Majella Murphy: ‘I was told that people like me usually end up in a lock-up ward’
A new song by musician Majella Murphy is based on her emergence from alcoholism into a brighter future
Majella Murphy: ‘Abusers are like leeches – they love the shadows – so let’s shine a big light on them.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
There’s a lyrical quality to Majella Murphy. It is there in her new single, Too Small to Follow, a song that tells the story of her stepping from the shadows of alcoholism back into the light. But it’s also in her voice when she speaks.
Even on a wet morning in the bar of the Dublin hotel where this interview takes place, she can evoke the glow of a riverbank on a glorious summer evening. Majella is reflecting on childhood days fly-fishing with her father, Bob, who died a year ago.
“He was the most beautiful man I have ever known and he loved every hair on my head,” she says, smiling. “The sky would be red, you’d know it was going to be a good day tomorrow, and the river was like silver, dancing, icicles, lit by the moon. And I’d be fishing, stuck in trees, and I’d hear the grass rustling on the riverbanks and my father would say, “Are you all right, Majell? And I knew, and I felt, as a child, of nine, 10, that I was special and loved.”
Her memory is made more meaningful by the fact that those days on that riverbank in Kilkenny, where she grew up, were a much-needed respite from shadows that blighted her life. She was sexually abused between the ages of eight and 13.
“I don’t want to get into the details of the abuse; its effects are more important to talk about,” she says. “He was a neighbour and he stalked me for 20 years after the abuse, which was worse, psychologically, than the abuse.
“I made a promise to God, that if anyone ever stood up to him I would back them. I didn’t have the courage. So, a man did [stand up to him], and the next day I made a statement to the guards. It took five years for him to plead guilty. His name is Mick Butler.”
Majella was 32 when she started that case. She had told her parents six years earlier about the abuse, but not before then, because of “a kind of misplaced shame”, which at times sent her into deeper despair. Abusers, she points out, “bank on that shame and the silence”. The tyranny of that silence is what she wanted to retaliate against by naming Butler, which she did some years later on The Late Late Show.
‘Abusers are like leeches’
“I read a victim statement in court and told them about the effect it had on my family, me, my friends, and what was really upsetting was that he was in the court and he laughed at me,” she says.
“But I said ‘I forgive Mick Butler’, and I looked at him and could see the relief washing over his face, as if he’d gotten away with this. But then I said, ‘I forgive him, because I had to forgive him, because it has been in my mind and driving me insane. He’s like the rust at the bottom of a bucket, useless to everyone and everything.’ Abusers are like leeches – they love the shadows – so let’s shine a big light on them.”
Butler served only five months of his 12-year sentence. Majella remains angry at this, and at the “ridiculous” financial outcome of a subsequent civil case. She was awarded €830,000 but “got not one penny. He doesn’t have €830,000.”
Majella stresses that she is not a victim or a survivor. She “hates those labels” and refuses “to be defined by” her sexual abuse. She defines herself fundamentally as an artist, and for her, creativity is the opposite of silence and shame.