John A Murphy: ‘I grew up speaking a language which is now extinct’

He was the boy from Macroom who became a teacher, historian, politician and thorn in the side of ‘republicans’. Now 87, the professor is still working – and still provoking people with his writings

First of all, the A is for Augustine. On this fine autumn morning Prof John A Murphy is a slight and elegant figure, leading the way to his office – which is,perhaps appropriately, just over the traditional boundary wall of University College Cork but still on campus.

John A is 87 and a presence here every day. He’s grateful to have been granted priority parking. “The parking is fierce,” he says. His car looks very clean. There is nothing sloppy about him. Of his career as an Irish historian, he says, “In the company of my academic colleagues I would have always seen myself as a noncommissioned officer.”

John A used to walk to UCC from his home in the suburb of Douglas “in about 20 minutes”. Today he is moving a little gingerly. He had a bad fall, hurting his ribs. He spent two nights on a trolley at Cork University Hospital, an experience he sees in a historical context.

“As a society we still have the aspiration to decency, and I think we realise that aspiration a lot of the time. I saw it in the quality of the nursing. In the extraordinary skill and kindness in the midst of the chaos and the lack of staff and the lack of facilities. Kindness you’re not expecting or entitled to. In a way, I think it’s linked to our aspiration as an independent nation.”

John A Murphy did much of his work as a historian before the technological revolution, when the sources and archives were not always available or even accessible.

For example, for his book De Valera and His Times, which he edited and for which he provided the sparkling introduction – he wrote of "the rarefied idealism of Pearse, Connolly's revolutionary fire, Collins's swashbuckling pragmatism" – he had to travel to see the de Valera papers: "They were all out in Killiney, with the Franciscans."

Macroom man

He is from Macroom, in west Co Cork. “I was very shy when I came to Cork as a country boy,” he says. “I longed to speak in public debates, but I was terrified to do so.”

He developed into a fearless performer. Not only does his writing fizz with energy – something rarely said about historians – but John A is, famously, a fine and tireless singer. And funny.

He wrote a book about the history of sports at UCC, Where Finbarr Played. He says now he's thinking of doing a sequel about sex in UCC, to be called Where Finbarr Slept.

I say that I’m glad the word in the title is slept. This elicits zero response from John A. In talking to him – and perhaps not only in an interview situation – one is placed firmly in the role of audience.

But John A is fun. As Ruth Dudley Edwards and Una O’Donoghue put it in their affectionate essay on him, “He matured into a man who did not fear ridicule as he tangoed with a rose between his teeth.”

As he might say himself, however, it has not all been beer and skittles; he has a devastating way with a cliche.

In July of this year he wrote, “So how can Sinn Féin constantly claim to be more republican than the rest of us? Go on, ask them.” That was in an article for this newspaper called “Why we should be wary of Sinn Féin in government”, which was published on July 9th.

He was criticising what he sees as Sinn Féin’s hijacking of history, among other things. And journalists, he says, don’t want to challenge Sinn Féin for fear of being seen as enemies of the peace process, a fact that the party exploits. This is a stance characterised by John A as, “Hit me now with the peace process in me arms.”

As a critic of what is called republicanism – he dismantled that label in the same article – John A is well placed, scoring high on the delineating factors of a traditional Irish nationalist: Catholic, country boy, GAA supporter, Irish speaker. “I made it my business to learn Irish properly,” he says.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Cork she wanted to see the resurrected statue of her great grandmother Queen Victoria, which at one point had been buried in the grounds of UCC. “The queen permitted herself a wintry smile when I described it as the classiest location in Cork.”

He liked her. As he puts it, “I felt age is a great leveller.” He wasn’t so keen on Prince Philip. “He interrupted, with attempts at jests. He’s a bit of a clown, actually.”

John A came to UCC in 1945 on a county-council scholarship. He was on a city bus one day and two women were discussing the boyfriend of one of their daughters. One was trying to explain that the boy was not sophisticated enough, and said, “Yerra, girl, he’s like a fellow from Macroom.”

“Of course I went into deep shock at this,” says John A.

He had grown up in a Macroom that was very much a 19th-century peasant town, where they spoke Hiberno-English. “I grew up speaking a language which is now extinct.”

His father still had his all-Ireland medal, won in 1911. John A thought Macroom fascinating and satisfactory. Of course, Cork city people would have none of that, “even though, in Niall Tóibín’s marvellous description, they are only Kerrymen with shoes.”

