Born: April 25th, 1945
Died: January 17th, 2022
Seán McCarthy, who has died aged 76, was a playwright, author, script editor and dramaturge with strong connections to theatre and television in Ireland, England and Scotland, where he was a founding member of the renowned 7:84 agitprop theatre company.
A character actor and director by early-career training with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, he wrote some 20 plays, several TV dramas broadcast by the BBC and RTÉ, including what he described as “innumerable episodes and stories” for the RTÉ Sunday evening TV drama series Glenroe, for which he was script editor for many years.
His first acting gig was playing one half of a giant, the other half (history does not record which half) being played by the late Abbey actor Niall O'Brien
He was a large, physically imposing and visually striking man with an unkempt beard and great mop of hair. His first acting gig was playing one half of a giant, the other half (history does not record which half) being played by the late Abbey actor Niall O’Brien.
Described by his friend Philip O’Sullivan as “blazingly bright with an electric talent”, he did not seek the limelight for himself and was motivated throughout his life by a belief system that fused elements of Catholicism and socialism.
Seán McCarthy was born in Cork city in April 1945 and christened John but was called Seán throughout most of his life. His father, also called Seán , worked for Cork council; his mother, known to her grandchildren simply as Mom, was a home-maker. Young Seán was the second youngest, and the only boy, among five female siblings.
The family was close-knit and while McCarthy was a well-read young man, he struggled at school. He attended Turner’s Cross convent school and later St Josephs college in Freshford, Tipperary, Coláiste Chríost Rí secondary in Cork and Cork School of Music.
For a time, he considered a religious life, even to the extent of entering a seminary briefly, but a love of literature won out – thanks in part to his sister Marion bringing him to a speech and drama club.
“It was through this that he became passionate about literature and writing – always in longhand,” says his son, the Scottish film director Colm McCarthy.
This passion brought him first, in his late teens, to Dublin and the Abbey Theatre which he joined in 1964 as a budding actor and director. From there, he went to the Nottingham Playhouse where he met his first wife, Janet Fenton, a stage manager based in Scotland, which led to his association with Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum company and 7:84.
His first full-length play, The Fantastic Fin McCool, was staged in Edinburgh in 1974, directed by Kenny Ireland and with music by Planxty. The play got hm noticed and he was later appointed literary adviser to the Lyceum theatre company in Edinburgh and then artistic director of the Young Lyceum.
Other stage works followed, among them Childish Things, Rise and Shine, The Thin End of The Wedge, God is Good, The Marble Madonna, Father Mathew, Three Bunches of Blood and a Lump of Frog, and Beneath One Banner, a drama set in the Scottish Highlands in the 1860s in which starving and dispossessed Irish tenant farmers are victimised by local Orangemen. It was staged by 7:84 in 1986, while other plays premiered at The Abbey, the Royal Lyceum, on the BBC and Cork Opera House.
The socialist ethos of 7:84 appealed to McCarthy’s own values which were a mix of left wing and Thomas Aquinas.
“He saw socialism and Catholicism as interchangeable,” says his son Colm. “His work came out of a place that saw no distinction between Jesus Christ and socialism.”
In 1979, he returned to the Abbey to work, under the theatre’s newly appointed young director Joe Dowling, as its first full-time script editor-cum-dramaturge. This involved close collaboration with writers Bernard Farrell, Neil Donnelly, Graham Reid, Frank McGuinness and Antoine Ó Flatharta.
In the mid-1980s, he was back in Scotland as literary director of the Scottish Arts Council before returning to Dublin in 1991 as script and story editor of Glenroe, a post he held until the show ended in 2001, whence he returned to Cork.
While working in theatre and writing, McCarthy also continued acting. He had roles in The Homecoming, Treasure Ireland, Dracula, and in the genre defining Edge of Darkness. In retirement (though he never formally stopped working), he penned a novel, Citizen Dwyer, the life of the Co Wicklow rebel Michael Dwyer and, at the time of his death, he had just finished writing Patrick, an account in novel form of the life of the saint.
With Janet Fenton, he had four children – Eoin, Mary, Tom and Colm – but the pair parted company in 1981.
Not long after, he met Annmarie Cotter, a sweetheart from his teen years in Cork. They had met first as winners in the Feis Maitiú poetry competition for under 17s but had gone their separate ways into adulthood.
Children and grandchildren remember their home as one filled with fun and laughter, and passionate debate about history and politics
However, they met again in the late 1980s and they married, living together as soulmates, happy and contended for 30 years until his death. Children and grandchildren remember their home as one filled with fun and laughter, and passionate debate about history and politics.
In his spare time, Seán McCarthy enjoyed many genres of music, including classical, opera, trad, folk, rock and roll and African. He loved sport – football and Munster rugby especially.
Seán McCarthy is survived by his wife, Annmarie; his sons Eoin, Colm and Tom, and daughter Mary; his sisters Marion, Kay, Eilish and Yvonne; and grandchildren Zion, Nox, Cadhla, Louis, Astrid, Phoebe, John and Dylan.