Regimented life second nature to top Cat Murphy
Four-time All Star embraces the discipline involved with serving with the Army in Lebanon
Kiklenny’s Paul Murphy on duty in Lebanon. “You’re constantly on the lookout. It’s minute-to-minute, keeping an eye on what’s happening, not only for our own safety but for the safety of the people in our area.”
When they’re on patrol along the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel, there’s no word of Congress or the black card. The latest GPA rassle doesn’t get a much traction in the hinterland around Tebnine and Ramyeh. Granted, it’s been raining all week in Southern Lebanon but otherwise home is miles ago and months away.
At home, he is Paul Murphy of Danesfort and Kilkenny. Four-time All-Ireland winner, four-time All Star, the only nailed-on fixture of Brian Cody’s defence right the way through a decade of flux. Since making his debut in 2011, Murphy has played in 49 of Kilkenny’s 50 championship games. Only TJ Reid can match those numbers and they’re a distance clear of the rest.
In the scrub hills around Bint Jebil, however, he’s Lieutenant Paul Murphy of the 115th Irish Infantry Battalion, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil). A hurler still, yes. But only when he can get around to it, only in his spare time. And there’s only ever a vanishing share of that to go around.
“Sundays are our only official day off out here,” he says.
“You’re pretty much in work the whole time. Even at that, if something happens on a Sunday, you’re working. It all comes back to what’s happening at a certain time. Incidents happen during your tour and if they happen on a Sunday, that’s when they happen.
“So really, downtime isn’t guaranteed. You try and get it where you can. If you make peace with the fact that you could be called at nine o’clock in the evening or on a Sunday, you don’t be long accepting that there’s not as much downtime as when you’re at home. You fit it in where you can.”
These are powderpuff concerns, at the back of it all. Murphy isn’t the first hurler to do a tour of duty during the season, he won’t be the last. He turned 31 a few weeks ago, has risen through the ranks over the past decade and knows the, eh, drill.
His first trip with the army was to Chad in 2010, a vast, broken country in equatorial Africa that at the time had something like 100km of tarred road in a landmass twice the size of France. Back then, phoning home meant putting your name on a list and taking the 10 minutes you were given, whenever it came around.
“It might be that you got a slot on Wednesday at half-eight and that was the one phonecall you got home all week,” Murphy remembers.
Southern Lebanon in 2020 is a different world. The twin miracles of wifi and WhatsApp mean we’re able to chat for as long as we like. About army life, about identity, about hurling, about whatever. Indeed, the only impediment proves to be the initially glitchy wifi in The Irish Times office. The first world has its own problems.
In Lebanon, everything is knotted and nothing is straightforward. A new government was formed at the end of January, cattle-prodded into it eventually after three months of street protests. Even though the country is generationally used to conflict and never much more than an errant border incursion away from war, it has been basic, rudimentary corruption in high office that has brought the masses out this time around.
The Lebanese economy is circling the drain, the local currency has been hollowed out and basic services like running water, electricity and even hospitals are constantly interrupted. When a recent demonstration at parliament buildings in Beirut was cleared with water cannon, the irony wasn’t lost on the protestors.
“They’re throwing water at us and I don’t even have water at home,” one of them remarked bitterly to Al-Jazeera.
On the face of it, none of this is of specific concern to the Irish troops in the country. They are based in the south and their bailiwick is in and around the border with Israel. The bulk of the protests are taking place in Beirut in the north and are ostensibly concerned with internal matters. But as Murphy points out, this is the Middle East. Everything is everything.
“At the moment, the big news over here is they’re forming a cabinet after the elections,” he says.
“There’s protests in and around Beirut constantly just at the minute. We’re about two-and-a-half hours from Beirut. We’re very much based in the south but Lebanon is only around the size of Munster in terms of land space. So while that’s all happening in Beirut, it’s not that far away at all. If you were living in Clare and there were big riots every day in Cork, you’d know all about it. It all has an effect on how we operate here.
“I would have been keeping an eye on the elections at home and you could see how passionate everyone was about it. Well, over there, people are under a lot more pressure economically and the public in general is under a lot more pressure than we would be at home. We’ve seen violence break out in the area – protests, riots and different things. So we’re constantly keeping an eye on that.
“You’re constantly on the lookout. It’s minute-to-minute, keeping an eye on what’s happening, not only for our own safety but for the safety of the people in our area. Because one incident could unravel around here into something bigger than what it should be.”
As a small example, there was an incident last September, just a few weeks before he arrived. It started with an Israeli drone attack in Beirut. A week later, Hezbollah fighters based in southern Lebanon launched anti-tank rockets across the border into northern Israel.
Retaliation came on a Sunday afternoon, the day of the drawn All-Ireland football final as it happens. The Israeli army launched around 100 shells at Hezbollah targets in and around the Irish area of operations, forcing 450 Irish troops to take cover in bunkers, wearing helmets and body armour.
