Michael J. Murphy

 

MICHAEL J. Murphy, writer and folklorist, died suddenly on May 18th at his home in Walterstown, Castlebellingham, Co Louth, where he had lived with his wife Alice since 1984 after moving from his native Dromintee, South Armagh.

He was born in Eden Street, Liverpool, in 1913, and in 1922 returned to Dromintee where he attended Dromintee National School. He left school before he was 14 years old and went to work in the fields as a half a crown a day labourer.

Both his father, Michael Murphy and his mother, Susan Campbell, were storytellers and his paternal great grandfather, William Jordan, was a Gaelic scribe and minor Gaelic poet. So it was no accident that Michael J. began to write down the local lore and to submit articles to local and national periodicals during the 1930s. One of the first people to encourage him to write was Maud Gonne McBride.

Michael concentrated on articles on country life as he knew it, aviation, and social and political essays. He campaigned vigorously against the hiring fairs and wrote fiction for magazines such as Hibernia and the Bell. In 1938 he began to broadcast regularly for the BBC and Radio Eireann and during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s his voice became familiar to a wide audience in Ireland.

In 1941 his first book, At Slieve Gullion's Foot, was published and this led to an invitation from Professor Seamus Delargy to join the then Irish Folklore Commission as a part time collector. His life time involvement with folklore had begun.

In 1949 he went to Glenhull in Co Tyrone as a full time "cultural intelligence officer" and this led to the publication in 1973 of Tyrone Folk Quest, which has been described as "a classic in our literature" by Beredict Kiely. It was Kiely who, when they first met in Omagh in 1950, referred to Murphy as a "druid". He wrote. "This man be side me is a Druid, as much a part of this ancient land as the stone he sits on. He could have been here on this hillside under this oak before St Patrick came.

A Druid from the land around Fionn MacCumhaill's mountain in South Armagh."

Between 1949 and 1983 Michael J. worked tirelessly for the Irish Folklore Commission and for the Department of Irish Folklore in UCD. He covered the area of old Ulster from Rathlin to the Boyne, spending long periods in the Antrim Glens, Rathlin Island, the Mournes, Fermanagh, Cavan and South Armagh and amassing what is probably the largest collection of oral tradition anywhere in the English speaking world.

Along the way he wrote six plays and published eight more books, including Mountain Year (1964) Now You're Talking (1975) Ulster Folk of Field and Fireside (1983) Rathlin Island of Blood and Enchantment (1987) My Man Jack Bawdy Tales from Irish Folklore (1989) and The Rising of Yella Ned and Other Short Stories (1992).

He took a critical look at society and vigorously championed the spiritual against narrow materialism. He was a lifelong socialist republican and wrote in the South Ulster dialect of Northern Hiberno English. He has now, as he might say himself, "ploughed the head rig" and the world of Irish culture is much poorer for his passing.