Mike Murphy: ‘I won’t do another over-70s lockdown’

Mike Murphy after meeting Jennifer O’Connell in Ballsbridge. It’s a headshot for a reason. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The broadcasting legend on his new foray into podcasting, parenting regrets, his late friend Gay Byrne and getting bored quickly

I’m always astonished when I meet someone – invariably someone younger than me – who hasn’t heard of Mike Murphy. To those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, he was as much a part of the Irish media landscape as Gay Byrne, a slightly bolder and wittier, a tad more urbane, part of the landscape.

His extensive CV includes The Live Mike, the Eurovision, Arts Express, Winning Streak and Murphy’s Micro Quiz-M on TV. But it’s for his work on radio that many people, including me, remember him best. And his voice – that toffee-textured timbre; the sometimes droll, sometimes impassioned commentary on everything from books to fine art. It was the soundtrack to my weekday afternoons for a chunk of my schooling; doing homework at the kitchen table, with a glass of milk at my elbow, and Mike Murphy on the radio.

In short, I have high hopes for our morning together. So it is not ideal that the first thing I do, after we meet in the lobby of a hotel in Ballsbridge, is spill coffee all over his beige trousers. He is very gallant, assuring me it doesn’t matter at all, but I keep seeing his eyes travel to the dark stain. “The photograph will only be a headshot,” he says, more of a statement than a question.

Gay and I were very close. When Gay was very sick, I used to go for walks with him, I’d bring him to the movies, we’d go out for meals together. I miss him.

We are meeting to talk about his foray, at what he calls “my great age” (he is 78), back into the world of broadcasting, or rather podcasting. What started as a modest proposition for him to host a series of interviews for Senior Times – the interviewees are taken from his extensive Rolodex of friends and acquaintances, including Michael D Higgins, Denis O’Brien, Ryan Tubridy, John Banville, Deirdre Purcell, Terry Prone, John McColgan and others – has grown into something considerably more ambitious.

After their interview, McColgan said he would like to do his own podcast, so there are 16 episodes of his up there too, called John McColgan: My Tunes. And then Murphy and Banville decided to do a second series of six podcasts, called Take Two, in which they each pick a book to recommend to each other. He went to RTÉ with the idea of a programme featuring himself and Banville as hosts, “but their response was so disinterested, I decided to go my own way”.

He subsequently “inveigled” Mary Kennedy, Kathleen Watkins, David Davin-Power and Liam Ó Maonlaí to host their own podcast under the same umbrella, on the basis that they would be paid if they got sponsorship (he calls me a few days later, jubilantly, to say sponsorship has been secured by Doro phones and Expressway buses, and everyone will be paid.)

His wife, Ann Walsh, a former head of drama at RTÉ, has produced a number of them, and both of their sons are involved – his son Mark does all the sound; her son Simon Murtagh is another producer. He’d like to create a digital radio station with all of the content.

‘A wonderful career’

He seems every bit as vigorous as he did when I met him more than two decades ago, but he wonders if he has taken on too much. “I may have overreached myself in all of this. I’m feeling a little bit of the pressure. I used to be able to handle property deals as well as the Arts Show and all these at the same time, but I don’t really have the capacity anymore. My brain is not as lively as it was. I also notice that the stress levels are just a little higher than they ever used to be.”

Before podcasting launched him on a whole new career path, he was finished with broadcasting. “I really don’t have any great interest in broadcasting frankly,” he says.

He had “a wonderful career”, but he got tired of it. “I have a history of leaving when I get bored. And basically I did all the things I wanted to do. I almost grew up as an adult in broadcasting, doing the things I wanted to do – crazy things like going into the lions’ cage, jumping out of the air.” He’s referring to his series, the Likes of Mike, which aired in the 1970s.

“I did the Arts Show. I did early morning radio. I did satire on the Live Mike. I did candid cameras. I had a really rich and flavoursome career. I was very, very fortunate. But there came a moment when I realised I’m repeating myself. As I said to RTÉ, I think I’ve run out of cliches.”

Mike Murphy: ‘I love the fact that I had such variety in my life’
Mike Murphy: ‘I love the fact that I had such variety in my life’

He left RTÉ in 2000, going into property, and taking a role with Pat Doherty’s Harcourt Developments. Despite the headlines at the time describing him as a “millionaire property developer” and though the company was in 13 different countries by the time of the property crash, he didn’t make as much money as people think, he says. In fact, after he resigned in 2011, he has said, “there were no spare funds for me to get a thank-you-very-much farewell”.

