‘And who might you be?’ – John Horgan on John A Murphy

An Irishman’s Diary

The many tributes to the late John A Murphy remind me that a lot of water has passed under various bridges since Eoghan Harris first mentioned the Cork historian's name to me at some point in the 1960s, during a chat after a programme in RTÉ in which we had both been involved.

It was plain that Eoghan, at that point, regarded John A who had taught him in UCC, as a secret weapon, to be deployed when the circumstances were right – as, indeed, he was. But these were early days, and when Eoghan unleashed John A on the Irish public some time later his television persona became another potent component of a truly remarkable career in public life.

His subsequent trajectory, not least after his introduction to television by Eoghan, blended academia, politics (as an NUI member of the Seanad), media, and his spiky wit, in a way which contributed in no small way to his burgeoning fame, and to the entertainment of the populace.

Even as a youth he had been bitten by the urge to challenge sacred cows. His father died young and, in the wake of that tragedy, the family got a letter of sympathy, in beautiful copper-plate handwriting, from the company – the Macroom Engineering Works – where he had been employed.

That company was owned for many years by my grandfather's brother, Aubyn Horgan, a somewhat eccentric farmer and businessman, who once walked into Marsh's auction rooms on the South Mall and, on impulse, bought a stagecoach.

His wife arrived just in time to dissuade him from buying a set of four-in-hand harness to go with it, so he towed it back to Macroom behind his car. I remember playing in it as a child.

But John A, as he told me himself many years later, was not impressed by the upper levels of Macroom society, and took his mother to task as she sat down to acknowledge Aubyn’s letter of sympathy on his father’s death.

“If he had paid my father a decent wage while he was still alive”, the young Murphy informed his mother, “his sympathy might be more appropriate”.

As members of Seanad Éireann at different times, John A and his UCC colleague Joe Lee were parliamentary mavericks who made their mark in unmistakable ways. They both patented a guerrilla technique which would reduce ministers, and their attendant civil servants, to paroxysms of confusion.

It was also John A's wont, at the end of each academic year, to spend some time unwinding in Baltimore, in Co Cork, where his desire for seclusion was generally respected. But not, apparently, by all. We had a house there for many years, and on one occasion entertained both John A and Eoghan – a long-time Baltimore aficionado, who still owns a house there – to a huge meal of prawns, purchased from one of the Baltimore fishermen who in those days went around from door to door selling their wares.

I don’t remember much of the chat that transpired that evening, but recall primarily that it was primarily to do with Cork lore and traditions, and personalities, rather than with the genre of politics for which, each in his own way, both our guests became a by-word.

On one of these holidays John A had gone out to Cape Clear and was engaged in a solitary walk to the summit of the island when he observed a small group of walkers on a converging trajectory.

Irritated at the thought that he might have been recognised, and not in the mood for small talk, he altered course as he descended.

The small group of walkers altered course too, until it was evident that their paths would unavoidably intersect.

As they met, the two groups came to an uncertain halt, and one of them addressed the solitary academic.

“How are ye, Sean”, was the query.

“And who might you be?” the disgruntled professor inquired.

“Brian”, was the proffered clarification.

“Brian who?”

“Your Brian, for Chrissake!” was the indignant reply. And indeed it was one of his own sons, who had sailed out to Cape on a small boat with several companions, but who was now disguised by several days’ growth of beard.