Poet Thomas McCarthy's new collection is looking on the bright side of life

Thomas McCarthy launches his new collection of poetry at Cork World Book Fest. Picture: Denis Minihane

Thomas McCarthy’s new collection of poetry reflects his rebellious positivity, writes Colette Sheridan

Poet Thomas McCarthy, whose latest collection, Prophecy, will be launched at the Cork World Book Fest, reckons he never laughed until he met Catherine Coakley, the woman who became his wife.

His pessimism was something he had to unlearn. McCarthy, in a poem entitled ‘Ice Cream’, in his new collection, suggests a troubled relationship with his father.

“My father was a very difficult person. He was very depressed about the world and thought nothing good would come out of anything. So I had to teach myself optimism. It wasn’t something I got naturally.

I almost became an optimistic person as a deliberate rebellion against my father and his attitude to life. One of the constants in my character is that I become almost internally aggressive towards pessimism of any kind.

McCarthy, a retired librarian, who was born in Cappoquin, Co Waterford in 1954, had a challenging background.

“I came from a very poor family. My father was a postman but became very ill and was depressed while I was a child and never recovered. Becoming optimistic was a deliberate act of survival for me. To this day, I think of poetry as a last trace element of that childhood survival. It’s the thing that has bloomed and produced flowers for me.”

Prophecy, which follows the publication of Pandemonium three years ago, explores childhood memory and romantic love. It also deals with illness and recovery as well as ageing and creativity.

McCarthy had a radical prostatectomy a few years ago and has made a good recovery, having also had a serious operation on one of his kidneys when he was 35. Mortality is one of the themes in his writing.

“I think I was more obsessed with death when I was younger because both my parents died in their fifties. And I saw violent death around me. When I was 24, I was sitting in the centre of the bus that crashed in Glounthane in 1978, killing 14 people. I’ll never forget it. My parents had died in the previous two years. I realised what a thread we live on and that it can go at any moment.”

McCarthy is one of the old — or at least ageing — guard of Cork poets, even if he isn’t originally from the city.

A graduate of UCC, he name checks Gregory O’Donoghue, Maurice Riordan, Michael Davitt, Liam O’ Muirthile, Theo Dorgan, Greg Delanty and Gerry Murphy as being of his generation of poets. It’s a roll-call of men. (I remind him of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Liz O’Donoghue).

I don’t think there was an atmosphere that really allowed women to grow in confidence. The atmosphere is more nurturing for women in poetry now. Because of that and the end of a sort of laddish era in behaviour, women have come centre stage.

Asked what emerging poets he rates, McCarthy’s list of six contains four women. They are Doireann Ní Gríofa, Leanne O’Sullivan, Clodagh Beresford Dunne and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh.

The two male poets he admires are Billy Ramsell and Dean Browne. All are Cork-based apart from Beresford Dunne who lives in Dungarvan.

“If you were to publish an anthology of Munster poets now, those six poets are the future.”

Writing poetry is something McCarthy is compelled to do.

“I haven’t been able to live without it since I started writing at the age of fifteen.” (His first poem was a protest poem against the Vietnam War.)

While writing for McCarthy is an act of communication, “It’s mainly a conversation with myself over the years. I think light is a good explanation of it. You can have the light of prophecy and insight and also, the almost physical illumination of your day from poetry which you can achieve now and again. It puts light and colour into it. You live at a much more normal conventional level.”

Thomas McCarthy’s book launch takes place at the City Library on April 25 at 8pm. www.corkworldbookfest.com.

    World Book Fest: Selected highlights


    John Boyne, City Library, 2pm: The author recently gave up Twitter because of the online abuse he received about one of his newspaper articles, but presumably will get a warmer reception here for his appearance here.


    William Wall, Farmgate, 6pm: The Cork author launches his new book, Suzy, Suzy: Secrets, Lies, and Secondary School, about a troubled young teenager.

    Kit de Waal and Anne Griffin take part in a discussion on ‘Raising the bar for new fiction’. Triskel, 8pm


    Thomas McCarthy, City Library, 11am: The ‘other’ bearer of the name is a Traveller, singer and storyteller hailing from Birr, Co Offaly. He’ll have tales of fairies, heroes and banshees for young and old alike.

    Celebration of new books by local writers, Triskel, 8pm: Catherine Kirwan, Conal Creedon and Billy O’Callaghan will be in attendance.

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