MCCARTHY’S Bar, in the square in Castletownbere in West Cork, is familiar to visitors because it was on the front cover of the bestselling book of the same name, by writer Pete McCarthy. This traditional bar incorporates a small grocery shop and snug, but hides a dramatic story of human endurance.
Owner Adrienne McCarthy’s father, Adrian McCarthy, was interned in a Japanese prison camp in Nagasaki during World War 2, and escaped execution when the nuclear bomb was dropped on the city. McCarthy was the senior allied officer at the prison, so it was to him that the camp commander ceremoniously surrendered his Samurai sword. The sword’s hilt contains ashes of the commander’s ancestors. A film crew, with Irish Film Board funding, has returned to Nagasaki to tell this remarkable story.
McCarthy qualified from University College Cork as a doctor and went to England and enlisted in the RAF. “He was young, free and single and looking for adventure,” says Adrienne. “He had no real concept of the atrocities of war, or how quickly such an adventure could turn into a nightmare.”
After training, he was posted to Dunkirk, where he saw action and witnessed the chaos of retreat. In 1941, he rescued burned crew from a crashed bomber plane; he was later decorated. He was redeployed to Java, where he was captured by Japanese troops and transported to the first of a number of prison camps. Conditions were appalling. Food supplies were rotten, meagre, and often contaminated with weevils and maggots. Brutality from the guards was extreme and emaciated prisoners died from the strain of forced labour. McCarthy suffered aggressive beatings as his name sounded to the Japanese like the American General MacArthur.
In 1944, while being shipped to a camp on the Japanese mainland, the prisoners were torpedoed. McCarthy floated on wreckage. Picked up by a Japanese destroyer, they were beaten and thrown back overboard. Finally, they were picked up by a whaling vessel and 82 gaunt figures, hobbling and naked, were transferred to their final destination, in Nagasaki.
The prisoners worked in a coal mine and conditions remained harsh. Hope had been replaced by a lethargic fatalism. The men were made to dig a deep pit, six feet wide and 20ft square, with a shooting platform at one end. They were to be machine-gunned into it, but while they huddled in a shelter during an allied bombing raid, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Even in the shelter, they could hear the ferocious explosion, followed by dreadful silence. McCarthy, in his memoirs, recalled that there was a factory with 500 young female workers outside the prison camp gates. He wrote: “Where the building had been hit, they had been catapulted out, spread as a human carpet up to a distance of nearly 1,000 feet, giving the impression of a nightmare doll factory. The majority lay as if asleep, unmarked and unburnt.” As they emerged into the flattened city in an eerie twilight and surrounded by blind, wounded and terrified people, it seemed the world was ending. Later, after helping to bury the dead, the camp commander, whom McCarthy had protected from the prisoners in the aftermath of the bomb, surrendered. McCarthy’s experiences didn’t sour his view of humanity; he focused on the pleasure of living and on the value of family and friends. “Ironically, his brother was killed by the last bomb to fall in London, but his mother never gave up hope that Adrian was alive,” Adrienne says. “He was able to come back and see her before she died. He stayed on in the air force and was stationed for periods in Germany and Hong Kong. He took the chance to visit the Japanese mainland, to try and understand their culture and what had happened to him.”
He survived a brain tumour, and, despite the radiation exposure he endured, had two daughters, Adrienne and Nikki, with his wife, Kathleen. He worked until the age of 80. “We would ask him to tell us stories of war, but he would usually put us off,” Adrienne says. “We didn’t push it, because we knew he still suffered from nightmares. Eventually, he was persuaded by a friend to write his memoirs, which gave a graphic account of what had happened to him.”
Adrienne, who has run the bar for 33 years, says: “It is amazing to see how people respond to his memoirs. I still get letters from people who have been inspired by his courage. The sword also brings out strong reactions in people; it is a powerful object and a work of art, in its own right. For our family, it is part of our history and remains a powerful link with our memory of my father.”
In Japan, the film crew “visited the site of the prison camp, which is now a bus depot. The people were so gentle and respectful that, in a way, it has helped me to overcome some of my residual bitterness towards the Japanese people for what my father went through. They suffered a terrible punishment with the destruction of their city and they had to rebuild their lives, just as my father did.”