03 July 2021

Castletownbere, MacCarthy’s Bar
and the Irish doctor in Nagasaki

Castletownbere … street art on a gable end in the colourful town in the Beara Peninsula (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During last month’s summer road trip or ‘staycation’ in West Cork and Co Kerry, two of us spent an afternoon in the Beara Peninsula. This is a compelling and beautiful place, with the Miskish and the Caha mountains forming the rugged spine of the peninsula that seems at times to be adrift in the Atlantic.

The Beara Peninsula, with Kenmare Bay to the north and Bantry Bay to the south, is rich with Bronze Age remains: wedge tombs, stone circles and standing stones. But it is also home to Ireland’s largest whitefish fleet, based in Castletownbere.

We set off from Glengarriff into this large and long peninsulas, stretching for almost 50 km from Glengarriff to Dursey Island and back to Kenmare, and one of the scenic routes along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The north part of the peninsula, from Kenmare to near Ardgroom, is in Co Kerry, while the rest of the peninsula in is Co Cork. The rugged mountains and craggy coastlines along the southern stretch of the Ring of Beara make this one of the best-kept secrets in West Cork, and travel writers have described it as the ‘most underrated road trip in Europe.’

The ferry to Bere Island takes about 10 minutes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We stopped and thought about taking the 10-minute ferry trip to Bere Island, 2 km off-shore, with its great forts, Martello tower, Ardnakinna Lighthouse and a number of looped walks. The island is about 11 km by 5 km – about the same size as Manhattan – and has a population of about 200.

Instead, however, we pressed on along the coast for lunch in the bustling and pretty town of Castletownbere, in O’Donoghue’s Bar, the Cornet House on the Square.

The Irish name of the town comes from a former castle built by the MacCarthy dynasty. Another castle, Dunboy Castle, 3 km west, was the seat of the O’Sullivan Beare family. During the Siege of Dunboy in 1602, Dunboy Castle was reduced by the forces of Elizabeth I. Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare then retreated with his followers to Leitrim.

Theobald Wolfe Tone sailed into Berehaven Harbour in 1796 with a French fleet that anchored off Ahabeg, 8 km east of Castletownbere. But the gales were so violent that they could not land.

Berehaven was one of the three ‘Treaty Ports’ until 1938 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During World War I, Berehaven Harbour was a base for naval convoys escorting civilian ships across the Atlantic.

The US navy set up an air station at Berehaven on 29 April 1918, but it closed again at the end of World War I. When the Anglo Irish Treaty was signed on 6 December 1921, one of its provisions was that Britain would retain sovereignty over three strategically important ports, or ‘Treaty ports,’ including the ‘Dockyard Port at Berehaven.’ The two other ports were in Lough Swilly and at Cobh (Queenstown).

After the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, the Royal Navy continued to maintain its presence at the forts and batteries around Castletownbere and on Bere Island, together known as Berehaven. British sovereignty in Berehaven continued until 29 September 1938, when Berehaven was handed over and the last British troops left by train from Bantry to Cork.

Today, Berehaven is rated as the second safest natural harbour in the world, and Castletownbere is an important fishing port and commercial hub. The surrounding area is the setting for Daphne du Maurier’s novel Hungry Hill (1943), named after the nearby mountain of the same name.

MacCarthy’s Bar … the birthplace of Dr Aidan MacCarthy and the cover image for MacCarthy’s Bar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Perhaps the best-knwon literary association in the town is MacCarthy’s Bar on the Square. It featured on the cover and in the title of Pete McCarthy’s book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland (1998). MacCarthy’s Bar was the birthplace of Dr Aidan MacCarthy (1913-1992) a prisoner of war in World War II, a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb, and author of A Doctor’s War (1979).

Air Commodore Joseph Aidan MacCarthy was born in Castletownbere on 19 March 1913 and was educated at Clongowes Wood School and University College Cork, where he graduated in medicine in 1938.

He practised first in Wales and then in London, where he joined the Royal Air Force. He was posted to France in 1940 and was evacuated from Dunkirk where he attended wounded allied soldiers while under fire from German aircraft. He was awarded the George Medal in 1941 for his part in the rescue of the crew of a crashed and burning Wellington bomber at RAF Honington.

MacCarthy was posted to the Far East in 1941, and was captured by the Japanese in Sumatra. The prison ship taking allied prisoners to Japan was sunk by a US submarine, and MacCarthy tried bravely to rescue his patients in the South China Sea.

As a prisoner in Japan, he cared for other prisoners of war who were forced to work in horrific conditions. He received extra punishment because the Japanese assumed MacCarthy was a close relative of General Douglas MacArthur.

He was in charge of a working party in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city on 9 August 1945. A week later, he was the senior allied serviceman in Japan at the Japanese surrender.

Dr MacCarthy later practiced medicine in England, and died in Northwood, London, on 11 October 1995. His family continues to live in Castletownbere.

Before leaving Castletownbere, two of us also visited the Church of the Sacred Heart, the Roman Catholic parish church, and Saint Peter's Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church. But the stories of these two churches are for next week.

Castletownbere is an important fishing port and Berehaven is the second safest natural harbour in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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