“My encounters have had consequences”

Actor, director and author Andrew McCarthy remembers the strangers who’ve helped him on his way
“My encounters have had consequences”

Illustration James Fryer

We were lost. It was late. We were hungry.

“Do you know someplace around here where a traveler could sleep?” my friend Seve, leaning out the window of our vehicle, asked two young women by the side of the road in the gloaming.

Apparently out for an evening stroll, the women were wrapped in woolen scarves. They looked left and right, as if getting their bearings. The tall one pointed up the hill behind her.

“Maybe up there?”

Seve and I had not seen the old country house half hidden behind the crown of the hill in the fog.

“Is it nice?” Seve asked.

“No idea,” the woman said. “We’re not from around here.”

“We’re down for a funeral,” the other shrugged. “Just out to clear our heads.”

“And escape the drink,” the tall one laughed.

We offered our condolences.
“That’s life,” the smaller one said, this time without the shrug.

We found the winding driveway a few hundred yards up the road. The inn stood beside the ruin of a 15th century castle. The air inside smelled of burning peat. The fireplace cast the damask wallpaper in a low glow. “You’re welcome here,” a tall, broad man behind a small reception counter assured us in a strong West Irish accent. He grabbed my hand, then lifted my bag.

“Have you any Guinness?” Seve asked.

“We’ve plenty of that, lads.”

And so began a 25-year relationship with Denis O’Callaghan and his family. Ballinalacken Castle House Hotel in County Clare became the port of call for Seve and me during our yearly trips to Ireland—trips which began as an escape from our lives that morphed somewhere along the way into an annual journey home. That we might never have known the O’Callaghans, save for two women we met by chance—who themselves were strangers there—is a whisper of life that we relive when we return.

In so many instances while on the road, my brief, anonymous, seemingly inconsequential encounters have had lasting, sometimes life-altering consequences.

Years ago in Singapore, during one of my earliest travels, I was jetlagged, alone and disoriented. I became gripped with a fear that made it hard to leave my hotel room. Eventually, I convinced myself to take a walk around the block. Maybe I’d go to the American Express office I saw earlier and make plans to return home.

On the way, I passed the Somerset metro station. For some reason, maybe because it reminded me of the subway back home in New York, I walked in, just to have a look. Inside was an old man sitting behind a folding card table. He said he was taking pictures of people for identification purposes and insisted I needed to have my photo taken. He told me to sit down. I did.

“Smile,” he said. “Light so bright. Control your eyes.” He showed me a book filled with images of people who smiled with closed eyes. I asked why he kept such a book. He ignored the question and told me he had been baptized a year earlier. He’d taken the name David. He was 85. His wife died in 1979. He had no upper teeth. When he was satisfied with my photo, he told me to leave. “God be with you all the way,” he said, then shook his bony fist at me in solidarity.

I returned to the street, thoughts of going home vanquished by his encouragement. Something in his willful spirit filled me with confidence, and I traveled fearlessly for months through Southeast Asia.

Another time, in northern Spain, I was walking the Camino de Santiago—a pilgrim’s path across the Iberian Peninsula. A hundred miles into my trudge, my spirits were lagging and my feet ached. A man sat by the side of the road, selling walking sticks he had carved from found branches. Looking for any support, I selected one.

“No,” he said, pointing to a seemingly similar stick. “This is the one for you.”

Something in his tone made me switch without question. Maybe any stick would have done the job, but in that piece of wood I felt the support I craved and strode the rest of the Camino on three legs and in high spirits.

There have been other encounters—brief, anonymous and helpful—in Patagonia, New Zealand and Hawaii. They have eased and paved my way. These strangers have expanded my worldview, offered me guidance and encouragement; in some instances, they changed my life. I owe them so much—if only they knew.

Andrew McCarthy’s debut YA fiction novel, Just Fly Away, is out now.