President leads tributes to poet Richard Murphy

Fellow poets pay tribute to a cosmopolitan Connacht man, a unique voice in Irish poetry, who died on Tuesday aged 90

Poet Richard Murphy in October 2000. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Poet Richard Murphy in October 2000. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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President Michael D Higgins
I have heard with great sadness of the death of Richard Murphy, one of the most distinguished poets and a member of Aosdána.

Only in 2016 the community of Inishbofin paid tribute to him with a special festival to which he sent a video message.

I had the privilege of speaking of his work and our meetings when he visited Galway. While The Battle of Aughrim (1968) made him famous, Sailing To An Island (1963) is one of the finest expositions of life, craft and the elements as they engage with the sea.

He had a great reading voice and was the second poet to be chosen, after Dylan Thomas, when the BBC first began to broadcast poetry read by living poets.

To his daughter Emily and son William and his many friends may I express the sorrow so many will feel at his passing. It is a sorrow that will be shared by those in Omey island, Cleggan and Sri Lanka.

Mary O’Malley, Seanbhaile
As a young women in Lisbon I carried around with me a book of poems called Sailing to an Island by Richard Murphy.

It was the only book I knew that wrote about the world I came  from as it was.  The only book in English,  that is.  That it was written by an Oxford-educated Anglo-Irishman, whose class had so far done little to impress me, hardly registered.  

Years later, when Richard read my second book of poems he immediately identified the family in a sequence relating loosely to the Big House,  with a raised eyebrow and his wolfish grin.  

‘They weren’t so grand,’ he said, smiling.

He was the only person I knew from the literary world that knew the place I came from as I knew it,  the families,  the boats,  the gossip. He had a gift for friendship and was well liked locally, in spite of his accent, which was mannered.  He had been well schooled in eloquence and the well-said thing mattered to him as much as a thing well-made.

Craft was of great importance to him,  in sailing and building, as well as in the making of a poem. And his poems were, indeed, the work of a master craftsman. 

I have a photograph of us both, standing outside the door of this house where I write, after a walk up Knockranny hill, during which he had told me in detail a story that would later appear, somewhat sanitised of necessity, in The Kick.

When I heard of his death, I took out the copy of High Island,  which he gave me because he wouldn’t sign the tattered copy of his first book I had carried with me all those years, and still have.

It reads, in part, “For Mary, Daughter of Padhraic O Maille, the man who sailed me in his pucan from Rosroe to Inis Bofin in 1952 as a  souvenir of our meeting...’

The same pucan that featured as the upside-down Cathedral in my own sequence of poems in my second book.

Sail on Richard.  Fair wind.

Theo Dorgan
Richard, it seems to me, went about the world in an aura of quiet. Grave and thoughtful in his manner of speech, unfailingly courteous, he could surprise with his sudden sparks of mischief, the unveiling of a sense of humour that was both mordant and contagious.

As a late-coming sailor myself, I remain enthralled by his accounts in poetry and prose of the adventures he enjoyed with the Ave Maria, not least by the high hilarity of that passage in ‘The Last Galway Hooker’ where he gives voice to the panicky conviction of his crew that, taking the helm, he will kill them all.

A self-deprecating instinct underpins most of his writing, a refreshing refusal to cast himself in the heroic mould, and this somehow guarantees the enduring qualities of calm and measured reflection in his work. Thus the poems earn what every poet must surely yearn for, the reader’s trust in the hard-gained truth of the words on the page.

Bernard O'Donoghue
Richard Murphy has outlived most of his poetic contemporaries, and later generations may need to be reminded that in the 1960s he was the one of the leading figures in English poetry published in Britain and Ireland, in the company of Larkin, Hughes and Heaney. He has tended to be placed in that disappearing and uncertain literary category, the Anglo-Irish; but his greatest significance is as one of the principal figures of the intermediate Irish generation after Yeats, along with Kavanagh, Clarke and MacNeice.

Despite his various domiciles – apart from Ireland  principally Sri Lanka, though he also lived in South Africa and England (in Oxford and Hull) – his primary focus was fixed on the politics and history of Ireland. Few poems bring Irish history to life as his masterly Battle of Aughrim does.