All in the family

He was the youngest of four children. His older brother, Tadgh, was his hero. He was cherished by his sisters, Eileen and Maura. “I was lucky.” In 1917 his musical mother had married his athletic, talented Sinn Féin father against the social grain. “The caste distinctions of a small town are Brahman-like in their complexity,” he says.

His father was a carpenter; “he belonged to what I’d call the Fenian artisan class.”

John A believes now that his hurt at how his father, who had been a Volunteer in the War of Independence and a devoted de Valera man, was treated in that class system – his work underpaid and his talent unappreciated – was one of his own spurs to achievement.

It also gave him a prescience about the fate of the party his father loved so dearly. On December 20th, 1979, just a fortnight after Charles Haughey had become Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, John A Murphy had this to say in the Seanad, identifying not only the source of its trouble for Fianna Fáil but also, in fact, its apocalypse: "The recent palace revolution . . . has pointed up more than ever the close alliance between top politicians and the world of very big business.

“As a historian, and, indeed, as the child of Fianna Fáil parents, I regret to make the observation that Fianna Fáil is, in fact, no more. The simple faith of the small man, with his humble subscription, who placed his shilling or his half-crown on the collection table back in the ’30s and ’40s – my own people in fact – has finally been betrayed.

“Within the last week we have been told that austerity lies before us, that belt-tightening is the order of the day. Are these injunctions to be taken seriously, coming from this Government and this Taoiseach?”

His mother’s father was a draper who became wealthy for a time.”He was a Redmondite to the day he died,” says his grandson. John A knows his way around the labyrinth of Irish class boundaries. While talking about the dangers of hypothesis for any observer of history, he makes it clear that he thinks John Bruton’s recent attempts to resuscitate the reputation of the late John Redmond, by speculating that dominion status might have come after Home Rule, are pointless.

“Of course it is no coincidence that John Bruton and John Redmond both went to Clongowes College,” he says. “It is redolent of class.”

John A was the only member of his family to go to university. “I was a rare species at that time, I can tell you. Being a UCC student had a lot of cachet when you went home.”

After graduating and spending 10 years as a teacher, he was brought back to UCC by his mentor, Prof James Hogan. Hogan is on record as saying that John A was the most brilliant student he had ever taught. But John A says, “I’ve a suspicion he said that to all the boys.”

He became a full-time lecturer at UCC and embarked on a series of visiting professorships in the United States. He also he entered what he calls “the distraction of politics”. He was an Independent senator from 1977 to 1983 and from 1987 to 1992.

But his starkest political moments did not come in the Seanad. He had already started to “disentangle” the threads of his identity. As a lifelong GAA supporter he campaigned to stop the practice of the local bishop throwing in the ball at the start of important Gaelic games.

The bishops were not best pleased. “They thought I was a silly little man. But I knew it was important.”

At the Munster Final in 1981 (or perhaps at a league game; accounts differ) a call was made across the public-address system for silence in memory of two ESB workers who had died in an industrial accident that day. The announcer, a member of the Cork county board, then added, “And for the hunger strikers.”

John A refused to stand up, instead saying, “What about the Protestants that were murdered?”

It was a moment of enormous moral courage. Was he not frightened? “Well, I was so angry, and when you’re very angry it rules out other emotions.”

His stance against violent republicanism in general and the hunger strikes in particular was a minority one. The price he paid was excrement through his letter box and muttered threats, including a man at Tralee railway station telling him he’d be more suited to standing in Lansdowne Road rugby ground.

This was an inaccurate statement; what his opponents found hard to take was the perfection of his nationalist credentials.

“I remember being in a pub with Ciarán Mac Mathúna, and a man came in selling a newspaper in support of the hunger strikers. Ciarán wouldn’t buy it. He said, ‘No, I don’t support the prisoners.’ Your man couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘But you’re the great Irish music man.’ ”

Added verse

On his own gravestone John A just wants the words “He Sang”. Certainly, songs are a vital part of his history: his mother’s Edwardian British songs, his father’s traditional songs, the song composed by Breandán Ó hEithir and Seamus Martin in irritation at what they saw as the revisionism of Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ruth Dudley Edwards and John A.

John A is said to have added a verse himself – “as I have to many traditional ballads” – and has sung the song on many occasions. Politics and cultural life in Ireland seems to have been conducted with a bit more heart in those days.

We shall close with a verse from The Gentle Black and Tan.

So farewell you blinkered nationalists

A warning take from me

If you want to seem progressive

Then revise your history.

And pay heed to our three heroes,

Murphy, Edwards and Your Man

Who clear the name and sing the fame

Of the gentle Black and Tan.