An Appreciation: Donald Murphy


DONALD MURPHY, a native of Castleshane, Co Monaghan, who died after a long battle with prostate cancer, was a 1950s emigrant who succeeded, somewhat against the odds, in forging a worthwhile career for himself.

In the non-meritocratic Ireland of the postwar decade, he was one of eight children brought up by a widowed mother on a small farm in Monaghan. He was born on April 13th, 1939, and his formal education ended with his acquisition of the VEC’s Group Certificate, after which he became an apprentice electrician in his home town. The working conditions, pay and prospects were so poor that in 1955 he joined the stream of emigrants to England, seeking a better future.

After several years working in the Sheffield area, in heavy manual jobs including steelmaking, crane operation and long-distance truck driving, he had his eureka moment when he was accepted by Associated Electrical Industries as a trainee technician in the construction of the firm’s telephone exchanges. This fired up what was to be an enduring interest and enthusiasm for telecommunications technology and electronics. It also provided the scope for his latent leadership and organisational skills to manifest themselves. In time he was promoted to foreman and then to site supervisor – despite some opposition in each case. His next employer sent him on advanced training courses in Tokyo and Stockholm; and, through distance learning, he obtained related technical qualifications. An aptitude for steady, patient and systematic thought and a natural talent for public speaking also contributed to the progress of his career.

The takeover of AEI had stimulated Donald to widen his horizons by joining, in 1969, Cable Wireless. For the following 17 years he was based in various Arab states in the Gulf, where, as site engineer, he was chiefly responsible for the construction and commissioning of a series of automatic telephone exchanges of increasing technical sophistication. His last overseas posting was as commercial manager in Botswana.

Before leaving the industry, his final task was the demanding one of project co-ordinator, synchronising for Mercury Communications the work of the subcontractors who were installing the IT fibre optics network in the City of London. Donald then retrained as a financial adviser, selling financial products for a major UK financial institution. In this occupation he was only moderately successful and his adamant refusal to engage in the then widespread practice of mis-selling such products was clearly a limiting factor. For the past few years up to retirement he welcomed the greater autonomy conferred by self-employment.

Throughout his life he maintained a keen interest in energetic sports. In one of these, judo, he had, with a Kilkenny friend, fortunately become proficient by the time they were violently attacked by five men in Tunbridge Wells, where he was then based. Three required hospital treatment and the others took to their heels. In court the judge ruled it had been self-defence. On the way out, a man with a military bearing told Donald: “We could use a man like you” and gave him his card. His sporting activities in the Gulf – mainly swimming, sailing and wind-surfing – were less dramatic.

Sandra, to whom he was married for 43 years, had accompanied him on all of the Gulf postings, was also an outdoor sports enthusiast. In retirement in West Sussex they pursued their other interests. As well as golf, and skiing, these included leisurely family visits, sightseeing and trips to Ireland, Scotland and France. Their powerful (800cc) motor cycle took them to rallies as far afield as Austria. And in the United Kingdom they attended the reunions of retired Cable Wireless overseas staff. Donald was seldom happier than when resolving some arcane mechanical, electrical or electronic problem to a sound background of Irish traditional or classical music.

Donald, who bore his long illness with great stoicism, died on March 15th, 2011. He is survived by his wife Sandra, sons Stephen and Liam, and three brothers and three sisters.