In his last years in Sri Lanka his day always began with scrutiny of The Irish Times online. Perhaps his greatest stylistic distinction was the creation of a poetic style which was a convincing accommodation of the English vernacular of the West of Ireland to the classic blank verse tradition of English poetry, in books like Sailing to an Island and High Island which were wonderful evocations of the natural world of Connemara and its shores. His narrative language in poems like ‘Pat Cloherty’s Version of the Maisie’ was as vivid as Synge’s. And he was a most gracious and generous host and conversationalist. His voice was an essential component of what was best in the Irish poetry of his time.

At the presentation in 1986 of the American-Irish Foundation literary awards (from left): Thomas McCarthy, Seamus Heaney, US Ambassador Margaret Heckler, Hubert Butler, Mary Lavin, Thomas Kilroy and Richard Murphy. Photograph: Pat Langan
At the presentation in 1986 of the American-Irish Foundation literary awards (from left): Thomas McCarthy, Seamus Heaney, US Ambassador Margaret Heckler, Hubert Butler, Mary Lavin, Thomas Kilroy and Richard Murphy. Photograph: Pat Langan

Caitriona O’Reilly
In the very early morning a couple of days ago, I was pottering around a hotel room in London. I had switched the television on to keep track of the time, and was half-listening to a morning show with its usual grotesquely juxtaposed five-minute segments on celebrity gossip, sports news, Brexit negotiations, and possible medical breakthroughs.

What made me prick up my ears was a discussion on funding for the arts in Britain, following the news that art departments are being closed in schools all over the country. A journalist was quizzing someone involved in what is depressingly called ‘the sector’, who robustly defended ‘the creative industries’ as a way of producing ideas that might later be useful in web design, for instance, or creative marketing. This is the purpose of creativity, he implied: to course through the veins of the great capitalist behemoth like a vitamin B12 shot, to rejuvenate it, to render it more productive. The discussion continued along these lines for some time, and I waited for the journalist to ask the most important question of all, knowing that she would not.

I thought of this disheartening little vignette again when I heard that Richard Murphy had died. I had the great pleasure and honour of publishing part of Richard Murphy’s last book, In Search of Poetry, during my tenure as editor of Poetry Ireland Review in 2011. Among other things, In Search of Poetry is concerned with, as John Burnside puts it, ‘the power and the limitations of poeisis’ in a time of ‘property-based values’. It was a section entitled ‘Miner’s Hut’ that appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, and as I reread it again just now I was struck by how clear-sighted and self-excoriating it is: ‘Often, not only in the past, but continually in the present, while I am in the midst of writing a line, composing myself to pray in the oratory of my mind, that oratory is demolished to provide the means to make money […] with a split mind, […] I go from seeking salvation in words to breaking up the dedication which the art of eloquence demands, for an easier gain from the work of other people’.

In Search of Poetry contains a searing examination of this conflict between the demands and temptations of Mammon and the higher purposes and consolations of art, from a poet who could truly be said to have taken seriously Eliot’s dictum that the poet should ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’. Murphy’s mastery of poetic form was of a piece with this Eliotic imperative, but his poetry, with its Augustan-corniced diction, was no mere exercise in style.

He was a poet who could get away with putting the words ‘rupestral concentricity’ in a poem, but who also refused to spare himself: ‘how selfishly you serve your own heart’s bent.’ Scarcely anything, now, remains uncontaminated by the shabby depredations of the age, with its drive to monetise, to commodify; not even poetry. In a time when so many important questions are negligently left unasked, Richard Murphy’s work continues both to pose these questions and to answer them.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
In the 1990s, I took part in a number of readings of Richard Murphy’s The Battle of Aughrim, a long poem he wrote in the 1960s for several voices and musical instruments. The most memorable of these was in the parish hall of Aughrim itself, on the three hundredth anniversary of the battle, the twelfth of July, 1991. The hall was full, and twice as many people were listening to amplifiers outside in the warm summer dusk.  Richard’s own part was a meditation on his own insertion into a new, ancient Ireland: his Church of Ireland christening, his discovery of slates from an early monastic settlement in his Connacht garden. But he also read the words of the English officer in the accent he’d got from his public-school OTC.  That recollection sums up for me the ease with which he slid eastward and westward, a poet of more than two worlds.  High Island, The Price of Stone, The Battle of Aughrim itself, express the depth of his identification with an Ireland west of the Shannon – with the land and its history which he can’t avoid seeing as archaic.  But there’s also the wild exoticism of The Mirror Wall, an exploration of an equally archaic civilisation in Sri Lanka, where he spent some of his childhood and where he found his last home.  He was adventurous, at home in many places, and he belongs to Irish poetry.

