Richard Murphy, poet

Born in Ceylon, August 6th, 1927 – Died in Sri Lanka, January 30th, 2018

February 2, 2018 – It was most probably the first ever ecumenical wedding service to be held in Scotland.  And most definitely the first to take place in the now exceedingly popular celebrity wedding venue of Luss Parish Church on the on the banks of Loch Lomond. The distinguished Anglo-Irish poet Richard Murphy, who has died in Sri Lanka aged 90, was told about the ceremony by his Scottish mother, Elizabeth Ormsby, whose wedding it was.

Three clergymen from different religions –  Anglican, Presbyterian and Wee Free – were involved in nuptials in the tiny sandstone Church of Scotland, where Elizabeth married William Murphy, the poet’s father. One of the bridesmaids was Church of Ireland and the other was Roman Catholic.

Mrs Murphy told her son: “I was married in the Church of Scotland at Luss on Loch Lomond on July 5, 1922.  An Anglican padre conducted the service in the presence of a Church of Scotland clergyman, who did not interfere. One of my bridesmaids was Church of Ireland – that was my sister-in-law, Eileen Murphy.  The other, Phyllis Jordan was a Roman Catholic from a family who lived at Ballinamore in Co Mayo. They believed the Ormsbys had taken their land from them hundreds of years ago, but we were good friends. At the end of this ecumenical service, long before such a thing had been heard of, a Wee Free Presbyterian minister called Jubb said a very long prayer.”

Luss village and Darroch, the Ormsby house, the church and the main street.

The Ormsby family lived in Luss in a house named Darroch, which has been recently modernised, and they also had a bolthole for boating at Thistle Cottage, beside the pier in the village, with magnificent views of Ben Lomond and the islands.

Betty Ormsby had travelled from Scotland to Dublin for a funeral and met William Murphy, who was 11 years her senior, while crossing the street outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Stephen’s Green.

She is said to have fallen love with him because his reefer jacket looked too big for him and was frayed at the cuffs and the buttons needed attention.

William Murphy was a diplomat based in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and his wife, Betty Ormsby, had their first child there delivered by a Sinhalese midwife.

That child was the poet Richard Murphy who established his reputation with The Last Galway Hooker, a poem inspired by his experience of buying and restoring a sailing boat of traditional design.

Dylan Thomas, Milton and Wordsworth were early influences on Murphy. His work had a strong regional dimension, and he was firmly committed to accurate historical narrative – a commitment clearly evident in one of his best-known works, The Battle of Aughrim.

However, he did not conform to the conventional image of a poet, according to Harold Nicolson, who introduced him to the art critic and historian Clive Bell.

Nicolson said: “Richard is a poet who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t, as far as we know, do anything else.”

Joyce’s pub in Cleggan and the locals who were there that day Richard Murphy had a pint with them, including Sheddy Feeney, Bunny Joyce, Padraig Churchill, Michael Macdonnell, Johnny Cloonan and cousins Frank and Owen King. Pictures by Bill Heaney.

That was not my experience and when we met in Bunny Joyce’s public house in Connemara where we lowered a few pints of stout with the locals.

The gathering out of the wind and rain included Sheddy Feeney, who was at that time the last living survivor of the Cleggan Disaster, a fishing tragedy in which 28 people were drowned and about which Murphy wrote a memorable eponymous poem.

Murphy was a tall, fair-haired, strikingly handsome man who wore a seaman’s cap and a long, black leather raincoat over an Aran sweater. His homespun tweed trousers were tucked into black wellington boots, which had been turned over at the top.

He was born at Milford House, Co Galway, the third child of William Lindsay Murphy and his wife, Elizabeth Mary (née Ormsby).

One of his ancestors, through an illegitimate line, was Charles I; his family was also related to Patrick Sarsfield. Part of his early childhood was spent in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where his father was the last British mayor of Colombo.

On his return to Ireland he attended Kylemore Abbey School and was later a boarder at Baymount Preparatory School, Dollymount, Dublin.

In 1937 he began studying music as a member of the Canterbury Cathedral choir. He became a senior chorister in 1940 and saw his future as a composer. However, the second World War interrupted his studies and he returned to Ireland following the evacuation of Dunkirk.

On winning a scholarship to King’s School, Canterbury, he rejected the school’s – and his family’s – military traditions in favour of pacifism and began to write poetry.

In 1944 he won a demyship to Magdelen College, Oxford, where he studied English and literature under CS Lewis. He left Oxford to live in Connemara, but returned and finished his BA in 1948, earning his MA in 1955. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from insurance broker in London to bailiff on the Erriff River, one of the finest angling rivers in Ireland.

Connemara Ave MariaRichard Murphy’s Galway hooker Ave Maria off Inishbofin in Connemara.

Winning the AE Memorial Award in 1951 enabled him to rent a cottage in Connemara for two years. The previous tenant was Ludwig Wittgenstein, some of whose letters he found in the turf shed.

