She lived 'til she died

 

ON February 17th 1924, a young couple married in University Church, St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Neither set of parents attended it was rumoured each thought their own child was marrying beneath them. The groom Tom Kiernan at 27, four years older than his bride was a tax inspector who would later carve a career in the diplomatic service of the Free State. His bride was Delia Murphy, the blackbird of ballads who sang her heart out through the good times and the bad times and who sought solace in alcohol when the strain of being a diplomat's wife got too much for her.

Media consultant Aidan O'Hara, who met Delia a few times in the late 1960s when she was living in Canada and he was a teacher there, has just published her biography entitled If Live Till I Die. He set himself the task having already collected a lot of material on the singer he describes as Ireland's first pop star. "When she died, no one did anything about it and I thought that a little odd, so I made a radio programme about her and then a television one.

"She'd made a great impression on people and she had the whole country singing but of course that area of music ballads and come all ye's was not thought to be very respectable. Anyway, I wrote the book because I felt someone should."

To jog the memory of those who may have forgotten and to infame those who have never heard of Delia Murphy, the songs which she made famous were The Spinning Wheel, I'm A Rambler I'm A Gambler, If I Were A Blackhill and the one that's been in my brain for the past three days. Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion.

As a young man, Delia Murphy's father Jack, had gone to the Klondike to find gold but instead found dollars enough to marry a young Irish woman and bring her back to Mayo where he bought the Georgian house in Claremorris at which he had stared, in awe as a child. It had a chandelier inside and an orchard outside.

There were eight children in the Murphy family with Delia the wild one, always banging out with the tinkers who camped in nearby Featherbed Lane. It was one of them, a boy called Tom Maughan, that she learned many of her songs.

She went barefoot to the local national school was later sent to the Dominican convent in Dublin's Eccles Street (where, improbably. Dr John Larehet told her she had a voice like a crow and finally to University College. Galway here she gained a B Comm degree. It as while she was at UCG that she met Tom Kiernan.

Her father didn't take to Tom, even though when he had a bit of local trouble with the taxman, Tom was able "to get him out of it". Nevertheless, the couple married and within a year had had their first child.

Among her circle of friends, Delia Murphy was known to be good fan, always ready for a laugh and, of course, to sing a song. The image she projected of herself and one which the many anecdotes in this book readily confirm was of someone who could always be relied upon to say the brazen, daring thing someone who would come out with anything. And, it seems, she did. Raving helped Lady Gregory with her taxes, Tom was invited to bring Delia with him to stay in Coole Park. Yeats was there and was heard to remark that he always found the need of a little Trollope to help him get to sleep, at which Delia gave a loud and raucous laugh. "God, Mr Yeats," she said, "you're a howl." And was promptly ordered to bed by Lady Gregory.

The somewhat laboured anecdote was retailed by actor Liam Redmond Delia was considered to be a bit of a character and, like Brendan Behan after her, was someone everyone had met or at least had a story about. And because one story has to be capped by another, many of them are hard to believe.

Her nephew, Leo Cullen, retells one about her spitting into the fire in St James's Palace and then rebuffing the foot man who appears at her elbow with a golden spittoon. "Get away, boy," she tells him, "it was far from spittoons I was reared. This was at a time Cullen explains, when her talent for singing had no outlet and frustration with the restrictive diplomatic lifestyle was beginning to show, for Tom had by then been appointed to a top post in London.

The frustration lifted, however, when they returned to Ireland.

Tom was seconded to Radio Eireann where he held the post of Director of Programmes, and Delia's singing career took off she began by singing at parities and functions, then concerts and soon HMV were knocking at her door.

In all, something like 100 songs were recorded over the years although Delia put the figure at 300. Her reception was mixed. Ballads and come all ye's were considered rough, pub songs but the more her songs were heard, the more popular she became though never, it has to be said, with the middle class, who preferred some thing more exalted Ireland, at that time, was entering the world stage and few actors wanted to be reminded of their humble, rural origins.

For Delia, however, it was a happy time. In her mid thirties, with four children, she was at last doing what she'd always wanted to and what she was good at. Her success stemmed from the fact that, she had a good year, could retain a melody in her head, had a phenomenal memory and was confident in what she was doing.

Tom's Dublin posting was followed by one to the Vatican where the family spent the war years. Everyone here is on intimate terms with the Almighty," Delia wrote home. They stroll around the churches on Sunday armed with two chairs as a rule, and don't take the least notice of the priest who is trying to preach a sermon.

In 1946, Tom Kiernan was posted to Australia which he found a wilderness after Rome. "He didn't like it very much," says his son, Colm Kiernan, now an academic in Australia, "and Delia hated it." She started drinking excessively there were one or two embarrassing incidents and finally she returned to Ireland on her own to tour the dance halls and parish halls of the country, playing to packed audiences and drinking late into th9 night.

In her last years, she found some peace, living on a small farm in Canada but returned to Ireland where she died, in 1971.

There is, an aching sadness to Delia Murphy's life story. Ill equipped to commute between the boisterous informality of rural Ireland and the rigid formality diplomatic circles, and prevented much of the time, from singing, she resorted to the comfort of alcohol. Not that Aidan O'Hara would ever say she was an alcoholic. That wouldn't be a word to use about someone you've grown fond of.

Over indulging is how he puts it. Her best epitaph comes in a quote from Liam Clancy. "Her main contribution was that she made us feel that we could respectably sing our own songs.