A Doctor’s Sword

Susan & I went to the multiplex cinema in Bantry last night to see the documentary film “A Doctor’s Sword”.

The late Pete McCarthy wrote that, “you should never pass a bar with your name on it” and his travelog “McCarthy’s Bar” features a (photoshopped) photograph of MacCarthy’s bar in Castletownbere on the Beara peninsula. This film is the remarkable story of a young man who was born in the bar and where a Japanese sword serves to tell his story.

Aidan MacCarthy was born on March 19th 2013, one of a family of 10 he was educated at Clongowes Wood, Presentation College and University College Cork where he graduated in medicine in 1938. There were few opportunities for new medical graduates in Ireland at the time so he travelled to the UK and found work and gained experience as a locum in England and Wales. After a night drinking in Soho with a couple of other Cork graduates they enrol with the RAF in early 1939.

After the outbreak of war Aidan was sent to France and then came back to England as part of the evacuation of Dunkirk. His next postings were to a number of airfields and at one of these his actions in saving men from a burning aircraft earned him the George Cross.

In 1942 he was sent to help the war effort in the Far East only to arrive after the fall of Singapore and be finally captured in Java. He spent the next 3 and a half years as a prisoner of war in camps in Java where he used his medical skills with the minimal equipment and medication available to ease the condition of his fellow prisoners.

In common with most who served time under the Japanese he rarely spoke of the privations, the arbitrary executions, beatings, starvation and disease that they endured.

As the course of the war changed he was sent to Japan on board a destroyer; torpedoed close to Nagasaki he was amongst 38 of the 980 PoWs who survived and were brought ashore by a whaling vessel. In August 1945 he and his fellow prisoners took shelter when they heard the air raid sirens when they emerged the city had been destroyed by the second atomic bomb.

Giving what help they could to the survivors of the blast, the prisoners took shelter in caves in the hills but were recaptured and transported some 28 miles away and held again until the Japanese surrender a couple of weeks later. Aidan was the senior officer in the camp and ensured discipline. He sheltered and protected the camp commandant from those prisoners who wanted to punish him. The commandant gave MacCarthy his sword, an act of huge significance to a Japanese officer.

On his eventual return to County Cork Aidan weighed 7 stone, half of what he had weighed at the outbreak of war. He continued to serve in the RAF, reaching the post of air commodore, and then worked as a GP in London until he was 80, he died in Northwood on 11th October 1995.

His biography “A Doctor’s War” was first published in 1979.

The film documents the journey that his daughter, Nicola, made to visit the places in Japan where her father had been held and to find the family of the commandant who gave him the sword. His other daughter Adrienne who runs the family bar completes the story. The ink drawings and animation illustrate graphically some of the events through which Aidan lived.

At the end of an RTE documentary about his life he is asked to what he attributes his survival through those days and replies, “my Irish Catholic heritage, my family background and lots and lots of luck.”

A wonderful film, that moves and inspires, about an amazing man – or perhaps an ordinary man who did extraordinary things because the circumstances demanded it of him.

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