He would later write a poem, In Memory of Wittgenstein at Rosroe, in tribute. In 1953, he taught English in Crete, and during the following year he took a course on French civilisation at the Sorbonne where he met his future wife, Patricia Avis. The couple visited Brittany and Crete and married in 1955, the year his first volume of poetry, The Archaeology of Love, was published.

The marriage ended in divorce in 1959 and Avis set up home near Parson’s Bookshop, near the Grand Canal in Dublin where she is said to have comforted the poet Patrick Kavanagh after he fell in on his way home from the pub one night.

In pursuit of a more active life, Murphy himself bought the Ave Maria, the boat that inspired The Last Galway Hooker, and started a fishing and tourism business in Cleggan where, helped by villagers, including Owen King, whose mother was from Dumbarton, he built a house by the pier.

He bought a second hooker, The Truelight, in 1961 and his business helped to revive Cleggan’s fishing industry that had gone into decline following the 1927 storm described in his poem The Cleggan Disaster.

On selling The Truelight in 1964 he did little sailing thereafter. In 1966 he completed the building of a house at Cleggan, and in 1969 purchased High Island where he could work in solitude. He built a second retreat on nearby Omey Island in 1974. Among the visitors he entertained in Cleggan were Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, Peter O’Toole, Sian Phillips and Louis MacNeice. 

Mary Ure, Robert Shaw and Peter O’Toole

Helensburgh-born film star, Mary Ure, whose family designed and built Cairndhu on the seafront at Kidston, and her husband, Robert Shaw, who starred in Jaws and other mega movies, were also regular guests at the Murphy house which was built of a distinctive pink sandstone drawn from the walls of cottages which had been abandoned by families who emigrated after the Great Famine of 1843.

Another visitor, the American poet Theodore Roethke, refused to leave Inishbofin and had to be carted off to Ballinasloe mental hospital after a week-long drinking bout. The sudden death of a close friend, Tony White, in 1976 affected Murphy deeply and he decided to move to Dublin.

By this time, The Battle of Aughrim (1968) and High Island (1974) had consolidated his reputation. The Battle of Aughrim, originally commissioned for radio by the BBC, had as its central theme the bridging of Ireland’s two cultures. The title poem is a long narrative about the decisive Protestant victory over Catholic forces in 1691. His ancestors had fought on opposite sides and Murphy declared, “My underlying wish was to unite my divided self, as a renegade from a family of Protestant imperialists, in our divided country in a sequence faithful to the disunity of both. The poetry was to occupy a no man’s land between music, myth and history.”

The clash of cultures was the theme of the other poem in this volume, The God Who Eats Corn, which centred on his father’s retirement in Rhodesia after a career in the British colonial service. Connemara was the setting for High Island, which focused on a personal exploration of the self.

The Mirror Wall (1989) was the result of a visit to Sri Lanka after an absence of 50 years. The poems were inspired by, and adapted from, Sinhala songs inscribed at the base of frescoes in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, and reflected Murphy’s interest in language and communication between cultures.

Appalled by the political violence that he witnessed during his visit, he became the legal guardian of five young Sri Lankans whom he brought to Ireland for their safety.

Other major works included The Price of Stone (1985) and Collected Poems(2001). A recording of The Battle of Aughrim, with music by Seán Ó Riada, was issued in 1969. “Never mind that the poem’s balance of opposing forces was dissolved by Seán’s Irish nationalism.” Murphy recalled. “He didn’t want his music to reconcile the ancient conflict, but to win.”

In 1968 he met former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who was then minister for finance. When Haughey heard that he was the author of The Battle of Aughrim, he expressed surprise: “I thought that was written by an Irishman.” When it was explained that Murphy was indeed Irish, and living in Connemara, Haughey said, “We must give you a grant.”

He was literary adviser for a production by Michael Cacoyannis of Yeats’s version of Sophocles’ King Oedipus at the Abbey Theatre in 1973. A regular broadcaster on RTÉ and the BBC, his work is included in many anthologies. He taught in many American and English universities. He was a recipient of the American Irish Foundation Award, the British Arts Council Award and the Marten Toonder Award. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His autobiography, The Kick: A Life Among Writers, was published in 2002 by Granta and republished by Cork University Press last year. The collection The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012 (2013) is his most recent publication.

His childhood in Ireland was documented in The Other Irish Travellers, a BBC documentary made by his niece, Fiona Murphy, in 2012.

At the Yeats International Summer School in 2007 he advised fellow artists, “Never mind the bum notes, keep the music going until the end.” 

Last time I met Richard Murphy was on September 20, 2004, in the Clifden Bookshop in Connemara, owned by Maire O’Halloran and Nicole Shanahan (pictured above), where he had come to give a reading of his poems during Arts Week and to meet up with his many friends in Cleggan.

I purchased a copy of his autobiography, The Kick, which was described by his fellow poet John Montague as “a lively and even brave account of a rich and complicated life.” It was that and more.  Richard Murphy is survived by his daughter Emily and son William.


Bill Heaney is the author of How are things in Connemara? and other books including All Our Yesterdays and Two Minutes Silence. These books and Richard Murphy’s biography, The Kick, and books of poems are available from The Clifden Bookshop.

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