Artist, teacher and influential figure in Cork culture

Maigread Murphy: November 10th, 1919 - February 18th, 2014


Throughout her long life, Maigread Murphy, who has died aged 94, was a formidable and deeply influential presence at the heart of Cork’s cultural, artistic and intellectual development.

Though best known as the wife of Seamus Murphy, the much-revered Cork sculptor, she was a gifted artist and designer in her own right and they met as students at the Cork School of Art. Her commercial work includes a design familiar to every devotee of Irish whiskey – the logo on the bottle of Paddy. She illustrated children’s books for authors including Eilís Dillon. She taught art for half a century to generations of schoolgirls at Scoil Mhuire and is fondly remembered as an encouraging and stimulating teacher.

An avid reader of crime fiction novels, she reviewed whodunits under the pseudonym Colm de Barra for the Irish Press book page edited by David Marcus. A lover of crosswords, she was a whiz at Crosaire but a few months after its original creator died, she turned to Simplex and was still doing it every day right up to the end.

Born into an artistic family in Youghal, culture and art were woven into the fabric of her life from childhood. Her mother, Cathleen, was an accomplished painter and her father, Joseph Higgins, a brilliant young sculptor who died when he was 40.

Later, though money was scarce, Maigread and Seamus preserved her father’s work by paying out of their own pockets to have it cast in bronze. Two marvellous heads by Higgins are in Cork’s municipal Crawford gallery.

Instead of playing with mass-produced toys, Maigread and her three siblings played with hand-crafted toys carved by their father. Perfect in every detail, the farm animals are little works of art. In turn, her own children grew up surrounded by sculpture, paintings, books and music and went on to excel in their own fields – Bebhinn is a well-known knitwear designer, Orla a book conservator and writer, and Colm a painter and musician.

Overlooking the city, the door of the family home, No 6 Wellesley Terrace, was always open. Once compared to a modern hedge school, it was a haven for independent thinkers who knew their views would be rigorously tested by Maigread.

At a crowded cremation service under a vaulted brick ceiling which resonated with traditional music and song, a measure of her esteem was heard in the warmth of homilies delivered by Prof John A Murphy, the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Maigread’s great friend, Mary Leland.

Guiding spirit
Observing that while people could be put off at a first meeting by what he called her “formidability”, Prof Murphy pointed out that though she was “a tough-minded woman” she had a “strong sense of humour”.

She was, he said, one of the guiding spirits at the weekly gathering of intellectuals in the old Palace Bar, a virtual salon of sparkling conversation and original ideas in a city characterised, as he put it, by the conservatism of its middle class. He emphasised that as an art teacher, she had made a profound impression on generations of Cork girls.

Blessed with a rare ability to communicate with children without talking down to them, she liked to hear their views on every subject. Illustrating this point, Ní Chuilleanáin recalled how as a four year old on holidays in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, not alone was she not put off when she first met Maigread, so impressed was she that a life-long friendship blossomed between them.

Imbued with what journalist and author Mary Leland described as “a love, almost a yearning for the Irish language”, which influenced her approach to the ordinary fact of living, she “wanted always to buy Irish, hear Irish and speak Irish whenever she could and wherever she could”.

Describing her as the “enabler” in their lives together, she recalled interviewing Seamus shortly before he died in 1975, when he told her it was thanks to Maigread that he was “one of the few people in Ireland still making a living by his craft”.

She is survived by her family, Bebhinn, Orla and Colm, her sister Sr Ita Higgins, grandchildren and great- grandchildren.