Jerry McCarthy (1926-1995) could be the most criminally overlooked Sliabh Luachra fiddler of his generation. He was arguably as accomplished a musician as his teacher, Pádraig O’Keeffe, but he never gained the global acclaim some of his contemporaries did. Paudie O’Connor, master accordionist and scholar of Sliabh Luachra music, contributes a biographical essay befitting the great man:
Jerry Finbarr McCarthy was born 25th September 1926.He was the youngest of 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls. His father Jeremiah was a farmer and his mother, Catherine Keane, was a homemaker who was from Currow. (Incidentally, Catherine Keane was grand aunt of the great rugby player Moss Keane. Jerry and all the family were very proud of Moss and his rugby achievements). Jerry grew up in a townland called Gortgloss (An Gort Glas, also anglicised Gortglass, meaning the green fields). Jerry’s home place is situated on the top of a hill with breathtaking views of the whole county of Kerry. One can see as far as Castlemaine on a clear day. It is situated 9 kms from Castleisland and 5km from Scartaglin. The farm where Jerry grew in was originally one farm of 100 acres. His grandfather divided the farm between two of his sons. The original home of the McCarthys can be dated back to 1840. This house is now occupied by Sonny McCarthy, his first cousin. Jerry’s father built a dwelling house on the divided farm. Jerry had a very simple upbringing. He really enjoyed the land and all things associated with it, milking cows, saving hay, going to the bog. His faith was very important to him. Family rosary was recited nightly. He had a great love of greyhounds and nature. He went to school every day through the fields to Scartaglin. His teachers included Mrs. Griffin and Ned Murphy. He often brought the fiddle to school to play.
Jerry showed a keen interest in music from a very early age. His father and aunts played concertina. They would often play music in Gortgloss. His brothers or sisters did not play. From a very early age Jerry use to pretend to play the fiddle with two sticks. On seeing this, his mother decided to send him to fiddle lessons. One of his first music teachers was Sr. Loyola, a presentation nun who was a secondary school teacher in Castleisland. Traditional music was very important in the area at the time. Musicians would ramble from house to house to provide entertainment. Pádraig O’Keeffe, the well-known fiddle master taught music to many of Jerry’s neighbours. Jerry had developed a huge respect for Pádraig O’Keefe and he passed on his love of music to Jerry. Pádraig taught in many of the local houses including the O’Connors and O’ Connells. He would come up to the house once every 3 weeks and writ e out a tune.
Jerry began to make a name for himself as a young adult, winning local feiseanna and fleadhs. In 1949 he won a gold medal at the Oireachtas. This was a huge honour for him and his county. He was extremely proud of this achievement. (Unfortunately these medals and other medals and trophies he had won were stolen in a robbery at his apartment in New York in the 1970’s.) He played with the O’Rahilly ceili band for a short time. Also, he began to play on a regular basis for Radio Éireann . These programmes included Den Joes ‘Take the floor’, The Seamus Ennis programme and ‘Beginners Please’. Many of these were live broadcasts and many in the area can remember the excitement that a local lad was playing on the radio and gathering around the radio to listen to him. The late Ciaran MacMathuna also made recordings of him in Kerry and later in New York. Ciaran recalled in a 1995 programme of ‘Mo Ceol Thu’, first recording Jerry at a fleadh in Kenmare in 1955. Since Jerry could not drive Ciaran would collect him and they would travel to local sessions. Ciaran recalled, on that same programme, travelling to a session in Limerick one dark winters night. Jerry was playing the fiddle in the car when a cow appeared and Ciaran hit the cow. The cow was alright, the car was only slightly damaged. Jerry forgot the fiddle was on the seat and sat on it. That was the end of the fiddle (which was borrowed.) On another occasion Jerry played for Queen Salote of Tonga when she visited Killarney. She invited him to Tonga. He never made it. A journey a bit too far for a Kerryman.
