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An interview with Richard Murphy

Eugene O'Connell interviews Richard Murphy on his eightieth birthday


EOC: There’s a definite sense of quest in your work, that sense that you had identified a subject matter and a style from the word go.
RM: You’re talking about the “burden of ancestry”, the business of being a poet of two traditions, I take it.
EOC: Yes, in the sense that the burden of history, of your Anglo Irish ancestry — “the guilt of the coloniser” — had to be addressed before you could move on to more personal themes.
RM: I went to the site of the Battle of Aughrim in 1962, a bleak place- this feeling came over me, such a surge that I had to write it down, the words that came out were “who owns the land?”.

EOC: The opening words of your long poem ‘The Battle of Aughrim’, “who owns the land where musket balls are buried”, your family came out on the right side of that battle, got 70,000 acres from the dispossessed Catholic side.
RM: I was more interested in the myth-making, the legends that come out of events like that and are a more potent force than the reality of the event.
EOC: Ted Hughes influenced the making of that poem if I remember.
RM: Ted and Sylvia Plath came to see me at my house in Cleggan in 1962, I had refurbished the Ave Maria ( Galway Hooker) and was taking visitors to fish and to see the islands, he suggested I write dramatic monologues.
EOC: The poem was broadcast on BBC 3 with a cast of the major Irish actors of the day, it made you a kind of celebrity — what poem could do that now?
RM: Yes that’s why Ted and Sylvia and people like Theodore Roethke came to see me and to see the West of course, it was undiscovered country back then still remote.
EOC: What was Hughes like? You became friends, embarked on major reading tours in the seventies in England and America.
RM: He was a man who simplified things. If I were trying to say something difficult in a poem he’s say, imagine like you were explaining it to a child. Jesus did that as do the great communicators.
EOC: He had great tragedies in his life.
RM: I rang him after I had heard that Assia and Shura ( his wife and daughter) had died. I said is there anything I can do? He said - nothing anyone can do, send flowers.
EOC: He was demonised especially by the feminist wing — he was heckled at readings.
RM: Sylvia (his first wife) was a troubled woman but likeable, as was Assia of course. . . .
EOC: High Island, the third of the great books that came out of your time in the west has a lightness of touch something of the ‘fabulist’ genre about it, as if the other books (Sailing to an Island, The Battle of Aughrim) had exorcised the ghosts, freed you up to become yourself.
RM: I bought High Island quite literally for a song, we found the bones of Gormgall there — the confessor of Brian Boru.
EOC: Ted Hughes said that it was a place for restless spirits. Was it the subject matter or this new phase in your life that lightened you up — gave oomph to the magnificent poems in the High Island book?
RM: I gave voice (persona) to the land the sea the natural world — they talk to us anyway — why not give them words, love, whatever you call the redeeming harmony needs detachment of space, as well as intimacy. Simply by being alone in that place at that time I felt its force.
EOC: The Price of Stone, fifty sonnets spoken from the perspectives of fifty different types of buildings, that’s quite a feat, you compare poems to well made buildings.
RM: I’ve always been taken by that idea, the House itself ( the Big House) was itself thought of as a character as a member of the family by the Anglo Irish — given a voice — Molly Keane does that very well, I built my own house in Cleggan.
EOC: — the famous pink house on the pier at Cleggan, and you built a house on Omey Island. You were something of a conservationist, the Galway Hookers and the pink granite, that sense of moral outrage — redolent of Swift, you housed an itinerant family from the winnings of some poetry competition.
RM: That’s history now, old hat, I was shocked at people dumping priceless ruins in the foundation of those bungalows, but that was then.
EOC: Was there something of the naive about you, an innocence? I’m thinking of the time you went to visit the literary set in McDaids; Anthony Cronin described you as “a tall lissom Anglo Irishman who seemed a bit like a lamb that strayed into a den of wolves.”
RM: Didn’t Paddy ( Kavanagh) say that he hated Dublin but couldn’t go back to Monaghan with all the ghosts, that it was all right for Murphy to live in Cleggan — he’s a Protestant — they can’t get at him the way they’d get at me if he went back to Inniskeen?
EOC: You were quite unique in that time, a loner in the West and looking more towards the outside world than Dublin; the first truly post-war international poet to emerge out of Ireland, published of course by Faber.
RM: I was educated in England of course, had many contacts there and friends, I liked living in the west — in the company of seafaring men.
EOC: I’ve always admired your ability to up roots and move to different places at various stages of your life, reinvent yourself, it seems to come naturally to you.
RM: Tony White died in 1989, I felt I had to move away.
EOC: He was a major influence, editor and friend. You said of him that “not possessing any material goods he was not himself possessed.”
RM: I went to live in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the time of the Tamil war, I stumbled on these frescoes in the jungle, painted on the walls of a fortress in Sigiriya, what struck me was the graffiti, these notes or sayings or commentary scribed into the rock by soldiers or poets or travellers, thousands of years old.
EOC: The Mirror Wall, the book that came out of that experience, was a major departure from the formal nature of the earlier books, more sensual and prepared the way for the candour of your memoir The Kick, a book based on diaries.
RM: I kept the diaries originally as research background for poems, then diaries of various people — celebrities. I got into the habit of writing down my impressions of the great and the good — whoever struck me as interesting.
EOC: The piece on Auden is a gem, “the crusted oyster of his mouth”.
RM: Barbara Epstein invited me to a party in New York. Auden was there and if I can remember the piece he seemed to have made up his mind about every possible topic and condensed his conclusions into unanswerable aphorisms. The great crusted oyster of his mouth would open, an artificial pearl of thought would pop out and the mouth would clam shut again.
EOC: You’ve lived outside Ireland for the last twenty years and are back for your 80th birthday. What has the trip meant?
RM: That I haven’t been forgotten in my own country, left a record. . . .
EOC: What’s next for Richard Murphy?
RM: Work on the second part of a memoir, some poems . . . let’s leave it at that.
EOC: Happy birthday, go maire tu an gcead, may you live to be a hundred.

© Eugene O'Connell  
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