Maria Johnston
I can still remember where I was - at my desk in secondary school - when I came across Richard Murphy’s poem Natural Son (from his 1985 sonnet sequence The Price of Stone), in a textbook. Spoken to his newborn son, the dark undertow of the words as they slipped beyond my grasp blew me away. So this is a sonnet, I thought.  Fourteen lines, like Shakespeare’s, yet utterly new. Now I understood what was meant by poetic form: the poem seemed to create a room, but not a safe space, one filled with tensions and profound ambiguity. The fact that it rhymed only made it more disturbing. For the first time I saw how the white space surrounding the poem, void-like, suggested a cosmic loneliness: “To share our loneliness, much as we try.”

By the time I gave birth to my own son decades later I would understand better the complexity of emotion at its core and the  skill it took to shape such experience into a poem that expands and contracts over the line-breaks, that beats time with sorrow; loss filling the spaces even at the moment of birth. It remains one of my examples of how a poem, a mere arrangement of words, can shock you into being and catapult you out of your own skin across time. “This day you crave so little, we so much / For you to live, who need our merest touch.” That word “touch” seems to me the key to Murphy’s art: sensitive, tactile and tensile. A truly great poet of love and of the pain of love, of islands and the tug of community, Murphy is always moving between worlds; the sea’s unmoored language is his. There is no getting away from that word “loneliness” -  it is there in another sonnet, Lecknavarna, which ends with an image of the poet at work in his music: “Hearing that strong cadence, you learned your trade / Concerned with song in endless falling, stayed. The gift /  Of widespread raindrops crafted to great force” was Murphy’s to the end.  

Ben Keatinge
I came across the poetry of Richard Murphy not long after the publication of The Kick in 2002. His work seemed to speak of many themes and dilemmas that I had experienced growing up between Dublin and London and speaking with an English voice while visiting Connemara for holidays during my school years. His own interrogation of his background, in poetry and in memoir, I found candid, engaging and true. He writes in The Kick that the composition of The Battle of Aughrim (1968) was his attempt to confront “the divisions and devastations” of his self as well as those on our island. It seemed a brave and audacious thing to do.

Much later, when I visited the poet in Sri Lanka in 2015 and again in 2016, I was struck by his kindness, hospitality and charm, but also by his forensic intelligence and attention to detail that is so evident in his writing. Even though weakened by age, he retained a vitality that remained with him to the very end. He was immensely supportive of my own scholarly work on his poetry and he gave generous and unstinting support to a new volume I have edited: Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy which is forthcoming from Cork University Press. I have learned much from him and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to hear him read and discuss his work. 

At a reading in Trinity College Dublin in 2005, he wittily inscribed my volume of his Collected Poems “For Ben Keatinge, from one Anglo-Irishman to another, with best wishes, Richard Murphy”. It is among my most treasured possessions.

Jessica Traynor
Coming across the work of Richard Murphy as a young poet made me reassess my ideas about the Irish poetry tradition. He occupied a unique place in Irish poetry. His background at first glance was classic Anglo-Irish ascendancy. However, his ancestry was more complicated than that, and he could trace his roots back to famine-era Carlow, where his impoverished family converted to Protestantism. Murphy’s bifurcated sense of self is reflected in sequences like his much lauded ‘The Battle of Aughrim’. He is not an easy poet to place, and that makes his work provocative and intriguing.

His most recent published work, In Search of Poetry, reflects on the process behind the development of his 1985 sonnet sequence, The Price of Stone. In a breakthrough moment, captured in the book’s early pages, Murphy realised that allowing the buildings their own voices might allow him to imbue his work with new directness and clarity.  He wrote:

‘Letting the building speak with its own voice, as in the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dreaming of the Rood’, has given me a sense of profound inexplicable freedom.’