When Jerry left school he worked as an insurance salesman. He worked for ‘Direct Life’ He would travel on his bike collecting money from neighbours and friends. He travelled to Castleisland, Cordal, Knocknagoshel and Ballydesmond. He was very popular in the area because of his music. A quiet man with a great sense of humour and always great for a yarn. He wasn’t materialistic and would give you the last penny in his pocket.
Jerry’s social life revolved around music. His neighbour and very good friend Timmy Spillane played music in local houses. Timmy played the button accordion. He was a bachelor who also lived in Gortgloss. Everyone loved the music and there was music in most households at the time. Another neighbour, Maggie O’Connor, really loved it when Jerry and Timmy called to her house. She has fond memories of Jerry arriving with his fiddle under his arm. Maggie loved their music so much that she bought a reel to reel recorder especially to record their music. These recordings are of excellent quality. They were recorded in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Maggie recalls travelling into Tralee to buy the recorder and buying the reel tapes. Jerry used to ramble into other houses in the area including O’Connors of Gortgloss and O’Connells in Cordal. Pádraig O’Keefe also taught the fiddle in these houses. Maggie recalls when Jerry and Timmy played the tune ‘The cup of tea’ it was time for her to stop listening to the music and put the kettle on!
Jerry decided to immigrate to England in the early 1960’s. His oldest brother Florry was now married in the homeplace and had several children. His father died on 1st Aug 1956. His mother at this stage was still alive. She died in 9 Sept 1970. His niece Noreen recalls Jerry becoming very upset when leaving Kerry, his family and friends but especially his home. Jerry spent time in Manchester and London. He stayed with fellow Kerry citizens. After a time he followed his two sisters Eileen and Peggy over to New York. There he worked as a security man, working for a time with the fiddle player Denis ‘The Weaver’ Murphy. They guarded the Mona Lisa when the portrait visited the Big Apple. When Denis told the story back home in Kerry, he said “They weren’t coming to look at the “Mona Lisa” at all; they were coming to see McCarthy”. (Jerry also worked with Denis for a time at the Bronx Zoo, and was fond of telling the story of Denis and the lion. It seems that on this occasion they had been out playing all night and came straight from the pubs in to work. Denis soon was asleep on his feet, and Jerry kindly brought him to a cosy, out-of-the-way spot to catch a few winks. This happened to be a cage shared by the zoo’s lion. Never mind that the poor animal was elderly and had lost all its teeth and claws from malnutrition. Denis didn’t know that, and his sleepiness was soon banished entirely! -ed.)
Jerry played music in Irish clubs and on Irish radio stations. He also had the honour of playing music in Carnegie hall on several occasions. Jerry met his wife Lena at a football match in 1965 in Gaelic park. They married in 1966 and had one daughter. They resided in an apartment in Valentines Ave and later in the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. This was mainly an Irish and Jewish community at the time. His daughter has memories of being brought to an Irish centre for All Ireland football finals when Jerry’s county were playing. He was a proud Kerry man and was a walking encyclopaedia on Kerry football. Jerry would return to Kerry on holidays from New York armed with his fiddle.
The community in the Bronx was changing in the mid 1970’s. Many of the Irish were moving out and being replaced by a new Hispanic community. The fast pace of life did not suit Jerry’s easy going temperament and he longed to return to Ireland. His two sisters Lena and Siobhan had already returned in 1977 to look after their sister Theresa who was terminally ill, and Jerry returned in 1978. He secured employment with the Electricity Supply Board in Dublin as a security man. He cycled most days to the ESB head office in Mount Street until his retirement in 1991. The family resided in St. Brendan’s Drive, Coolock, in Dublin. Interestingly, many of his neighbours were from Kerry. One of which was the great seanachai, Eamonn Kelly.
