Extracted from ‘The Irish Pub’ (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
When the author of Guy’s Postal Directory of Munster 1886 came to compile his section on the County Tipperary market town of Fethard, he must have paid close heed to the name of Michael McCarthy. From a single building on Main Street, this enterprising citizen was listed as baker, china and glass dealer, linen and woollen draper, grocer and spirit dealer, vintner and, perhaps most tellingly, town commissioner. Michael McCarthy died just five years later at the age of 64.
He had come along way since his arrival in Fethard from a farm in the Comeragh mountains beyond. Exactly when he arrived is unknown. He was not registered in 1846 but had a grocery in 1856 and was among those who signed the Cormack petition of 1858, calling for a review of the criminal justice system in Ireland.
Fethard (pronounced ‘Feathered’) stands in the midst of a beautiful, undulating plain of smoky mountains and wet roads, co-ops and creameries, ruined monasteries and lean racetracks. It became a town of consequence in the 13th century when encircled by a wall that stands proud today, restored in the past few years. Cromwell’s army camped here in the 1640s and the British army set up a barracks in the town in 1805. By then, the Fethard’s predominant business involved supplying the surrounding countryside with everyday goods. It also hosted a market every Monday and five annual fair days. Bianconi’s coaches frequently passed through the town on their way to Dublin and, later in the century, three trains arrived daily, en route between Clonmel and Thurles.
When Michael McCarthy’s widow Mary died in 1897, her eldest son Richard took the helm. In the 1886 Directory, Richard was listed as a ‘Boot and Shoe Maker’. In his short tenure as head of the family, he converted the shop on Main Street into one of the most popular hotels in Tipperary, operating thirty livery stables and a hackney carriage service from a series of yards running along the old town wall. Much of his business came from the nearby garrison and the cattle drovers who arrived in the night to attend the monthly fairs. By 7am, all transactions were complete, the livestock was on the train to Dublin and everyone was about ready for some good food and drink. Richard McCarthy made sure his hotel attracted its share of the business, with his staff preparing bacon and cabbage from 3:30pm.
Richard died aged 52 in 1911. For the next thirty years, Richard’s widow Mary, mother of his thirteen children, ran the business. The children were famous characters in the locality. One son, Gus McCarthy, a prominent Gaelic footballer, was playing for Tipperary at Croke Park when British forces opened fire on the crowd on Bloody Sunday 1920. His team-mate Mick Hogan was among fifteen killed that afternoon. While Gus served with the IRA, his brother Chris was a veteran of the British Crown forces and served in the trenches during the Great War. Chris later won the four-mile Conyngham Cup, then the centrepiece of the Punchestown festival.
Some years ago, a nun from Fethard was sitting sipping tea with a friend in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. An elderly gentleman approached and asked where they were from. When the nun explained that her home was Fethard, the gentleman revealed that he had been stationed in the Fethard barracks as a young officer. He told her that one of his duties was to act as a go-between with a young Irish officer on neutral ground. The designated location was none other than McCarthy’s Hotel and the young officer was Michael Collins.
A third McCarthy brother Dick, born in 1905, was the grandfather of Jasper Murphy who runs the pub today. Dick was a keen hurler, footballer and boxer, but also excelled in the ‘foreign sports’, playing scrum-half for Fethard one minute and taking to the cricket crease at Derryluskin the next. However, it was as a National Hunt jockey that Dick McCarthy was best known. In 1929, he went to Bob Gore’s stables at Findon in Sussex where, in his first season, he rode seventeen winners and came second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Dick spent twenty-two years in the saddle competing on racetracks across the British Isles, including three cracks at the Aintree Grand National.
After Mary McCarthy’s death in 1943, the two-storey hotel passed to her bachelor son Jack. Dick frequented the pub but wanted nothing to do with the running of it. ‘You could be giving drink to a fellow half the night and you could be giving it to him for nothing and in the finish he would turn around and abuse you’. Dick’s sisters, Beattie, Kitty and Nellie were also given life use of the premises. When Jack died in 1967, the sisters closed the hotel, concentrating instead on the pub. Upon Betty’s death in 1978, the operation passed to Dick’s daughter Annette.
The conundrums of the dairy industry and the cryptic world of horse racing tend to dominate the banter in McCarthy’s by day. The pub is the spiritual home of Coolmore Stud, the most successful thoroughbred stud in the world. A number of outstanding stables are also to be found in the vicinity. Numerous well-known faces have been spotted here over the years. Andrew Lloyd Webber lives nearby and it was here that he and Ben Elton wrote ‘The Beautiful Game’.
McCarthy’s possesses a dark and inviting interior, its tobacco-stained walls smothered by images of men clutching trophies, well-toned horses in mid flight, revolutionaries at play, the Bloody Sunday football team. The art includes prints of stags and pheasants and an atmospheric portrait of the late Giles Blundell and the late Christopher Horsman by Peter Curling. The grocery shelves lie to the left, partially secreted by a stained glass snug and advertisements for Fry’s chocolate. Rattan stools wait along a counter of solid oak that runs the length of the right-hand wall, broken mid-way by an arch. As one passes into a wider area, with comfortable sofas and a curiously ornate Emperor stove on the left, the soft light vanishes into the panelling on the walls and ceiling above. It remerges again to the rear where a door points the way to a restaurant.
McCarthy’s has a catchphrase: ‘We wine you, dine you and bury you’. Sure enough, the pub offers both an up-market restaurant and an acclaimed undertaker service. Coffins and hearses are parked in the former livery stables out the back. Annette’s son Jasper has enjoyed this side of the business ever since their ancient hearse driver greeted him with the immortal words, ‘I was dead for a while when you were away’. Jasper began undertaking when he was thirteen. ‘I was thrown into it, lifting bodies and all that’. As such, he is aware of the old superstitions of Fethard that the deceased should never pass through the street where Cromwell allegedly slipped from his horse and cursed the ground.
The McCarthy’s have some spiritual superstitions of their own. When a family member is close to death, it is said that a picture will falls from a wall, to be followed by three loud knocks at the front door.
Jasper lives nearby with his New Zealand born wife Sarah and their two children. After fifteen years away, he has happily ‘melted back into the place’ where he bides his time between running the business and his private passions flying airplanes and researching local history.