Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Michael 'Mikeen' McCarthy (1931-2004)

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Michael 'Mikeen' McCarthy (1931-2004)

Article excerpt

In 1975, in a pub just to the west of London, an Irish Travelling man was crouched in a corner of the bar recounting a story to a small group of fellow Travellers. This was our first encounter with Mikeen McCarthy, a man who was to become a good friend and to play an important part in our lives.


Mikeen was born into a Travelling family in a horse-drawn caravan on the fair green in Caherciveen, Co. Kerry, in 1931. His father, Michael senior, noted as a singer and storyteller both in the Travelling and settled communities, was a tinsmith who plied his trade mainly within a seventy mile radius of that town. The family spent the summer months travelling around Kerry and occasionally into neighbouring counties, in the wintertime moving into various houses in Caherciveen, enabling the youngsters to get a little schooling and their father to prepare tinware for the following season.

Mikeen began to learn tinsmithing at the age of eight and became skilled in a number of other trades: horse dealing, droving, and, in particular, caravan building. He also sold 'the ballads', printed song sheets which he got a local printer to run off after reciting the words to him. Mikeen and his mother would then hawk these around the fairs and markets in Kerry, singing the songs in the streets and pubs.

In 1952 he married Nonie Dooley and in the following year they moved to England in one of Mikeen's own horse-drawn caravans. They returned to Ireland after a short stay in Birmingham and moved into a house in Cork City for a time, the only period they spent off the road. Mikeen worked for the Cork Caravan Company, building vans for the tourist trade, and it was in Cork that he first became deeply involved in Traveller politics, fighting to improve conditions and provide decent sites. Mikeen and Nonie moved to England permanently in the mid-1960s and, while staying in East London, he helped set up the London Roadside Travellers Group, a body that worked closely with the GLC in attempting to improve the lot of Travellers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, we were able to introduce Mikeen to a larger audience by taking him to various folk clubs and events, including the National Folk Music Festival. He received great acclaim wherever he went, both for his singing and for his wonderful storytelling skills. He could hold an audience spellbound with his tales and took particular delight in making some short joke or yarn into a longer and often personalized story. One of our warmest memories is of the night, organized by Malcolm Taylor of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, when Mikeen and two other friends, Tom McCarthy, the West Clare piper, and Fermanagh fiddle player Fergus McTeggart, sang, told stories, played music, and reminisced about life and culture in rural Ireland to a rapt audience at Cecil Sharp House. …

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