When he returned to Ireland his social life revolved around his music. He became great friends with the Chief Executive of the ESB, Paddy Moriarty (brother of the great radio commentator Micheal). Paddy would ask Jerry to play at ESB functions. He got involved every year with the ESB Tops of the Towns. He became a member of the Cluain Tarbh branch of Comhaltas. They held weekly sessions in the North Star Hotel on Amiens Street and later in the Maples hotel in Glasnevin. He also played every Tuesday night with the Sean Tracey branch of Comhaltas. As he did not drive he always depended on lifts. His friend Jimmy Markey would collect him every Tuesday night and the late great step dancer Donncha O’Muineachain would leave him home. He became friends with the piper Leon Rowsome (son of the renowned Leo Rowsome) who lived in nearby Artane and they met up for many a session. Leon died exactly a year before Jerry. Eamonn Kelly always presented Jerry with tickets to his opening nights in the Abbey Theatre. On a few occasions Jerry recorded music for Eamonn’s one-man shows. There was always a great meeting of Kerry people after Eamonn’s shows in the local pub in Abbey Street. Jerry always loved to meet up after such shows with another great Kerry friend, the late Con Houlihan. Jerry was always a great man for putting pen to paper and often wrote to Con, who would publish extracts of these letters in his Evening Press column. They would be about life at home in Kerry and Sliabh Luachra.
When Jerry returned to Ireland he took every opportunity to visit his beloved Kerry. He stayed with his sisters on these visits. He would write a letter beforehand to his friend Denis O’Connor who plays banjo. Jerry often played with Denis’s father Maurice, another fiddle player who was a pupil of Pádraig O’Keeffe. Denis would receive the letter a few days before hand. In it would be instructions when, where, and what time he wanted to be collected at. Denis would arrive at the appointed time and off they went to all parts of the county playing music. Denis has fond memories of this. Jerry voiced concerns to Denis that he had forgotten tunes he played before he went to America. Denis agreed that this was the case. Jerry never heard Maggie O’Connor’s recordings of him playing, but they verify that he played tunes in the 1950’s that he never played in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
One of Jerry’s memorable musical engagements was being asked to play music in the film ‘How many miles to Babylon’ starring a very young Daniel Day-Lewis. (1981) He enjoyed being collected every day and driven out to Ardmore Studios in Wicklow. Daniel Day-Lewis went on to win an Oscar for his role in ‘My left foot’. Jerry maintained that only for Daniel meeting the great Kerryman and hearing his music he wouldn’t be the great Oscar-winning actor that he is today. Jerry really enjoyed receiving his royalty cheques from that film for years afterwards as it was sold worldwide.
Jerry retired from the ESB in 1991. He had more time for his love of music, sport, politics and gardening. He could grow everything and anything and his lawn was like a golf course. Jerry loved the GAA and would listen to all the matches on Sunday on his transistor radio as they were not shown on the television at the time. He recorded many of the Kerry matches on his tape recorder. Jerry spent hours every day playing music in his bedroom with the curtains closed. Interestingly, Pádraig O’Keeffe was said to have had the same habit.
Jerry continued to make recordings for RTE for programmes such as ‘Mo Cheol Thu’, ‘Ceili House’ and was part of a television programme which was recorded in Dingle. This can be seen in series 7 of ‘Come West Along the Road’. Jerry enjoyed playing all types of traditional music, but he had a very distinctive Sliabh Luachra style of playing. His air playing was very special and his party piece was ‘An Chuilfhionn’ He loved playing polkas and slides and would have very unusual variations of these tunes. He would play a tune and change key mid-way. Jerry was also a beautiful singer. He loved singing Shanagolden. He would play the tune first on the fiddle, sing the 5 or 6 verses and finish it off by playing it on the fiddle again. During the latter years of his life his little finger on his left hand became problematic. He couldn’t use this finger when playing B’. This frustrated him and he often tried to use his knuckle when playing this note.
Jerry’s health began to fail soon after his retirement. A life-long smoker, he developed emphysema and later lung cancer. He spent his final few weeks of his life in his beloved Kerry. He returned to Dublin just before he died and had a very peaceful death. He passed away on Good Friday 14th April 1995.
Learned from: Pádraig O’Keeffe
Taught: Denis “The Hat” McMahon