McCarthy, Justin (1830–1912), journalist, historian, and politician, was born 22 November 1830 into a catholic family at Dunmanway, Co. Cork, second child and elder son of Michael Francis McCarthy (d. 1864), chief clerk to the Cork city magistrates, and Ellen McCarthy (née Fitzgerald; d. 1865). McCarthy's youth was spent in the environment of the modest bourgeoisie of Cork city. At 17 he completed his education and went to work on the Cork Examiner, a nationalist newspaper owned by John Francis Maguire (qv). While in Cork he joined the Temperance Institute and helped found the Cork Historical Society. This early exposure to a relatively liberal, religiously tolerant, middle-class atmosphere reinforced by contact with national (and especially Young Ireland) influences, remained fundamental to McCarthy's personal and political perspective.
He went to England in 1852 to find work as a journalist but was unsuccessful. On his return to Cork he was appointed secretary of the commission on Irish fairs and markets (4 December 1852). He then moved to Liverpool the following year to take a post on the Northern Daily Times. In February 1852 McCarthy met Charlotte (d. 15 August 1879), daughter of W. G. Allman of Bandon, Co. Cork, and on 27 March 1855 they married in a presbyterian chapel in Macclesfield, Cheshire. While in Liverpool Charlotte bore their two children, Justin Huntly (1856–1936), an author and MP (1884–92), and Charlotte Ely (1859–1943), who tended McCarthy during his last years. In January 1860 McCarthy moved to London, where he was on the staff of the radical Morning Star, coming under the influence of the radical John Bright. By January 1861 McCarthy was foreign editor; he was appointed editor in June 1865, remaining in this capacity until June 1868, when he resigned. In London he met leading writers and also began publishing essays and novels. In 1861 the Westminster Review published his piece on Voltaire, Paul Massie appeared anonymously in 1866, and The Waterdale neighbours under his own name in 1867. He ultimately wrote or co-wrote more than fifty books.
In September 1868 the McCarthys emigrated to the United States, where Justin's brother already lived. He toured widely, visiting thirty-five of the then thirty-seven states, and wrote for several periodicals. His novel My enemy's daughter came out in 1869. The family came back to London in May 1870 and Justin worked briefly for the Daily News before returning to the US to start a lecture tour in November. He returned to London in June 1871, becoming the parliamentary leader-writer for the liberal Daily News; he was employed by the newspaper for the next twenty-three years and also wrote for the Fortnightly Review, Contemporary Review, and Nineteenth Century.
During the 1870s McCarthy made his name as a novelist. A fair Saxon (1873), Linley Rochford (1874), Dear Lady Disdain (1875), Miss Misanthrope (1878), and Don Quixote (1879) established his reputation, which along with the first two volumes of A history of our own times (1878), followed later by five further volumes, won him a financial dividend. He also took an interest in Irish affairs, becoming a member of the Westminster Home Rule Association when it formed in 1877. Royalties enabled McCarthy to seek a parliamentary seat. On 4 April 1879, then aged 48, he was returned unopposed as a home ruler at the by-election for Co. Longford because, as he later recalled in The story of an Irishman (1904), ‘I was not likely to go into extremes on the one side or the other’ in the dispute between Isaac Butt (qv) and Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) over parliamentary ‘obstruction’. McCarthy's pleasant demeanour and moderation characterised his political dealings. He was reelected in April 1880 and supported Parnell's triumphant bid for the chairmanship of the home rule party. On 27 December 1880 McCarthy was chosen vice-chairman, a position he held until December 1890.
The next few years placed a strain on his loyalties. Always a home ruler in Irish politics, he was a committed liberal in other matters, continued to write for the Daily News, and after his wife's death immersed himself in the hospitality of London social life. Though he became a member of the Land League in August 1881, McCarthy took little direct part in the agrarian agitation. However, in summer 1881 he did become an original shareholder in United Ireland. During late autumn and early winter (1881–2) he took an extended trip to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, returning to London in February, and had a leading role in the negotiations leading to Parnell's release from Kilmainham gaol on 2 May 1882. He was relieved by the close of the land war.
