With the release first of the Ifta-nominated documentary A Doctor’s Sword and now a fascinating book of the same name, Bob Jackson, a lecturer at Institute of Technology, Tralee, is spreading the legend of Dr Aidan MacCarthy.
Captured by the Japanese in Java at the height of the Second World War, MacCarthy, born in Castetownbere, West Cork, and who enlisted for the RAF as the war was breaking out, was held as a prisoner of war and ferried around various camps.
Halving in weight during his captivity, from 14-and-a-half stone to seven stone, he survived the battle of Dunkirk, a torpedo attack (thanks to the help of a rat), daily beatings, and finally the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki — indeed he was the first non-Japanese doctor to assist civilians in the aftermath.
One of the camp officers gifted MacCarthy his ancestral sword for sparing his life from angry prisoners — it has pride of place in MacCarthy’s bar in Castletownbere, run by his two daughters Adrienne and Nicola.
“The story is just beyond belief,” says Jackson. He first heard the story in 1999 and started filming the documentary in July 2010. “The intention was to tell his story but also then to find the origin of the sword, the family that had given it. After hearing it initially, and Adrienne had introduced me to the sword... I remember thinking there must be a family in Japan, to their dying shame, that their grandfather had given it away. I suppose that was the long-term ambition of trying to tie those two together.”
While the documentary shows Nicola’s journey in Japan to find the family and tell them this story, the book details MacCarthy’s unbelievable ordeal in engrossing detail. Jackson started writing it in May/June 2015 — and they were still finding information, such as MacCarthy’s PoW diary.
“His daughter, Nikki, gave that to me at some stage last year. It was in an envelope and there are illustrations in the book, you see the little calendar he made, there’s a couple of short little entries in it. We didn’t have that when we were making the documentary.”
He’s now searching for the original unedited manuscript of MacCarthy’s 1979 memoir — it contains a lot more gruesome details, he believes.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping part of MacCarthy’s tale is that, seven years after his release as a PoW, he and his wife go on holiday to Japan. “It’s something that blew me away completely: In 1952 Aidan and his wife Kathleen went to Japan on holiday. I don’t think I knew that when I was making the documentary.
“Personally, if I had endured that, I can’t imagine I’d enter a similar scenario, chat to the people, eat the food, hang out. It seems hard to fathom. I suppose that’s him forgiving the Japanese — that’s not words he mentioned in an interview or wrote in the book [his memoir]; that’s obviously the case, that he went back on his holidays.”
Jackson believes MacCarthy, over time, battled his demons and put his experience to rest. “Part of that, you’d have to say, is due to his strength of character or his mental strength, in that he was able to deal with it and also because of the fact he seemed to just forgive the Japanese and was able to leave his experiences behind him and move on with the rest of his life. In so much as he could.”
Adrienne and Nicola are pleased their father’s story is now being spread. “They’re delighted, especially if it’s a quiet time in the afternoon and they know a person is genuinely interested — they’ll go up and bring down the sword,” says Jackson.
”That bar is the centre of their worlds. Their great grandfather started the business in 1860 and so much of their family’s history is tied up in that bar.”
Has Jackson found it a humbling experience, making the documentary, writing the book, discovering new details to add to MacCarthy’s already amazing story?
“I remember reading his book and being blown away by it, but then when you find out a lot more of the background detail, and then you go back to his book, you see he gave this account but he’s not giving the full details, he’s holding back on so much of it. It’s genuine modesty. He’s not looking for praise or credit or anything like that for what he did. On so many levels he’s such an individual.
“You say, ‘Christ I wish I was a bit more like him’ — just as a person, such an impressive human being; didn’t show any bitterness towards the Japanese, was very forgiving, all of his instincts at all times seemed to be right, morally; the way he looks after people, not looking for any attention for it, keeping it all on the QT when he was looking after people. He was extremely generous but never went out of his way to get any recognition for it.”
- Bob Jackson will kick off a mini-bookshop tour in Waterstones Cork on Thursday, followed by Dingle Bookshop on Saturday, and O’Mahony’s Tralee on October 12. A Doctor’s Sword is published by Collins Press