“Everywhere I go in the world, as a teacher and performer, the greatest desire of many of those I meet is to hear and learn more about my own piano interpretations of the traditional music of Scotland and Ireland.”
Mary McCarthy’s approach to piano performance and teaching is rooted in her background in Irish traditional music and in her continued involvement with musicians in this field in Ireland and Scotland. Her music-making is passionate, sensitive and rigorous. So dedicated is she to the history and traditions of her musical heritage that when she came to Scotland she made a pilgrimage to visit Margaret Fay Shaw, the American writer whose life was devoted to recording the music and culture of South Uist. Mary had no money at the time and no clear idea what she was doing. ‘I didn’t know why I wanted to do it,’ she says. ‘I just knew I had to.’ The two women understood each other. Margaret Fay Shaw insisted on paying Mary’s fare, telling her, ‘I never paid for what I was given here.’
In 1996 Mary won a travelling scholarship to Serbia to study and engage with musicians and composers, some of whom are professors in Novi Sad Academy. While there she played her own and Serbian arrangements of Irish and Scottish music on Radio Novi Sad. Her pupil, 13 year old Lucy Dorman, was also invited to perform a Serbian song. Out of Mary’s fruitful collaboration with Serbian musicians came some of her most beautiful performances, the haunting Nocturne for Novi Sad and Balkan Dance.
The Nocturne was dedicated by composer Eddie McGuire to a young Serbian musician, Natasha Srdic, who came to Scotland while her country was embroiled in the war with Kosovo. She won the inaugural Rowena Ferguson Memorial Piano Competition in Edinburgh in 1999 by playing seven Balkan Dances by Serbian composer Marko Tajcevic. It was a time when Serbs were international pariahs but Eddie was touched by Natasha’ story and musicianship. He later arranged the nocturnes for solo piano. Mary McCarthy has played them as far afield as Colombo in Sri Lanka. In 2016 she returned to Serbia on a second travelling scholarship, renewing her collaboration with the musicians of Novi Sad, many of whom she had remained in touch with over the years.
Mary McCarthy was passionate about music from a very early age. She grew up in county Cork, where she was surrounded by music despite no-one around her having any formal training. Her father was a drummer in a pipe band but had never seen a note of music – he practised his paradiddles with spoons on the table. The aunts and uncles and cousins all had their own song that they had to sing at family parties. ‘Someone would say, Will we have a sing-song? which was the cue for an hour of songs everybody knew/half knew/or just enjoyed,’ remembers Mary.
When she was eight Mary’s father applied to the music school in Cork for her, not expecting her to get in for another year. By that time he hoped to have raised the money for a piano. But someone on the waiting list dropped out and the school took Mary straight away. She then had to spend the first four months pretending she had a piano at home to practise on. Her father, normally a very scrupulous man, told her she had to tell a lie and say they had one, so she did.
When the teacher asked her what she played at home she said, ‘Nothing.’
‘Oh, said the teacher. ‘Maybe your daddy and mummy are the sort who don’t let you play until you have lessons?’
‘Yes,’ said Mary, relieved.
She practised obsessively, doing all her exercises on the table until her father managed to buy the piano.
There was never any doubt that music was going to be her life. She won scholarships every year as the top pupil in her class and was ‘insatiable’ for music, her piano teacher said later. As a teenager she won the All-Ireland accordion championship and she even spent a number of years working as a pianist on cruise liners, which she loved. ‘They’d say to you, You will be finished by five, won’t you? because that’s when the bingo starts. The ones who’d never listened to classical music before were the ones who loved the music,’ she says. ‘I loved their open mindedness.’
Mary now performs, teaches and records. She is committed to sharing music and making it accessible to everyone. As an instrumentalist she is noted for the quiet spirituality of her performances, the limpid sensitivity of her tone. She has performed all over the world, giving concerts, TV and radio broadcasts, and recitals in Europe (including Serbia, Latvia, Sweden, Norway, Spain, the UK, and Ireland), Sri Lanka, the USA, the Caribbean, Latin America, and India.