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“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas.” Pope Francis, Let us Dream, December 2020

Fitting tribute to ‘poet-priest’ as final collection published

Late poet-priest Fr Michael McCarthy’s final collection of poetry has been published by Smith|Doorstop books. The cleric, who grew up in West Cork, Ireland, died earlier this year.

His final collection of poetry, titled The Bright Room, was completed just months before his death in July 2018.

The poems are alert with self-knowledge and social comment, and are a fitting testament to Fr McCarthy as a poet and a man.

Speaking only months before his death, Fr McCarthy, who was parish priest of St Joseph’s, Sherburn-in-Elmet, and Immaculate Conception, Scarthingwell, until his death, said: “Recently I spent a term as poet-in-residence at my Alma Mater, Carlow College St Patrick’s, where I was a student in the 60s. Meeting my 18-year-old self again, along with all that has happened in the intervening years was a huge challenge. The Bright Room is my current work in progress, reflecting on that.”

The Bright Room brings together poems written over the last decade. Wise, clear-eyed and imaginative, these poems are very much a memoir: from childhood stories in rural Ireland, to later life as a priest in contemporary Britain.

As Smith|Doorstop started to gather material for Fr McCarthy’s final collection, he told the publisher how he explored the world through poetry.

“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,” he said. “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 a valued skill. I fancied myself as a teller of tales.”

Although keen on sport, Fr McCarthy admitted that he was not proficient at it. “I lived by my wits,” he explained. “I used my aptitude for words by composing humorous or derogatory ditties about classmates. At some point all that got left behind. I regarded writing as something for the experts.”

Fr McCarthy revealed that Irish poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh – who famously penned the poem On Raglan Road, which was later put to music and turned into a song by Luke Kelly of The Dubliners – was a great inspiration.

“When I read Patrick Kavanagh I related to its rural aspects, and was nourished by the spirituality inherent in his work,” he said. “In my early 40s 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.”

Fr McCarthy’s first poetry collection, Birds’ Nests and Other Poems, won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. His second, At the Races, was the overall winner of the 2008 Book & Pamphlet Competition, chosen by Michael Longley. His third, The Healing Station, was chosen by Hilary Mantel as a Book of the Year in The Guardian. His children’s books have been translated into 17 languages.

He served as a priest in North Yorkshire for around 20 years until his death. Reflecting on his time in Sherburn-in-Elmet, Fr McCarthy said: “During that time I have been able to write at leisure.”

To purchase The Bright Room see:

Picture: Fr Michael McCarthy. (Smith|Doorstop).