NCAD lecturer turns daily commute into creative opportunity

Irish Lives: Tony Murphy uses his daily five hours on the road to capture ‘abstract compositions’ by remote-control camera


Friends say Tony Murphy’s car is a time machine. He says it’s a portal between his two worlds – the countryside of Co Roscommon where he lives and the National College of Art and Design in Dublin where he works.

At least four times a week he drives 100 miles from near Boyle to Dublin, a journey that takes 2½ hours door to door and must make him one of Ireland’s longest-distance commuters. He does the return journey in the late afternoon, bringing his time in the car to about five hours a day.

But for him the the journey is a buffer, giving him head space to adjust between leisure time with the family and the demands of work. And the time in the car is never wasted because it provides an opportunity to pursue his passion for photography.

During the journey a camera is clamped to the passenger or back seat, and using a remote trigger he captures streams of light and colour from the moving car. “Very abstract compositions,” he notes wryly.

The sculptor/carpenter/ photographer never stops observing. Well placed to spot the changing seasons, he tumbles out of bed at 5.30am and “depending on the weather” is on the road by 6am to 6.20am.

Dawn salute
His early-morning companions are “the walkers of Boyle” who winter and summer do laps around the abbey and the bypass, six or seven of them, and whose dawn salute marks the start of his day.

Mayo-born Murphy has been doing the commute since 2001. “There was a time when I had to queue to get on to the main Dublin road at that hour. And there were familiar cars which I started to notice were in front of me all the way [to Dublin] but not any more.”

There are no longer queues to get on to the N4.

The sun is always in his eyes as he drives, both morning and evening. “And there is always a beautiful sky behind me,” he notes ruefully.

For his 2012 photographic exhibition Twelve , a selection of images shot from his moving car and shown during the Boyle Arts Festival, he was marking his 12th year on the road. He calculated that by then he had spent one full year in his car going to and from work. “And by a year I mean 365 days of 24 hours.”

He does 800-1,000 miles, or 20 hours behind the wheel, each week. Sometimes his job – training future art teachers – takes him as far afield as Cork, Dundalk or Kilkenny when he has to supervise his students in the classroom.

“I actually say that there are eight days in my week but I spend one of them in my car,” he said.

The car is a 2004 Volkswagen Polo with 200,000 miles on the clock. It can get to Dublin and back on €25 worth of fuel. His wife Anne Marie and their children Jack (12), Kate (9), Grace (5) and Amy (2) are asleep when he slips out in the morning but he is usually home by 6.30pm in plenty of time to read a bedtime story for the younger ones.

“I have to be in Dublin by 9am because the NCAD car park is on a first come, first served basis,” he explains.

“My students and I often work through lunch in order to finish at 4pm and I try to do my administration work, preparing lectures, writing reports and so on, at home on a Friday.”

The family relish country life and have transformed a derelict cottage in the middle of a wood into a spacious child-friendly haven in the townland of Cornameeltha outside Boyle.

There is a treehouse at the bottom of the garden, wildlife including pine marten, foxes and badgers who visit them frequently, and neighbours who are close friends.

Social history

Another of

Murphy’s projects has brought him into the centre of the community. “It’s a social history of Cornameeltha called History Now which I have been working on for 2½ years.”

In order to document the lives of the 12 households in the townland, he regularly drops into his neighbours’ houses with his camera.

“At the start they would pose but now they just carry on with what they are doing – it could be peeling the spuds or feeding the chicks or standing at the range with the door open,” he says.

The Cornameeltha photos which he posts regularly on Flickr have proved a major hit with those who have emigrated from the community.

“Over time you notice things like the fact that there’s a Stanley range in all the houses and the kettle is always on the boil. They all have sculleries with heaps of shoes and they have dogs – but no animal is allowed in the house.”