John A Murphy: Cork people see me as an ordinary guy

I saw anarchic freedom at UCC. To sit next to girls in a class! I was a fairly submissive country boy. Whatever radical developments came over me came later

Macroom boy: “I was mesmerised by the city, by the cinemas and the snack bars. You could go to the cinema in the middle of the day,” says the emeritus professor John A Murphy. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Macroom boy: “I was mesmerised by the city, by the cinemas and the snack bars. You could go to the cinema in the middle of the day,” says the emeritus professor John A Murphy. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

 

When I came to Cork from Macroom in 1945 the place seemed like a metropolis. Some English play has the line “beyond Hyde Park all is a desert”. For Cork city people there was nothing beyond County Hall. But I was mesmerised by the city, by the cinemas and the snack bars. You could go to the cinema in the middle of the day.

Some people at University College Cork in my time as a student talked about how limited the place was, but coming from Macroom I saw anarchic freedom. To sit next to girls in a class! I was a fairly submissive country boy. Whatever radical developments came over me came later.

Then, as the only layman teaching in Farranferris with 12 priests, I would stoutly defend Noel Browne and the Mother and Child Scheme and take the liberal line to the extent that one of the priests, in my presence, said, “I don’t think it’s safe to have John A teaching history.”

There was a self-conscious, intellectual cultural minority in Cork. There was UCC’s dramatic society and the Everyman Theatre. There was also an intellectual salon, so to speak, in the Palace Bar where people held forth. I admired older people like Seamus Murphy, the sculptor, and Seán Hendrick – an unknown name now, but he figures in Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O’Connor’s autobiographies as a great friend.

O’Connor and Ó Faoláin famously left Cork and pontificated about its smugness and its smallness, but those who were left had to live. They had to do their best to express themselves in a city tightly controlled by the church. Even the Cork film society had to have its exhibitions approved by the bishop, Conny Lucey, who was a clerical autocrat. Cultural life was more censorious and censored than it became later.

When I came back to UCC in 1961, as an assistant lecturer, the revolution was starting. Students began to protest over all these regulations. They demanded that the president’s garden be made over to the students, which it was. There were visiting speakers with radical ideas. When I was on the governing body in the 1980s and 1990s there were still a lot clerics. The lesbian and gay society was refused recognition. I promoted it and the archbishop of Cashel made a speech against it. I said I was delighted to hear the archbishop praising the joys of sex, but only the heterosexual kind. That didn’t go down very well.

Nationalism has declined, but it still has its strongholds. When academics investigate the IRA ambush of RIC Auxiliaries at Kilmichael the surviving relatives of those involved always take up arms. But people now are coming to distinguish between history as nationalism, as the tablet of stone, and as an investigation. Not only do people accept that but they love that. There’s a genuine curiosity about what really happened.

I got to talk to Queen Elizabeth when she was here – lecture to her, rather, on the statue of her great-great-grandmother Victoria. I was privileged to point out the symbolism of her visit and that the statue had been put up in an age of British oppression, taken down in a nationalist atmosphere of the 1930s, as though it were a shameful thing, and brought out again in the 1990s. She seemed okay. There’s a common bond when one octogenarian speaks to another.

There was no kowtowing to the queen. I saw no one incline the head even, which is a republican halfway house to a curtsy. She was a very attractive visitor, and people came in crowds to see her, but it was in the context of us growing up.

Cork people would see me as an ordinary guy and not a remote academic. On the train once, coming home to Cork, a guy who was sitting opposite me in silence eventually said, “Excuse me, are you John A Murphy?” “Yes,” I said, and such is vanity that I waited to hear the inevitable compliments. “I often see you drinking in the Briar Rose,” he said. Whether that was a put-down or not I don’t know.

Cork is a big place for singing. I go to the singers’ club in the Spailpín Fánach on Sundays. I sing a song or two, and I have a guest spot once a year where I sing six to eight songs. I’d sing traditional Irish and English songs, songs that you would see collected, revolutionary songs, Napoleonic ballads and the Irish-language songs of my own area in Macroom. The singing club has one rule: no instruments. An instrument is a crutch to cover up your vocal insufficiencies.

When I got married, at 25, I settled down where I still live, in Douglas. And it’s a very satisfactory place, because you can walk to town. UCC is a joy in itself and much frequented by the ordinary citizen. People take their dogs for a walk there, accepting that it’s their right. Cork has beloved institutions like the Lough, which is a marvellous facility to which the new Irish have taken in great style.

It was Frank O’Connor, I think, who referred to Cork as a city of “tattered grace”. There’s a lot more tattered around the place now. But there are also lovely restored buildings, like Emmet Place and the famous Crawford gallery. The definition of a cultured person in Cork is one who goes to the Crawford gallery even when it isn’t raining.

I walk a lot, and it’s a marvellous city to walk around. The inner city itself, because of the two hills, the hilly south side and the even more exalted north side, and the two channels of the river, gives you marvellous changing vistas. You might go down a particular lane or street and suddenly see St Fin Barre’s Cathedral as you have never seen it before. The unexpected vistas are always there.

In conversation with Patrick Freyne

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