Thomas McCarthy: 'Our windows were smashed by National Front people'

In advance of his appearance at Cork Folk Festival, singer Thomas McCarthy talks Traveller culture, facing prejudice, and the love of reggae he inherited from his Jamaican neighbours 
Thomas McCarthy: 'Our windows were smashed by National Front people'

Thomas McCarthy, seen here in the Songs Of The Open Road documentary, will perform at Cork Folk Festival. 

From the time he was born, Thomas McCarthy has lived his life on the road. He feels out of sorts if he doesn’t have the wind in his hair. 

A member of the travelling community, as a child, McCarthy spent his days wandering around Ireland in a wagon, particularly along the western seaboard (but never to Northern Ireland because the Troubles were raging at the time).

“When I was young, I knocked on every door in the south of Ireland,” says McCarthy. “Most doors, we didn't even knock. We just opened the doors, and put on the kettle."

"Half the time, you’d know the people because you’d been there three or six months before. You were always welcome. It was the old Irish way. It was considered bad luck to refuse anybody.

“The old country people were superstitious. They could be thinking, ‘I could be refusing a holy man.’ So no Travellers were ever refused by Irish people. That only started after the 1960s. 

"People don't like it when I tell them today: ‘You have lost the nature your grandparents had’.” 


McCarthy recalls an old brother and sister who were never married. 

“My uncle was talking to the brother. I was talking to the old lady. I said to her, ‘Oh, when you go into town…’ She shot me a look and she said to me, ‘I don’t go into town. Sure what would I want in the town? He goes in if he wants,’ pointing at her brother.

“She said, ‘Do you see them trees in them fields over there on the laneway where you walked up? That’s where I was all my life.’ It dawned on me that some people's world was very small. 

"Country people would love to see you coming because you brought news. We were the news carriers for a long time. I remember houses in the early 1970s that didn’t have radios. So people didn’t hear anything or see anything until the Travellers came around.”

Aged 57, McCarthy was born in Birr, Co Offaly. He moved to London with his family when he was 10 years old. Since then, he’s constantly shuttling backwards and forwards across the Irish Sea. 

“I could never settle, the same as my mother,” he says. “I could never be happy in the one spot. I’d get the urge to go ‘home’ and I’d be gone. Back in those days, you’d get a coach.

"I’m going!’ I’d tell my family. I’d land in Dublin and it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.” 

These days, he has a ground-floor flat in London and he rents a room in a house in Dublin. He continues to spend his time moving between both worlds when he’s not gigging as a sean-nós singer or telling children’s stories.

The travelling community have always been good at storytelling. McCarthy’s grandfather was a master storyteller. He’d come home at five o’clock, have something to eat. Neighbours would gather around. 

At six o’clock, he’d start telling a story, only pausing at two o’clock in the morning, advising his listeners: “Come back tomorrow and you can listen to the rest of the story.”

In 2019, McCarthy won a Gradam Ceoil Award for traditional singer of the year. He has collected more than 1,200 songs. 

Upcoming performances include the Cork Folk Festival. After the festival, he will spend six months in Paris where he will do five concerts a week, as the centre piece for Cabaret de L’Exil – Irish Travellers, a theatre production celebrating Irish travelling culture, curated by Bartabas, the legendary French impresario and horse trainer. Bartabas’ interest was piqued by how marginalised Irish Travellers are.

“The French are very hot on that I find,” says McCarthy, who also featured recently in Songs Of The Open Road, a documentary by Cork filmmaker Pat Collins.  

“They are very critical when it comes to people being mistreated. I’ve been contacted quite a few times by French TV companies for commentary about Traveller history, for example, after the tragedy in Carrickmines,” says McCarthy, referencing a fire at a halting site in Co Dublin in October 2015 in which 10 Travellers died.

McCarthy says he has experienced discrimination throughout his life for being a Traveller – in Ireland and England. The United States is the only place he hasn’t, curiously. He identifies with other marginalised people.

“In London growing up, we moved into a block of flats,” he says. “It was in a huge estate. Our windows were smashed by National Front people. Jamaican people came out and they stood by my mother, and they said, ‘Nobody will say anything to you, lady. Don't worry.’ 

"They put the run on them. After that, they always kept an eye out for us.

“I always liked black people. People frowned on them back in those days. The English people were very racist. Openly racist. Not like the racism today, hidden, muttered under the breath. 

"You could walk into any pub in London and you had English on one side, and black and Irish on the other side.” 

McCarthy’s Jamaican neighbours also instilled in him a love of reggae music. 

“I remember when I first moved into the flats,” he says, “I’d hear all this Jamaican reggae. It’s not like the reggae you’d hear today. It was a certain brand of reggae called Studio One music. They’d be doing covers. It could be pop songs, but they were far superior. The music was brilliant and the best singers you could hear.”

McCarthy believes education in schools – and government policy, which, he says, is lacking in Ireland – are the best cures for discrimination. 

“I went to a school in Lancaster, England. I’ll never forget it. A seven-year-old, mixed-race boy came to me and he said, ‘Tom, are you a pikey?’ ‘Pikey’ is the same as ‘knacker’ in England.

“I sat him down. I whispered to him because I didn't want to embarrass him: ‘Do you know that that's a bad word?’ He pulled back from me and he looked at me all puzzled and he walked away from me. 

"I went back to that school one year later. That little fella marched up to me. He near enough pointed his finger at me. He said: ‘Tom, I went home and I told my dad that he was wrong calling you a “pikey”, that what he was saying was a bad word’.” 

  •  Thomas McCarthy will perform free concerts at MTU Bishopstown, 1pm, Thursday, 29 September and later that evening, 6pm, at An Spailpín Fánach (downstairs), as part of the Cork Folk Festival (Sept 29 - Oct 2). See:

Cork Folk Festival – Five other Highlights 

Matt Molloy will be joined by his Chieftains' bandmate Sean Keane. 
Matt Molloy will be joined by his Chieftains' bandmate Sean Keane. 

Fiddle Fair Gala Concert with Liz Doherty’s Fiddlesticks, North Cregg, Catriona McKay & Chris Stout, Lena Jonsson & Johanna Juhola (8pm, Friday, 30 September, Live at St. Luke’s) 

A mouth-watering session with legendary Chieftains’ musicians Sean Keane and Matt Molloy, joined by Máire Ní Chathasaigh & Chris Newman (8pm, Friday, 30 September, Triskel Christchurch) 

The peerless fiddler Frankie Gavin and Catherine McHugh, as part of a CD launch (1pm, Saturday, 1 October, Triskel Christchurch) 

Mary Greene is one of five female singers performing at the Gals At Play concert. 
Mary Greene is one of five female singers performing at the Gals At Play concert. 

  • “Gals at Play”, featuring five women composers at the top of their game, including Mary Greene, Niamh Murphy, Sarah O’Gorman, Alannah Thornburgh and Aileen Mythen. (4pm, Sunday, 2 October, An Spailpín Fánach)
  • Mary Black in concert with Bill Shanley, Pat Crowley, Nick Scott, Richie Buckley and Liam Bradley plus Gráinne Hunt (8pm, Sunday, 2 October, Cork Opera House)

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