Richard Murphy was born eighty years ago in the West of Ireland into a Protestant Ascendancy family. He spent much of his early childhood in Ceylon where his father worked in the British colonial service. He was educated at a variety of mostly British private schools and at Oxford where he was tutored by CS Lewis. He later studied at the Sorbonne and taught. In the early Fifties he returned to the West of Ireland where he settled in the erstwhile fishing village of Cleggan.
Murphy bought a couple of boats and started a modest fishing business because he wanted to write about the sea in a realistic way. He was of the opinion that much writing then about the sea, particularly in poetry, was too metaphorical and the best way for him would be to experience the sea at first hand before writing about it. Cleggan was a village where fishing had been abandoned after a famous sailing disaster. Taking the first-hand accounts of survivors he wove the material into a long tour de force poem which closed his first collection Sailing to an Island, published in the early Sixties by Faber & Faber, at a time when other recent acquisitions to the publisher’s list included Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn.
Murphy enjoyed commissions for his poems from the BBC which prompted him to start on his long book-length sequence The Battle of Aughrim. Ostensibly about the 18th century triumph of Dutch-led Protestant forces over the Irish and French Catholic forces, the poem dealt obliquely not only with the brewing strife in Ulster of the 1960’s, but also with the issues of the Vietnam War. Its episodic structure was highly influential on poetic sequences subsequently published by Montague and Heaney.
Murphy has been described by many authorities, not least Derek Mahon, as the last exponent of an Anglo-Irish poetic tradition best exemplified by Yeats. At a time when most Irish poets were taking the lead of Patrick Kavanagh and shirking the dominating rhetorical tones of Yeats, Murphy found himself writing poems of classical intent, which no matter how well admired in certain circles, were out of step with the prevailing poetic fashion. His reputation was less than he deserved for this and a number of other reasons, including the obsessive media focus on poets emerging from Ulster; his output being less prolific than his contemporaries and a lazy misapprehension by some of one of his enduring themes, that of colonial guilt whether situated in Ireland or Sri Lanka. His focus on such material was misread by many as unreconstructed imperialism and Craig Raine while editor at Faber notoriously refused to include Murphy’s long poem ‘The God Who Eats Corn’ (which dealt with Murphy’s father’s estate in Rhodesia) in a New Selected which would otherwise have been a Collected Poems. Murphy and Faber subsequently parted the ways. Granta published his personal memoir The Kick to great acclaim.
Murphy’s work is now gaining new deserved attention in a post-Kavanagh, post-troubles Ireland. He has been writer in residence at many American universities and among the awards he has won are The Martin Toonder Award, the AE Memorial Award and the American-Irish Foundation Award. Murphy is a member of Aosdana.
New Selected Poems Faber, London,1989
The Mirror Wall Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 1989
Collected Poems, The Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 2000
The Kick, Granta, London, 2002
/>(Irish Writers Online entry)
(An extract from The Kick)
(Murphy’s poetry publisher)