Trademarks of Murphy’s work are a clear-eyed appraisal, and a sense of detachment. These sonnets allow the reader a unique vantage point, evoking the span of history with great economy. When Murphy sent his friend Dennis O’Driscoll some of the poems to consider, he said of them, with characteristic pithiness:

‘[Dennis] says these sonnets reveal more about myself in a less embarrassing way than poems written in my own voice.’

Murphy’s awareness of history informed his prescient observations on the Irish obsession with property. His poem ‘Roof-Tree’ revisits the renovation of a house in the west of Ireland, and how the rebirth of the house coincided with the breakdown of his marriage: ‘Your greed for kiln-dried oak that could outlast/ Seven generations broke her heart. My mind/ You filled with rot proof hemlock at a cost/ That killed her love.’

These sonnets offer us glimpses of Murphy’s personal history, but always, the macrocosm of Irish history hovers above. Murphy ventriloquizes historical monuments and buildings, including Nelson’s column, a beehive cell, and Letterfrack Industrial School. He began to think about the latter during his time living in the West, and in the aftermath of an encounter with a man who told him of the cruelty he suffered there. Murphy captures the atmosphere of spiritual meanness and brutality in lines which describe the boys’ forced manual labour:

‘Few can escape/ my rack of metal, wood, thread, hide: my screw/ of brotherhood: the penny stitched in the strap.’

It’s worth mentioning Murphy’s skill as a prose stylist, amply demonstrated in the journal entries. In the wake of his death, the following lines, written around the generation of his poem ‘Beehive Cell’ seem a fitting testament to the power of his work:

‘She knelt, as if in prayer, to deliver the life from within her and sever the cord…life that I want to imagine coming out in words from within the dark cell, the souterrain, the cerebellum, the older brain of the clochan…the mother coming out with a babe in her arms…stumbling from stone to stone over harts-tongue and spleenwort, sea campion and thrift.’

Christine Murray
Rosroe is a wild place, full of stunted and twisted trees - and yet there is a clarity and beauty in the air, in the bedrock of it. You have to descend to get there. I had spent some years travelling to family homesteads around Cloona Mills, Loughloon and Brackloon. Michael McMullin, a family friend had been born in  Ceylon in 1916 was friends with Richard Murphy until his return to now Sri Lanka. Michael did not allow internet or t.v in the house. We walked a lot, read a lot, used maps. Two of my poetry books were written in the little library. We travelled a lot out of term times and there were many day trips suggested by poring over the local maps and surveys. In summers, we went to Clare Island, Murrisk and Roman Island. In the inhospitable winters, we went to Rosroe, Killary Harbour and Connemara. At Rosroe, I discovered Wittgenstein’s name inscribed on a metal plate just like the one at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. Michael took down maps, horoscopes, books and letters, memories. I read about Murphy’s stay in Wittgenstein’s cottage, his Irish exile. Of all Murphy’s poems, In Memory of Wittgenstein at Rosroe is for me the most poignant poem,

He broke prisons, beginning with words
And at last tamed by talking, wild birds.

Through accident of place, now by belief
I follow his love which bird-handled thoughts
To grasp growth’s terror or death’s leaf.

Read it here: https://poethead.wordpress.com/2008/07/15/the-philosopher-and-the-birds-by-richard-murphy/

Maureen Kennelly, Poetry Ireland
In recent years, a favourite happening in Poetry Ireland was to answer the phone and be greeted by Richard Murphy’s honeyed, regal tones.  He was a regular correspondent, most especially with our publications manager Paul Lenehan with whom he would painstakingly discuss every comma and colon in whatever piece of his was due to appear in Poetry Ireland Review.    He was unfailingly kind and solicitous.  We marvelled at his ease with technology and revelled in exotic images of his life in Sri Lanka and his hexagonal house.  The fine reissuing of Richard’s memoir The Kick by Cork University Press brought us closer to him again.  It reveals a richly textured life, filled with big personalities, japes and high jinks and unbearable moments of sadness.  Last September, the academic and writer Ben Keatinge presented an event at Poetry Ireland in Parnell Square to celebrate Richard’s 90th birthday.  That evening, we were reminded of his enduring poems including Mary Ure, Natural Son and The Woman of the House, carefully read by members of his family and by his admirers. 

In his last piece for Poetry Ireland Review, an essay about Yeats, he wrote: ‘I began writing poetry at school in England during the war, hoping to make something that would last about the lives of people I loved’. 