“That did make global news alright,” Murphy says. “There was rocket fire from the Lebanese side into Israel and that happened within the Irish battalion’s area of operations.
Tour of duty
“Weekly and often daily, we would have violations of the Blue Line. The Blue Line isn’t a border, it’s the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel. So nobody has agreed that it’s a border, it’s basically where the stand-off happens between the two sides and we have to monitor it. There’s incidents every day, there’s posturing every day between both sides.
“But beyond all that, any time there’s a riot in Beirut or there’s tear gas fired like there was last week, that affects us. That comes into our realm and it’s something we have to monitor on a daily basis.”
Somewhere in that mix, his other life exists. At 31, he has more years behind him as a Kilkenny hurler than he has in front of him. But it’s still who he is and it will be for a while yet. Championship starts more or less the exact week he gets back to Ireland. The challenge will be to see how few twists of the dial he has to make before he catches the game’s frequency again.
When you’re away, you’re away. It isn’t just a matter of being somewhere else. It’s being somebody else. To live in Ireland and play inter-county is to have allowances made for you. Small ones, big ones, discreet ones that you’re not even aware of. Friends, family, work – they’re all moulded around you to some extent. On a tour of duty, that is flipped on its head. The clue is in the name.
“Yeah, it’s the complete opposite here,” he says. “There are plenty of days where no matter how diligent you’ve been, no matter how well you’ve managed your time, something happens. And you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re in the office for the evening or you’re out of the camp for the evening and that’s just the way it is.
“That’s the big difference to when you’re at home. Out here, you’re basically here to work and if you find time to fit in a bit of something else, that’s secondary. Whereas when you’re back at home, whatever you’re doing, you generally have a time when you finish work, you generally have two days off a week and maybe a bit more depending on what you’re doing. You can get into a groove where you fit things around your hurling.”
I’m lucky in that I see the training as down-time because I enjoy it
Must take some getting used to, all the same. That sort of snow-globe shake to your headspace, to your identity even. He’s in regular touch with the Kilkenny set-up, follows his S&C to the letter, keeps the team nutritionist as happy as a communal, take-what-your-given eater can. But for now, for this six-month stretch, the game is a detached thing, floating out there in the wind for him to grab at when he can.
“I’m used to it in some ways in that this is my third tour of duty. When I’m out here, I’m Paul Murphy the lieutenant, Paul Murphy the soldier. You look for days when you can switch that off but they’re very few and far between. Everybody has their own interests and has their own way of stepping away from the work for an hour or two. But an hour or two is all it is really.
“I’m lucky in that I see the training as down-time because I enjoy it. I’m happy when I’m training. Lads would be saying to me, ‘Have you seen this on Netflix?’ and I’m always going, ‘No!’ I’ve seen nothing really because my hour that I take as down-time is spent in the gym or getting a run in or pucking a ball off a wall. At home, for the vast majority of players, your hurling dictates what happens in the rest of your life. Out here, it’s something you fit in when you can.”
He wouldn’t change it though. Paul Murphy the hurler owes more to the soldier than the other way around. A cushy number in a bank back at home might have provided him with more time to play around with but it wouldn’t have given him a better hurling career. Missing the odd league here and there is no big tariff.
“When I was young, when I joined the army first, it gave me huge direction. Something I have found over the years then is that it has given me huge confidence. You get put under quite a bit of pressure, first in training and then in scenarios like we’re in at the minute overseas. You can be guaranteed that on a daily basis, you’re under pressure to perform. That’s certainly something that has fed into the hurling side of things for me. You’re under pressure to perform and if you don’t, there are consequences – Lord knows what they could be in any given scenario.
“You have to make very calculated decisions. You have to think in terms of what’s in everyone’s best interests. And when you’re doing that in your job, in your everyday life, that’s obviously going to be applied to your hurling as well. In the course of an intercounty career, you are constantly faced with tough decisions. That could be anything from, in the early days, sacrificing the normal everyday things that everyone else does just in order to make an intercounty panel.
“And then when you’re actually there, anything from making a call not to train or play when you’re injured even though you know it won’t go down well with management. These sound like small decisions but they have to be made under pressure and they affect the group of people around you in the team and the wider panel. I know that the army and hurling have been intertwined for me that way and that the army gave me the confidence I needed to be able to make those decisions.”
A quick bout of Googling tells us that over the past week alone, the IMF has arrived in Lebanon to meet the new prime minister in a bid to save the economy. Security forces in Beirut thwarted an alleged ISIS attack on the US Embassy. A statue of assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was erected in a southern Lebanese village, right on the Blue Line, its finger pointed at the Israeli valley below.
And Kilkenny threw away a lead in Wexford Park despite having a big wind behind them. (Didn’t have to Google that one. Still thawing out.)
Point is, all of it feeds in. To the soldier, to the hurler. In fits and starts and flurries, to greater and lesser extents.
Everything is everything.