed that she was the only one who could “do it right.” She eventually made two albums of his songs but he was dead before they were released. This quest and the stories behind his songs are mainly what the play is based on.
One American newspaper wrote, “The more intriguing thing about their ‘artistic friendship’ was that the singer seemed to be the artist, while Sean was her muse. That’s an interesting reversal of the typical singer-songwriter arrangement.”
Sean’s first song, written in 1930, when he was aged 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 Haleys wood,
With muck up to my eyes."
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", but nothing discouraged him. Although fitting in, anywhere from Carolina to Camdentown or Fort Said to Philadelpha, his heart was always in North Kerry. 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"..
"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. ~Sean’s character, in the play, quotes writer Maurice Walshe with whom the real 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." Sean McCarthy was always sensitive to his surroundings, be it as a 2reluctant soldier.....2 in the middle east, a labourer with Murphy's or manager of The Crubeen Club at Clapton Junction. (Chart-topping "Step it Out Mary" was first heard in The Club.)
Sean McCarthy also wrote poems. In one of his lesser-known ones “Darling Kate”, which is featured in ”And All his songs Were Sad”, he exhibits his insight into human emotions and vividly gets the message across about how young girls were virtually “sold” in the Ireland of yesteryear.
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 al 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 always 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