He returned only sporadically after that to do a stint in front of the cameras. Which is why there is an entire generation of media-literate young people who, if it weren’t for Reeling In The Years, might have no idea who Mike Murphy is.

In 2019, when he appeared on the Late Late Show tribute to Gay Byrne, there were calls on Twitter to bring him back to RTÉ. Oliver Callan called him a “class act”. “If Gay Byrne was the nation’s dad, Mike Murphy was its cool uncle who hung out in cool bars and was very popular with the ladies,” said someone else.

Podcasting

This year, the offer to do a series of podcast interviews came along, an inspired notion dreamed up by Des Duggan of Senior Times.

Being Murphy, if he’s in, he’s wholly in. And so he started with President Michael D Higgins. “When they arrived up, his staff said to me there were just two things: he didn’t want to talk about his childhood, and he won’t read a poem. So I got him to talk about his childhood and to read a poem.”

Mike Murphy interviewing the playwright and author William Trevor.
Mike Murphy interviewing the playwright and author William Trevor.

Another episode features media mogul Denis O’Brien, whom he admires and is “very fond of personally”. Their conversation, Murphy believes, is “the most outgoing and the most frank interview I had ever heard him grant . . . I said to him at the outset, I’m going to ask you directly about the image you have in Ireland, which is not a good image. You’re usually photographed either walking into or out of a tribunal or out of a court case where you’re suing somebody. He said, work away, I have no problem talking about this.”

“Who gives a monkey’s if a reporter writes something nasty about you? Why do you care?”, Murphy asks him on the podcast. O’Brien’s reply is that there are “two instances, three instances where I took libel actions in the past 25 years. And if you look at coverage of my affairs, my business affairs, my private affairs, it’s wall-to-wall at times, particularly when I’m in the news.”

“I think that he’s defensive about his image,” Murphy says now. “I suppose he has a very big family and he’s very conscious of [them] . . . And it makes him a bit defensive. I do think sometimes too defensive. I wanted to address that part of it.”

‘Locked away’

Before the podcast project came along to occupy him, Murphy admits to finding the pandemic “extremely difficult”. In March, when “the over-70s were locked away”, he bought a CD copy of Ulysses and listened to it on headphones while walking around his apartment building. He would put 10 pebbles on the bonnet of the car, and take one off every time he passed, to make sure he didn’t accidentally do 11. He was completely compliant with the guidance, but is adamant he won’t go into another age-specific lockdown.

He agreed with Charlie Bird’s recent blistering assessment on Sarah McInerney’s programme on RTÉ Radio about how the over-70s had been lied to.

“I will not willingly go into another lockdown. I won’t. Why? Because people my age, are the most sensible of the nation. We don’t want to catch it. We’re going to wear the masks. We’re not going to have crowds [around]. We’re going to more or less abide by the rules. So I won’t willingly go into another total over-70s lockdown.”

I tell him my own parents feel the same – they don’t want to waste precious years waiting for a vaccine to allow them to resume living. “They’ve hit the nail on the head,” he says. “My problem is this. I am running out of time. Even if the coronavirus thing gets sorted out, I may be still alive. But I may not have the physical energy to do the things that I would like to do.”

Did he use the time in lockdown to take stock of his life? “No, I didn’t do any taking stock. There are too many things I don’t want to take stock of,” he says cheerfully.

Pat Kenny and Gay Byrne get Mike Murphy ready for his tribute show on the Late Late in 2000. Photograph: Julian Behal/Maxwell’s Dublin
Pat Kenny and Gay Byrne get Mike Murphy ready for his tribute show on the Late Late in 2000. Photograph: Julian Behal/Maxwell’s Dublin

He seems very happy with how things have panned out, I say. He ponders this. “I love the fact that I had such variety in my life. I went to Terenure College, I got a great education – it’s just that I was dumb. I didn’t shine academically, but I really managed to manufacture an interesting life from that.” He was good at rugby at school, and passionate about acting.

He joined RTÉ as a radio announcer in 1965. “Truthfully, I cheated to get into RTÉ.” He lied on his CV, and says he had his Leaving Cert. “And frankly, I’d no great interest in broadcasting even then. I just needed a job.”