This much, and more, he certainly achieved. 

Thomas McCarthy
He was one of the last of the great Olympian generation of postwar Irish poets, one of the original Dolmen Press poets of the early 1950s. He had, as Ted Hughes wrote of him “the gift of epic objectivity: beyond his poems we feel not the assertion of his personality, but the actuality of events, the facts and the suffering of history”. He was uniquely Anglo-Irish and proud of that double heritage. He owned and sailed an old Galway fishing-boat boat, The Ave Maria, built houses with his own hands and yet began his life, after Wellington College and Magdalen, Oxford, as a bowler-hatted clerk at Lloyds of London. His wonderful memoir The Kick brilliantly describes his cosmopolitan connections and his unwavering love for Cleggan, Inisbofin and the coastline of Galway and Mayo, places he has immortalised in publications like The Last Galway Hooker (Dolmen, 1961), Sailing to an Island (Faber, 1963) and High Island (Harper and Row, NY 1974). His great epic poem The Battle of Aughrim (Faber, 1968) describes brilliantly the dual Protestant and Catholic heritage of the Irish landscape. He was spectacularly good-looking, with a beautiful cadenced voice that he used to terrific effect at public readings. Individual lyrics of his like Sailing to an Island, Seals at High Island and Coppersmith are simply breathtaking, and astonishing in their craftsmanship. His work really is the benchmark by which all Southern Irish poets should measure themselves.

Eavan Boland
Richard Murphy’s  poetry is about place but rarely about home. Often the poems are braided with a powerful sense of displacement. He wasn’t overtly a political poet but when you look closely many of the poems are eloquently grounded in cultural divisions and Irish history itself. He was a wonderful narrative poet, but the narrative is always complex. Poems like The Last Galway Hooker and The Battle of Aughrim  suggest his own feelings of exclusion as much as they do the events they’re describing. The same is true of his autobiographical memoir, The Kick. This sense of being an outsider must often have been painful but it’s a true strength of his work and his legacy in Irish poetry. I think there’s something poignant and enduring for every reader in the sight of this poet telling stories which did not entirely include him, and yet his stance on the margin made them clearer and more memorable for everyone.

Maurice Harmon
Richard Murphy has a distinctive place in the history of Irish poetry. From the beginning he showed himself to be a different kind of poet whose subject matter and style set him apart from his immediate contemporaries, Thomas Kinsella and John Montague. He was also different in his family background. He belonged to the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy but longed to be part of the life of those who lived outside the walls of the Ascendancy demesne. He lived with the people in the west, sailed with them, wrote poems about their lives, Sailing to an Island and The Cleggan Disaster. These poems of the sea are testaments to the skill, courage and suffering of those who go down to the sea in ships. The poems are well made and clearly demonstrate that here is a poet who not only extends the range of Irish poetry but also sings whatever is well-made. He continued to explore his own background in the historical long poem The Battle of Aughrim and in sonnets, lyric poems and occasional satires in The Price of Stone. In recent publication, the Kick and In Search of Poetry, one an extensive autobiographical memoir, the other a rare account of the making of poetry, he shows himself to be a superb writer of prose. Richard Murphy has had an amazingly varied life and has left us a unique and enduring legacy.

Dennis O’Driscoll, Richard Murphy and Julie O’Callaghan at The Irish Times Literature Prizes presentation in the RDS Dublin in 2001. Photograph: David Sleator
Dennis O’Driscoll, Richard Murphy and Julie O’Callaghan at The Irish Times Literature Prizes presentation in the RDS Dublin in 2001. Photograph: David Sleator

Gerald Dawe
As we travelled through the flat Dutch landscape, Richard engaged with the driver, asking questions about where he was from and what was it like living in Eighties Amsterdam. He seemed perfectly at ease. My eyes were out on stalks for much of the time. The wonderful canal ways made me think of Galway. The discreet bourgeois terraces were only themselves. And the art galleries housing Rembrandts and Van Goghs alongside the Opera houses knocked me over.

For Richard the city was a place he could take or leave. It was something that he exuded: a kind of self-belief and conviction which he brought into the seminar room as much as before a poetry audience. Yet, behind that polished delivery and finely-tuned sensitivity to what word-pictures he could paint, there was (I thought) an uncertainty and questioning of his own place in the literary world – that he didn’t seem to enjoy. In fact I recall him advising me to keep a distance from “it all”.

