John McCarthy 1950-2012

12 Jan


 This week I learned of the passing of a great friend, and absolute pillar of strength and humanity in the mental health movement.

John McCarthy was an Irishman on a mission, a man possessed, a man who described himself as a lifelong salesman. When he became mad, as he described it, this successful businessman and raconteur lost a lot, and gained other things. He lost his mind for a while, and lost his liberty whilst detained in hospital. But he gained insight, and the love he showed his family and then the wider ‘mad’ community across the world grew.

John campaigned tirelessly for better human rights for people with mental health problems, and he founded the Mad Pride movement, a social movement which has moved Cork, and Ireland in the direction of ending stigma.


Well not how you’d think. John’s mission wasn’t in social marketing, though he used video, the internet and the media to great effect. It wasn’t in advocacy, though he spoke for hundreds, thousands even.

 John’s central message was that mental illness doesn’t exist. What we call mental illness and what society defines as mental illness were to John aspects of a broad human condition and not something to be pathologised. To John the solution was in love, love in families, as he found and gave with his wife and children, but more widely love expressed in communities, love for fellow man.

 From visiting people in hospital, to encouraging groups of people having difficult times to meet in the pub once a week for a chat, to the festival of diversity and expression that the mad pride events became, it was all about making ‘mad’ just another kind of ‘normal’. This is hugely powerful message, because stigma is about the mark of difference. Saying having a mental health problem is just like having a broken leg is trite, because broken leg or mental ‘illness’ there is still a mark of difference. Saying, as John did, that madness is one part of the broader human condition removes the literal stigma.

For the last two years John had battled motor neurone disease. He knew he was dying, that his time on earth was limited, and it made the urgency of his mission in mental health more acute. I heard him speak about the irony of the fact that he’d lived when he wanted to die, and now as his urge for life was at its peak, his time was limited. Over the past two years he  applied his razor sharp brain to speaking, and inspiring people all over the world, from Prime Ministers to those detained and perhaps having forgotten their humanity.

I met John in the context of the mad pride movement, when he came to European Commission events which I helped organise.  He recited one of his poems, Prison Without Bars, below.  In a policy forum in Brussels. It captivated the audience and wrong footed those traditional policy forum people who often through necessity become colonised by the ways in which influence and consultation is done at European level.  Thereafter John’s popular appeal and sharp mind made him a regular on event invite lists. This is not to say that he ever gave up fighting for wider participation, and more grassroots representation.

John was as critical as I have seen a person of the direction and the interests at play at these kind of meetings. Many compromise, but John never did. But John was never rude. He was direct, articulate, and said things that many in the room believed, but were unable to say. But John said it. I took this photo of John in Lisbon in 2009. He was looking out over Lisbon, on the top floor of a hotel, considering his next move, in a conference which was tense, and at which he felt, with some justification, that the policy world might roll past the issues.

John was one of the most rational, most articulate men i’ve ever known. His poetry moves me to tears in its ability to capture mood. But hearing him was something else…as only an Irish salesman an auctioneer could, he would captivate a room, and he knew it.  Every time I met John, I hoped I could integrate a bit of what he had into what I could offer. He was the noblest thorn in the side of the establishment, dignified, diligent, intelligent and committed. And totally sane.

Rest in Peace.


Prison without bars


(Title taken from Joe Healy whose son, Gerard used the words to describe living and dying with HIV/Aids, they are perfect to ascribe to emotional illness.)


Picture if you will a prison,

concrete walls, bars of steel,

guards patrolling, custodians controlling,

now remove the above,

you are as free as a dove,

vistas uninhibited, outside control

unrestricted, no access denied,

light, sunshine, obtainable,

but not attainable

for you are in a prison without bars.


I have been in such a place,

a self proclaimed confinement,

a prison created by the mind,

no bars of steel could exert such pressure,

this is solitary confinement,

while being crushed by humanity,

air which is sweet to others, tastes stale and foul,

freedom obtainable, unobtainable,

speech constricted while others expound.

This prison without bars.


How to describe this horror,

will words suffice?

the pain physical not mental,

the horror mental not physical.

The despair all encompassing,

choking on an abundance of air,

food tasteless, drink wasted, washing,

cleaning, hygiene, baseless.

Memory denuded, friends excluded, family precluded, sunshine on a lake is black.

This is the reality of a prison without bars.


You long for attention, redemption,

your heart, soul, flesh and bones,

pine for comfort succour,

this is offered by your lover,

not daily, hourly, but constantly,

consistently.  She approaches,

her eyes shining with love,

her arms open, her heart exposed.

You crave with every fibre of your

being to be held in that loving embrace,

but your mind screams rejection.

This is the reality of the prison without bars.


She retreats, her eyes now show pain,

hurt, helplessness, puzzlement,

who is this husk that was once her husband,

where is the companion for life,

with whom she shared plans,

laughed together, loved with passion,

viewed the world with compassion,

hope sprang eternal,

there was no need to fear,

the future waited quietly, compliantly, confidently,

we would always get there.

My children, adults, not quiet,

fighting for my freedom,

hacking at my non existent bars,

oh how I needed them,

but rejection is always

the reality of the prison without bars.


But love conquers all, now I can see,

my wife nursed me, quietly, oh so patiently,

never, not one word of complaint

was heard down the years,

I heard, ”I love you, we will make it”

through her tears, hatred of my

illness turned to understanding,

I began to embrace it, acknowledge

its right to exist. Contradictorily, the less I

resisted the less it could persist, she

showed me the key, the key of life,

was always in my hand.


I have inserted this key,

turned the lock,

opened my nonexistent door.

Sunshine on a lake is beautiful.

Love and passion re-awoken,

depression is a companion I travel with,

leading not led I dictate the turns.

Never again to enter that Prison without bars.


Copyright John McCarthy 2004

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