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'His life was saved by a rat': The incredible stories behind MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere

What do pugs, a samurai sword, and a Buddhist centre have in common? We’ll give you one guess.

AT THE FOOT of the Caha mountains, on Cork’s rugged Beara Peninsula, lies Castletownbere. Right on the main square, holding pride of place at the heart of the town since 1860, is MacCarthy’s Bar. For over 150 years, the bar has been passed down from generation to generation of MacCarthy, creating a deep-rooted connection between this establishment and the rich heritage of the Peninsula.

MacCarthy’s is now run by sisters Adrienne and Niki MacCarthy, great-granddaughters of the original proprietor, and their resident pugs (“we’ve become synonymous with pugs!”, laughs Adrienne). It is known among locals and tourists alike as a spot for a drink, local food, live music and unequivocal community spirit.

“We’ve always been here” says Adrienne, who moved from London to Castletownbere to take over the running of the bar 39 years ago. “My great-grandparents originally had the grocers, before they had the bar, and they used to supply the local fishing boats and the lighthouse keepers. We keep that tradition going – if you’re here at midnight on a Saturday you can still get cornflakes and a pint of milk.”

The bar is decked out inside with memorabilia, from enamel Guinness mugs dating back to the early 1900s to an original bench from the Princess Beara, a steam boat that used to transport supplies to Bere Island from the Bantry Railway Line. However, the most impressive piece of history housed in the bar is a samurai sword which belonged to Adrienne’s father, World War II hero Dr Aidan MacCarthy.

Born in Castletownbere, Dr MacCarthy studied medicine at UCC before moving to England in search of work.

“World War II was coming when my father was in England, so he joined the Royal Air Force along with two other Irish friends”, says Adrienne.

Dr MacCarthy, having survived three days and three nights on the beaches at Dunkirk, was reassigned to fight in the Far East, where he was captured by Japanese soldiers, held as a prisoner of war for three and a half years before surviving the atomic bomb at Nagasaki.

It’s the most incredible story, his life was even saved by a rat at one point! He was one of 1,000 prisoners of war being transferred by ship to the Japanese mainland to work in factories as slave labour. A US submarine thought the vessel he was in was carrying enemy supplies and fired a torpedo. At the exact moment it struck, my father just happened to sit up to remove a rat that had gotten tangled in some netting at his feet. The reverberations of the torpedo on the steel hull killed anyone who had been lying down. My Dad was one of only 100 to survive.

A combination of extreme courage, skill, humility and luck saw Dr MacCarthy survive until peace was declared, and that is how a samurai sword came to find its home in a bar in West Cork.

Described by his daughter as “a doctor, through it all” Dr. MacCarthy saved the lives of many, including that of the Japanese commander who had held him prisoner.

“My Dad was presented with a samurai sword by the officer of the camp so we have the sword on display here, along with his feeding bowl and his medals, which we’re very proud to show and glad to share with anybody. It causes quite a bit of interest.”

Returning to England after the war, his home place was never far from Dr MacCarthy’s mind (“it was his roots and his home” says Adrienne), and when the last MacCarthy uncle passed away, leaving no-one to run the bar, the family business looked like it could be finished.

“My Dad said that we’d have to sell the place in Ireland, that there was no-one to take it over. I was finishing my nursing degree in London at the time and even at that young age, I realised how important this place was so I said I’d qualify and come over for 6 months and try it out. And I never left. I’ll be here 40 years next year.”

And what is it that keeps MacCarthy’s such a special place after 40 years? “Oh, it’s the people. At this very moment, we’ve got Australians and Americans sitting outside, they’ve been walking on Bere Island. Then we’ve got Spanish fishermen, they’re sitting inside having a beer and they’re on the internet talking to their families at home. We’ve got a group down from the Buddhist centre just up the road, then we’re got a few locals who’ve just been out for a walk, they’re in having a little refreshment. It’s just amazing the different people we get in; it makes it very interesting.”

Out shopping... #maccarthysbar #cork #ireland #guinness #igersireland

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More than just a popular spot for a drink, MacCarthy’s is a community hub, home to a local literature group, a book club, regular music sessions, Spanish and German language classes and award-winning food. “We won Georgina Campbell’s Pub of the Year in 2016 and honestly I was flabbergasted”, says Adrienne. “We don’t profess ourselves to be foodies but it’s just good, local, fresh food and that’s what people want.”

People come to visit the Beara Peninsula and seem to want to stay, according to Adrienne. “I think the place itself is quite magnetic and we’re part of the town, and an important part. We’re just very happy to be here. We enjoy every day. When you open the door in the morning it’s like a Cornucopia, because you kind of look forward to see who is coming in.”

“When I come down in the morning and it’s just quiet in the bar, you take a deep breath and you just feel the spirit of it. It’s local, traditional… mesmerising.  A little bit of history really. It’s just charismatic. You just have to see it, have to feel it and judge for yourself.”

More: I’ll stop you there. He’ll take the money’: How Cleere’s pub made new traditions in Kilkenny>

More: ‘Whoever made it, they put an atmosphere in the walls’: The magic of the Blackbird in Ballycotton>

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Trudi McDonald

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