Richard was known and respected in many cities in the world, and in several of them he taught, wrote and lived. His Ireland really was the west and he was at home there. In a sense he was forever leaving homes and finding old ones to return to throughout his long and much-lived life: Boffin, Cleggan, Killiney and much further afield – in South Africa, Sri Lanka, the US, England.

There’s a wonderful image in Michael Longley’s, The Third Light, which describes “a face/That stabilises like a smoke ring”. It makes me think of how a writer’s life “stabilises” itself into a coherence of form, of tone; a voice. But also into something that is immaterial.

Richard Murphy’s poetry, and his memoir, The Kick, stabilises now into an extraordinarily clear and clarifying form as memorable as a folk-song and as utterly distinct as a cliff-face of his beloved Connemara.

Peter Sirr
‘ … to build a poem that will be beyond repair’

Richard Murphy was a unique voice in Irish poetry. His gift was that through a combination of temperamental reserve, formal inclination and Anglo-Irish heritage, he never sounded like anyone else, never occupied the same space as other Irish or English language poets. He was both insider and outsider, his privileged background putting a layer of distance between him and the elemental Ireland he identified with – Connemara and the western seaboard. There’s always a sense of the outsider’s forensic observation and the outsider’s inevitable detachment; his poems are always a negotiation of the gulf between the public-school and Oxford-educated son of a colonial administrator and his chosen place and people.

He first made his reputation with poems that married classical poise with masculine concerns and masculine energies, poems like Sailing to an Island from the collection of the same name, which pits its narrator against the force of the sea and near disaster before bringing him home in the solidly iambic craft of his poem. Poem-making is like boat-building – indeed Seamus Heaney referred to the “clinker-built” nature of Murphy’s poems, each verbal plank carefully laid to overlap its predecessor and lay the foundation for its successor. The Last Galway Hooker makes an explicit identification between the restoration of a boat and the impulse to write that is “in memory’s hands”. These poems have the fastidiousness of a Graves or a Richard Wilbur, with a steeliness all their own:

He clipped with February shears the dead
Metaphysical foliage. Old, in fieldfares
Fantasies rebelled though annihilated.
(Wittgenstein and the Birds)

Everything is carefully weighed and weighted. But if the poet is a polished craftsman he’s also a gifted storyteller and often the story connects with his own complex heritage:

On a patrician evening in Ireland
I was born in the guest room: she delivered me.
May I deliver her from the cold hand
Where now she lies, with a brief elegy?
(The Woman of the House)

The legacy of colonial occupation and violence is most clearly explored in the extended sequence of The Battle of Aughrim, where the poet tries to comprehend the “devastations and divisions in myself as well as Ireland”.

The formal detachment and the meticulousness of the craft shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of passion. The poems are full of feeling (just go and read the brilliant Seals at High Island) – their elaborate architecture is precisely a means of containing and articulating powerful emotions. This is perhaps most evident in The Price of Stone, a sonnet sequence in which each poem ventriloquises a building that has a resonance for the poet. Last year he published In Search of Poetry (Clutag Press), his diary of the period when he was working on those sonnets. He describes the encouragement he received from a poet of a later generation, Dennis O’Driscoll, who saw how Murphy’s ventriloquism released him from the burden of confession:

“Dennis O’Driscoll ... tells me on the phone that giving voice to a symbolic building, such as ‘Folly’ and ‘Lead Mine Chimney’, is a break-through from the stagnation and mental blocks that have often afflicted me ... he says these sonnets reveal more about myself in a less embarrassing way than poems written in my own voice.”

It’s a good summary of his way of trying to find routes into passion that would nevertheless cover his own tracks. That book ends in Knockbrack, the Killiney house Murphy bought and renovated, with the poet sitting at his table and trying, as always, “to build a poem that will be beyond repair”.

He built enough to secure his reputation and to console us for the loss of the man.