Meanwhile McCarthy continued with his newspaper work, published two additional volumes of the History in 1881 and the first instalment of A history of the four Georges, and wrote novels (The comet of a season (1881), Maid of Athens (1883)). In late 1884 he met Mrs Campbell Praed and began an association leading to The Right Honourable (1886), The rebel rose (1888), The ladies’ gallery (1889), and the testament of their friendship, Our book of memories (1912). He also published several other non-fiction works including Modern leaders (1872), Sir Robert Peel (1891), Pope Leo XIII (1896), The story of Gladstone's life (1898), and British political leaders (1903).
Although regular in attendance in the house of commons, McCarthy played a subsidiary part in the political disputes of the 1880s but was invaluable as a conduit between British leaders and Parnell; perhaps never more so than during the short-lived conservative ministry (June 1885–January 1886), when he brought the lord lieutenant, Lord Carnarvon (qv), and Parnell together for a secret meeting. At the general election of 1885 he contested both Longford North and Londonderry city, narrowly losing the latter but being returned for the former. During the drafting of the government of Ireland bill McCarthy met John Morley (qv), the chief secretary, several times. At the general election of 1886 he stood again for Londonderry city and was awarded the seat when his opponent was unseated on petition. In spite of a heavy work load, some medical problems, and money worries, the years between 1886 and December 1890 were satisfying; he was lionised by liberal hostesses, his literary and journalistic careers flourished, and his son enjoyed success as a writer. In February 1888 McCarthy declined a paid post in the house of commons and in April he refused Parnell's offer of the post of managing director of the Freeman's Journal. Yet, a dark cloud hovered overhead, for he had joined the executive council of the Irish exhibition that opened in London in June 1888, closing in November with substantial indebtedness for which he was forced to bear a share of the deficit.
Undoubtedly, his greatest political trial came as a consequence of the Parnell divorce case. Recent scholarship has tended to absolve McCarthy from the previously-held view that he was too weak to confront Parnell with a message from Gladstone seeking his resignation. When the Irish party split on 6 December 1890 McCarthy led the withdrawal of the majority of Irish party MPs who thereafter, under his chairmanship, were known generally as ‘anti-Parnellites’. Under his chairmanship the Irish party won 72 seats in the 1892 general election; the Parnellites won only 9. In 1892 and 1893 McCarthy was pivotal in the negotiations over the second attempt to pass home rule legislation. McCarthy (though he wanted to relinquish the chairmanship several times) retained the largely thankless task until February 1896, when he resigned. Given the clashes of personality and other internecine disputes, McCarthy was perhaps the one figure who had the qualities essential to maintain a façade of unity within the party, though at the close of his tenure even that dissipated when T. M. Healy (qv) was expelled in late 1895.
Ill-health and financial problems plagued McCarthy's later years. In early 1891 he funded his portion (£2,000) of the debt incurred by the Irish exhibition by agreeing with his publisher to surrender the copyright of A history of our own times. He found himself of necessity producing ‘pot-boilers’. His works included The riddle ring, The dictator, and Red diamonds (1893). In March 1891 he suffered nervous exhaustion and had a succession of bouts of illness over the next few years, which in 1897 culminated in a serious crisis. In July 1897 he and his daughter moved to Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, where he spent most of his remaining life, gradually experiencing near-complete blindness. Nevertheless he continued to write by dictation and enjoyed a long period of remarkable productivity, with his last substantial work being published in 1911. His books of this period included Reminiscences (2 vols, 1899), The story of an Irishman (1904), and Irish recollections (1911), from which much of the early biographical information on his life is derived. Among his many other books were Mononia, a love story of ‘Forty-eight’ (1901), The reign of Queen Anne (2 vols, 1902), Ireland and her story (1903), and Julian Revelstone: a romance (1909). To ease his financial plight, the conservative prime minister, Arthur Balfour (qv), nominated him in 1902 for a civil list pension of £250 a year for his services to literature. He died on 24 April 1912 and was buried in Hampstead cemetery, London.
His papers are in the Justin McCarthy MSS (NLI), the J. F. X. O'Brien MSS (NLI), and the John Dillon MSS (TCD). A ‘Spy’ cartoon of McCarthy appeared in Vanity Fair (25 May 1885), and five portraits are reproduced in Our book of memories (1912).