Asked to describe his childhood, he thinks for a moment before saying: “Mobile. I think by the time I was 14, we moved 14 times. My father kept moving, for no sinister reason whatsoever. I think he thought you make money by doing it.”

He thinks now it is from his father that “I got this feeling of not being insecure about change. One of the things I look back on, if I do take stock, is that I had a lot of courage. I wasn’t fearful of failure. I was willing to try things and take the hit if it was unsuccessful. I never look back at things. I don’t keep mementos. I don’t like looking at myself on TV or listening to myself on radio. I never look back.”

Gay Byrne

He does, however, get nostalgic when he talks about Gay Byrne. “Gay and I were very close. For 17 years in a row, up until the last two years when Gay was very ill, a group of us went on holidays together every year. When Gay was very sick, I used to go for walks with him, I’d bring him to the movies, we’d go out for meals together. I miss him.

“He had a different disposition to me. He was more conscious of security. I used to say to him, at that time he and I were number one and two in Ireland, go in and ask for money, because I can’t get more money unless you do. He would say: ‘I’d be a bit nervous in case they tell me that they want to get rid of me’.” He shakes his head in bemusement.

Mike Murphy, with Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins at the 60th anniversary performance by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in the National Concert Hall in 2008. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Mike Murphy, with Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins at the 60th anniversary performance by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in 2008. Photograph: Dave Meehan

After Murphy announced that The Live Mike wouldn’t be returning live on air, Byrne came into his office at RTÉ, utterly horrified. “He said, ‘are you, are you crazy? You have just destroyed your career.’ He really was concerned about me, genuinely concerned. I said, I’m just not enjoying it anymore.”

To Byrne, that was unimaginable. “He once told me he’d go on holidays to Donegal every summer, and when the substitute was on air, he would go walking and listen in, ‘just in case they were better than me’.

“I was more interested in using broadcasting as a way of experiencing life . . . I remember saying at one stage, and it came back to haunt me, that I’d rather the organisation work for me than the other way round.”

The ‘celebrity breakup’

Murphy insists he was never motivated by fame or money, but “by interest, by curiosity, by novelty. I like the idea of moving from project to project or doing something new.”

In his 40s, before he left RTÉ, he went through a difficult time when his marriage to Eileen Murphy ended. He fell in love with Walsh, who was the producer on his radio programme. “It was a bad breakup, a celebrity – there’s that word I hate – break-up. It was the first of the big ones. It was a scandal. Oh Christ, it was horrible. It was a horror. It was front page.”

Now, he says, he and Eileen have a very good relationship, something he is very pleased about. “And I’m very fortunate I have a wonderful relationship with all my kids. I really do, considering their father and mother broke up, and I was the one who created the break-up.”

He doesn’t dwell on regrets generally, but he wishes he had been a more hands-on father. He didn’t know that was an option open to him. “I spoke about it to Gay some years back. He was the same. I regret very much that I didn’t participate more. But that wasn’t the way it was . . . I’ve deep regrets about that.

“I envy these men, young fathers that I see, and they’re so affectionate with their children in public. They’re so caring. They’re giving them time. They’re bringing them everywhere. We were so stupid not to do what they’re doing. But we didn’t know.”

Still, his children have often said they had a “magical childhood”. “And they do kindly offer me some credit for that.” He has one adored grandson, Mack, for whom he buys first editions of books for birthdays.

A treasured relationship

How does he think people think of him now? “I think most people remember me for the candid camera stuff. Am I happy with that? Not really, no,” he laughs.

He and Byrne both worried that they would be remembered for the sketch in Trinity College when he prompted Byrne to say “f**k off” on camera by pretending to be a gormless French rugby supporter, while Gaybo was trying to do a piece to camera. I tell him I watched it again recently and it has stood the test of time – it is genuinely hilarious.

He prefers “the stuff I did at the Arts Show” which he describes as “like doing three PhDs.” He does still get recognised on the street, which surprises him. It’s nice, he says, “once it’s not intrusive”.

When has he been happiest? “I’ll tell you, I have a very happy relationship with my wife, Annie.” He’s happiest in their home in Florida, with the sun on his back. “I often think, was I lucky or what that it worked out? We’re together nearly 30 years now you know, and we have a relationship to treasure. I can love her, I can like her, and I can admire her. That’s a very good combination.”

We say goodbye, and he goes back across the road, back to his books, his podcasts and Annie – and, though he’s kind enough not to mention it again, a clean pair of trousers.