The MacCarthy family: Their father survived Dunkirk, Nagasaki and a torpedoed ship. Will their pub survive Covid-19?

Daughters of Dr Aidan MacCarthy ‘gutted’ they cannot reopen Castletownbere bar

In a room above MacCarthy's bar in Castletownbere, Co Cork is a daily reminder that the world has survived worse travails than Covid-19.

The ceremonial sword was given to Dr Aidan MacCarthy, who grew up above the pub, by a Japanese officer who had guarded him while MacCarthy was in a prisoner of war camp in Japan during the second World War.

MacCarthy and his fellow inmates had been forced to dig their own graves at the Mitsubishi factory in Nagasaki where they were working as labourers when an American B-29 bomber dropped the second atomic bomb just three days after the first at Hiroshima.

In his own memoir, A Doctor’s War, MacCarthy recalled a “blue flash, accompanied by a very bright magnesium-type flare. Then came a frighteningly loud but rather flat explosion which was followed by a blast of hot air.


“Bodies lay everywhere, some horribly mutilated by falling walls, girders and flying glass. The rain was black - which frightened everybody, including the Japanese. Not knowing until later anything at all about the effects of an atomic explosion, I seriously wondered whether we had finally arrived at Judgement Day.

“An angry God was devastating the Japanese for their sins - and mistakenly including us in the holocaust.”

Aidan MacCarthy was a RAF doctor who survived Nagasaki as he had survived the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. He rescued the crew from a burning aircraft in 1941 at Honington air base in Suffolk, England where he was stationed and was awarded the George Medal for bravery.

A year later he was sent to north Africa and then to the Far East, where he was captured by the Japanese at Java. His prison ship was torpedoed by the Americans, and he spent 24 hours in the water before being rescued by another prison ship which took him to the Japanese mainland. Only 30 of the 1,000 men on board the ship survived.

Then he was an eyewitness to Nagasaki, an event which paradoxically saved his life as the Japanese were getting ready to shoot Allied prisoners-of-war in revenge for Hiroshima.You couldn’t make his life up. He died in 1995 at the age of 82.

Fourth generation

MacCarthy’s Bar has been in operation since 1860 and Adrienne and Nicola (known as Niki) are the fourth generation of the family to run it.

When the threat came that the pub would be sold out of the family after her uncle died in 1979, Adrienne packed up her life where she was training as a nurse and moved to the westernmost fringes of County Cork with a view to staying six months to see if she could make it work.

Never in those 160 years has the bar been shut for as long as it has been now during the coronavirus pandemic. Niki says they are “absolutely gutted” not to be able to open up as planned on August 10th.

MacCarthy’s Bar is not a “wet pub”. It sells food, but only between 11am and 4pm and the MacCarthy’s sisters concluded that it was not possible to open and then close again at 4pm every day.

“We are not a gastro pub, we are a rural pub really. A lot of the guys who come into us are regulars. They don’t want to be lumbered with a €9 meal,” Niki explained.

Like a lot of rural publicans they put in perspex screens and hand sanitisers. They reconfigured the bar so there would be one way in and one way out. They bought facemasks for all the 12 staff all at considerable expense.

“It’s gone on for too long at this stage. This week would be our main week of the year - it’s regatta week,” says Niki. “Thousands of people come back for that along with tourists. We have had to sit inside and watch them milling around with nowhere to go.”

‘This is not Temple Bar’

Niki says their feelings were ones of disappointment and anger when the Government announced for the second time that the pubs would not be reopening as a result of a spike in Covid-19 cases.

"Our situation is very different to a pub in the middle of Temple Bar. We are not talking about droves and droves of people. Just because somebody has a house party in Killarney means we can't open again. It's just not fair. We aren't in the same situation as gastropubs and sports bars in the city.

“When we first closed, we didn’t anticipate it would be that long. It was a bit of a novelty then, but the novelty has worn off now. We need to get back at it.”

Still, her father’s travails during the second World War puts things in perspective. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his death.

If anything, interest in his life has increased in the years since he died. His memoir A Doctor’s War first published in 1979 has since been republished.

There has been a well-received 2014 documentary on his life, A Doctor's Sword, and a follow up book A Doctor's Sword – How an Irish Doctor Survived War, Captivity and the Atomic Bomb by Bob Jackson.

In 2016 Prince Harry formally renamed a RAF facility as the MacCarthy Medical Centre at Honington. Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio documentary by MacCarthy narrated by the actor Sean Bean.

There is also a Netflix biopic in the works, says Nikki, but she is sworn to secrecy about the details.

MacCarthy’s Bar was already a tourist destination after the publication of the surprise international bestseller McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy which was published in 2000. It featured the pub door on the front. The “a” in MacCarthy was photoshopped out of the book to match the spelling of McCarthy’s name.

Now tourists come to see the sword "every single day", says Niki. At least they did when the pub was open. It was given to her father by Second Lieutenant Isao Kusuno, whom Aidan saved from a lynching by prisoners after the bomb was dropped in August 1945.

While some have experienced tragedy as a result of Covid-19 and other serious illnesses, her father’s incredible life story has put the inconveniences of this time for most of the rest of us into perspective.

“A few people have said to us that it could be a lot worse. It makes you wonder how he would have reacted to such a situation,” he said.

“I think he would have taken it in his stride and decided that it was just another thing to deal with. He lived every day (during the war) seriously not knowing if he would wake up alive.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times