Richard Murphy and Seona Mac Reamoinn at the celebration of the publication of the Oxford Book of Ireland at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Dublin. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Richard Murphy and Seona Mac Reamoinn at the celebration of the publication of the Oxford Book of Ireland at the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, Dublin. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

John McAuliffe
Richard Murphy made a permanent contribution to Irish literature. His memoirs carefully document set-pieces with Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and Thomas Kinsella and Philip Larkin, offering acute, up-close accounts of friends and contemporaries, and the same coolly observational tone sustains the poems.

Twenty years ago, it seemed that his long poem, The Battle of Aughrim, would be his calling card in anthologies, but it might be the 1985 sonnets, The Price of Stone, which will stubbornly hang around in the minds of readers. Murphy avoided writing explicitly about his life (even in his memoirs), specialising instead in throwing his voice, and in that book’s sonnets, he imagines short speeches for dozens of different buildings, offering a secret history, of the State (in poems on Newgrange, Nelson’s Pillar, Letterfrack), and of his own unusual peripatetic life.

Gym, a typically measured, intent piece of work, shows his poetry’s care and boldness. The title puns on a man’s name as well as invoking the word’s Greek etymology, and the poem brings to life a gay sauna Murphy would visit under the walls of Dublin Castle, and the high cost that the Aids epidemic was bringing to Dublin then: “grotesquely free, though ruled by symmetry, / [it] Lays you in some small penetralian cell / To come to grief, past all immunity.”

Murphy once remarked, “To me poetry would never come naturally, as a gift. It would have to be made.” The variety and stature of his achievements are also clear in a poem from his excellent 1974 collection High Island, Pat Cloherty’s Version of the Maisie: effervescent and almost ecstatic, and described by Bernard O’Donoghue as “a major masterpiece”, it’s still a wild ride of a poem, an elegy and a eulogy at once for the crew of the Maisie, one of whom, the pilot, is John Kerrigan, who goes down with his craft: “What more could Kerrigan do? / he put her jaw into the hurricane / and the sea claimed him”.

Frank Shovlin
By lucky coincidence I had my first and, alas, last conversation with Richard Murphy on Friday. I wanted to talk to him about his memories of John McGahern. He spoke haltingly and with obvious difficulty, and I immediately felt bad for cold calling him. But he insisted that he was happy to speak and that he enjoyed the telephone. Murphy and McGahern both had work published in the epoch making Dolmen Miscellany of 1962. He recalled his first meeting with John, in the company of the legendary Faber editor, Charles Monteith, with whom he had been friendly at Magdalen College, Oxford in the years immediately after the war. It was via Murphy’s recommendation that McGahern first got teaching work at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York in 1969. And Murphy was again of great service in 1971 when finding John and Madeline a place to live in Cleggan. The two men rarely spoke about writers and writing, but loved to take a boat out and go fishing. “John was pretty dismissive of most other writers”, Murphy laughed. I asked him where he thought this confidence came from. There was a long pause followed by a strong, definite answer: “from his soul”.

Mike Collins (Cork University Press)
I first contacted Richard in early 2017 after I received an email from Ben Keatinge who is editing a multi authored work on Richard Murphy. Ben told me that the rights to Richard’s memoir The Kick has reverted back to Richard from Granta. I jumped at the chance to reissue The Kick and Richard was delighted. He was particularly enthralled with the cover which used a photograph by Mary Coyne of Inishbofin. We used to speak by telephone at 8.30 in the morning on most weeks. He was calling from his home in Sri Lanka. He will be sorely missed by the poetry community.

Michael Longley
Way back in the 1960s, when we were just beginning to spread our wings, the poets of my generation looked for inspiration to the first collections of our immediate Irish predecessors, John Montague, Thomas Kinsella and Richard Murphy. We were eager to learn what makes a line and how a stanza is built; how far the iambic pentameter can be stretched. In Richard Murphy’s milestone collection, Sailing to an Island, three narrative pieces, in particular The Last Galway HookerThe Cleggan Disaster and the title poem, released a new kind of music, melodious enough but also open to narrative waywardness and matter-of-fact detail.

The Pleasure Ground’s critical apparatus bears further witness to Murphy’s lifelong devotion to his craft. He is indeed one of our supreme makers. Oscillating from beginning to end and from page to page between narrative and lyric, public and private, love poem and elegy, The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012 is a hugely significant achievement. Richard Murphy continues to be a poet of great fortitude and resource, one of the finest of our time.
More to follow

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