BY EILEEN WALSH
MY father served in the Royal Navy from October 1924 until December, 1946. He left his native West Cork at the age of 20 to enlist. He rarely spoke of his experiences in the Navy but I was fully aware from my mother that he had a very distinguished career.
This quiet unassuming man was eventually promoted to chief petty officer. He served on HMS Jaguar which made two trips to Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo in 1940. On the return of the second trip they were dive-bombed and the ship was disabled. Due to the injury of most of the officers, he was in command of bringing the ship back to port. 1,500 men were saved. Having seen the 1958 film Dunkirk, he said it ‘was unrealistic’, I wonder how he would rate the latest film.
He went on to serve in the Mediterranean during the war and was torpedoed several times. The following clip appeared in The Southern Star after his death in 1974, titled ‘Lucky War Rescue Recalled’. ‘Mr John McCarthy, Townshend St, Skibbereen, who died recently was a chief petty officer in the British Navy until his retirement some years ago. A comparatively young man, he saw service in some of the worst fighting areas in the last war. Mr McCarthy on one occasion when his ship went down was carrying the keys of all the lockers on the ship and their weight brought him underneath the surface.
‘He was trying to free himself when a net suddenly whisked him out of the water and landed him on board a British destroyer. The man handling the net that saved him was AB Joe McCarthy from Mardyke, Skibbereen.’
It was a remarkable encounter in the midst of a battle in the Mediterranean sea. He was awarded a vast array of medals. I wish he had lived to be openly honoured, as I fear he kept his experiences to himself unless he was sure of his company.
My father became friends with another navy man called Jerry O’Mahony from Toehead, Castletownshend.
When on leave, Jerry invited him to come to his home place where he introduced chief petty officer John McCarthy to his sister Nancy. John and Nancy married very early on a snowy day on January, 2nd, 1945, in Castlehaven Church after which they had their wedding breakfast in the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen.
He had only a few days’ leave and they had to be on the early bus to Cork where they honeymooned for a few days and Dad returned to his ship. Dad retired aged 42 the following year, and returned to his wife. They settled in Skibbereen where they raised a family of six children. Despite ill health he worked until aged 68. My mother says he had shrapnel coming out of his back for years after he retired from the navy. On the night of his death in January 1974, a local man described him as ‘one of nature’s gentlemen’.
• Reproduced by kind permission of Eileen Walsh. This article first appeared in The Irish Times.