McCarthy is the second child of John George McCarthy of Cork, plumber, and Agnes Abina McCarthy (née O’Donoghue). He is educated at Presentation Brothers College, Cork, University College Dublin (UCD), and King’s Inns, where he enrolls in 1948. He is called to the bar in 1956.
On June 7, 1951, McCarthy marries Muriel, daughter of Liam Breslin. She becomes (1989) keeper of Marsh’s Library, Dublin, receives an honorary LL.D from National University of Ireland (NUI), and is also made an honorary lay canon of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. They live at 367 Howth Road, Raheny, Dublin, and have one son and two daughters.
After graduating from UCD McCarthy briefly works as a clerk on a building site and as an insurance agent before becoming an actor with the Radio Éireann Repertory in 1947. During his time with Radio Éireann he also writes four plays, one of which, entitled Jericho’s trumpets, is based on his experiences in the insurance industry. He is later employed as a speech and drama teacher by Cork vocational educational committee. At the same time, he develops an interest in industrial relations as treasurer of the actors’ trade union Equity and then as secretary of the Civil Service Alliance. In 1956 he becomes full-time general secretary of the Vocational Teacher’s Association, which later becomes the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). Through this post he eventually becomes president (1963–64) of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and sits on the executive committee for ten years. As secretary to the International Committee of Technical Teachers he organises conferences around the world and develops countless international contacts.
In 1968 McCarthy publishes his first book, The distasteful challenge. A damning indictment of the static nature of Irish society at the time, it stresses the need to face up to change, particularly in the areas of education, the civil service, and local government. This is followed in 1971 by Industrial democracy. The following year he takes a leave of absence from the TUI to become a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). In 1973 his dedication to the arts is rewarded with a seat (1973–76) on the RTÉ Authority and in the same year he publishes Decade of upheaval, which documents the experiences of the trade union movement during the turbulent era of the 1960s. In 1977 he becomes a lecturer in industrial relations at TCD and his 670-page magnum opus, Trade unions in Ireland, 1894–1960, is published to critical acclaim. In 1979 he is appointed to the chair in industrial relations at TCD and becomes head of the school of business and administrative studies. He is later appointed dean of the faculty of economic and social studies and made a fellow of TCD.
McCarthy is a firm believer in resolving industrial relations problems through negotiation. Both unions and management alike respect his views and abilities and he is frequently called on by the private and public sectors, as well as governments, to use his expertise to bring an end to protracted disputes. He sits on numerous public bodies including the National Industrial & Economic Council and the Irish National Productivity Committee. In 1985 his ability to bridge the divide between management and unions is recognised with his election to the council of the Irish Management Institute. Despite his career in industrial relations he maintains his interest in drama and is an original shareholder in the new Abbey Theatre. In 1973 he is appointed to the board of the theatre, serving as chairman from 1982–85. He is also a member of the board of governors and guardians of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, Dublin.
(From: “McCarthy, Charles” contributed by Shaun Boylan, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)