Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy grew up on a farm in West Cork, Ireland. His first poetry collection Birds’ Nests and Other Poems won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, and his latest collection – 'At the Races' (Smith/Doorstop, 2009) – was the overall winner of the 2008 Book & Pamphlet Competition, chosen by Michael Longley, and The Healing Station (smith|doorstop, 2015) was chosen as a Book of the Year by Hilary Mantel in the Guardian. His children’s books have been translated into seventeen languages. He worked as a priest in North Yorkshire. Fr Michael died in July 2018.


Michael McCarthy On Writing


I come from a story telling tradition. Public entertainment arrived late in rural Ireland. By the time the radio came on the scene I was already approaching my teens. Those in the local community who were known for their wit and story-telling were highly regarded. To be able to unfold a story that held the listener was an important and valued skill. I fancied myself as a teller of tales.


When I went to boarding school there was an English teacher whose delight was evident in the telling of a story and especially whenever he proclaimed a poem. ‘I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky’, He was a poet and he illustrated for me that there was something special about poetry and the making of poems.


Although keen on sport I was not proficient at it, nor did I have the physique to challenge the class bully. I lived by my wits. I used my aptitude for words by composing humorous or derogatory ditties about my classmates. At some point all that got left behind. I regarded writing as something for the experts.


When I read Patrick Kavanagh I related to its rural aspects, and was nourished by the spirituality inherent in his work. In my early 40’s when studying spirituality in Chicago I had a life changing experience. This was the catalyst that opened me up to my calling as a poet. Poetry and Spirituality became intertwined and have remained so since.


I began to learn the craft, turning up incognito at poetry readings at the Morden Tower in Newcastle, and Colpitts in Durham. On one such night, joining the company for a post reading drink I admitted that I was a closet poet and was invited to come along to  a workshop. My apprenticeship had begun.


When my time as Director of Spirituality at the Catholic seminary Ushaw College in Durham came to an end I took a year’s sabbatical in Western Canada. I returned with a body of work which I entered for the Patrick Kavanagh Award. To my utter delight I was declared the winner. The Ms became my first Collection: Birds’ Nests and Other Poems.


For the last twenty years I have served as a Priest in a small rural Parish in Sherburn in Elmet. During that time I have been able to write at leisure, travel widely, including a semester as Poet in Residence at an Anglican Theology Faculty in Canberra.


My most recent collection The Healing Station was the result of a three month residency at a unit for stroke and dementia sufferers at Tallaght Hospital in Dublin.  I flew to Dublin for two days each week, and wrote the pomes over the following two years. More recently I spent a term at Poet in Residence at my Alma Mater, Carlow College St Patricks, where I was a student in the 60’s. Meeting my eighteen year old self again, along with all that has happened in the intervening years was a huge challenge. This is my current work in progress.




"What I love about Michael’s poetry is the extraordinary specific detail, the pictures painted by the juxtaposition of words. It sings with a poetic intelligence. It moves me: the people, the memories, the vividness of detail." – Sinead Cusack

‘There’s a country where you’ll have the wit to name a field the cabbage garden; there’s another where you’ll name the living water nothing more than Cold Hill Pond; and there’s this pair of old incorrigibles, lost, not lost, in conversation. There’s a life lived there and here and always among people, mostly poor, apostles. There’s a parishful of poems: a circle of small shells / their ears to the ground. Any moment / now, the waters break. You wouldn’t want to miss it.’ – Gillian Allnutt


Review of Michael McCarthy’s The Healing Station

in London Grip http://londongrip.co.uk/2015/07/london-grip-poetry-review-mccarthy-bodo/

in The Guardian ‘Best Books of 2015 part 1, http://www.theguardian.com/books/ng-



The Bright Room and Other Poems 

Michael McCarthy

978-1-912196-15-9  |  Book  |  1st Oct 18  |  £9.95


The Bright Room brings together poems written over the last decade. This outstanding book confirms Michael McCarthy as an insightful storyteller, often drawing on his childhood in rural Ireland. Wise and grounded in the everyday the poems nevertheless celebrate the numinous moments in all our lives.


Here are stories that hold: from childhood in rural County Cork; from adult life lived largely in parish ministry; stories of travel worldwide and those spun up out of the nearly nowhere of imagination. And no shortage of humour: cheeky, fantastical, self-deprecating. I love the retelling of the story of Elijah, beautiful in its economy and simplicity and in the depth of love that finds a foothold in it; that depth revealed again in the leavetaking/arrival of the last poem, the bright room itself. – Gillian Allnutt




The Bright Room

from The Bright Room & Other Poems (smith|doorstop, 2018)


As I enter the bright room I see in the vase

The orb of my face formed into a fish

Gliding among the stems of tulips.


Finely shaped from the small shell of myself

I become a frail hand of feathers, I become

A red candle in the yellow sky.


My eyes are led along the length of the lintel

To the floating ark of Archimedes

To the delicate ship of heaven.


Deirdre of the Sorrows returns my look.    

Being gazed-upon I am sucked

Into the blue of her eyes.


I take off my shoes, feel the floor

Float out from the thin harbour

Of my unremembered self.                                                             


Under the pale rainbow

I am carried without resistance

Down the drag of disappearing night.


I have said this before, but don’t remember.

I have walked along the parallel lines of light.

I have arrived at daybreak and am no longer blind



7 July 2007 

In the dream my nephew, who is called after me 
meets me at the races. He tells me I’m on yesterday’s video. 
I remember yesterday, and where I was among the crowd. 
I was in the grass paddock beside the hayshed, 

standing on a rock above the furze machine. 
It was around 1957. ‘There you are’ he says, 
pointing up at the big screen.  

I see myself coming towards me. 
I’m wearing that checked grey overcoat. 
I walk out of the screen past myself and notice 
the overcoat is baggy. I’m bulkier than I thought. 
As I walk up the terrace steps I observe myself 
from the back. My hair is standing up. Thicker 
than I remember. It’s turning from grey to black.  

When I look again at the screen the video is finished. 
I want to see the playback. The remote is out of reach. 
I’m looking for a window-opener, or that long handled 
candle-snuffer, when a woman asks me if she can help. 
She gets the tape, a reel to reel, puts it into the machine. 
I ask if it can be fast forwarded. She says not. 
I’ll have to watch it from the start.

— From At the Races

Titles by this author

  At the Races
At the Races

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