Michael J Murphy 1913 – 1996

In the Antrim Glens

After the last two-part Ballycastle Biography on that fantastic stalwart and collector of folklore Seamus O’deleurgai.  I have decided to continue on with that particular story and genre. Storytelling and folklore, Piseog(superstition) is an integral part of the Irish identity. Our ancient people use to sit around the fire and tell stories, they painted pictures on cave wall and carved stones. They told Stories! 

This way of life continued into recent times, and even yet we still love the storyteller down the pub or out on guided walks or bus tours. It adds to the fabric and substance of just about everything we do. With the invention of new technology, this way of life was declining, with the invention of electric we turned from traditional storytelling to visual storytelling and the old ways were starting to be consumed by less local knowledge and more world breaking news. The storytelling was still there it was the subject material and the presentation that changed. Thankfully men and woman, like PEIG Sayers, Seamus O’Deluargai and this months Biography Michael J Murphy, wrote, collected, and saved some of these stories, these traditions, these superstitions. They did this all over Ireland, including the Glens. Although this months Biography is not about a Glens man/woman it is about someone who made a great contribution to our history and heritage, and for that I have decided to include him

In May 1996, Bo Almqvist, Swedish academic and folklorist wrote in the Sunday Tribune

“with the demise of Michael J Murphy Ireland is bereft of one of its best known and most diligent folklore collectors”. Bo Almqvist had taken over the work of Seamus O Delurgai, and Seamus O Delurgai had gave Michael J Murphy his job as a folklore Collector, 

Michael J Murphy was born in England on the 2nd July 1913, his father Michael Murphy was a ship, fireman and his mother Susan Murphy nee Campbell were living along the Merseyside in Liverpool, there family address was given as Eden Street, Liverpool. Both his parents were from South Armagh

Michael Senior had travelled far in his career, a fluent speaker not only of Irish Gaelic, but also of Scottish Gaelic, he had picked this up in his trips to the Western Isles of Scotland through his work. He had also spent time in Russia, working through the port of Archangel, and he supposedly spent time working on the Mauritania. RMS Mauritania was one of the most famous ships ever built on the Tyneside. She was the world’s largest ship between 1906 when she launched and 1911. Some might say Michael Senior was destined for a life at sea, as education was not his thing, he was expelled from school and had to attend the neighbouring one in Jonesborough village. The reason being was he had thrown his slate at the teacher, missing him, and smashing a clock. Both Michael Juniors Father and mother were to then be hired off in the hiring fairs in Newry.

This was not to say that the family was not one steeped in Irish History and literature. His great grandfather on his fathers’ side was a man known as Willie Jordan and Willie was known as a minor scribe and poet, one occasion sending off two poems to the pope. The Pope’s secretary acknowledging them both. Through the years of An Gorta Mhor, the same great grandfather with the help of two brothers were to set up a soup kitchen in Dromintee, this was partly in opposition to the rector of Forkhill who had set up a soup kitchen as well. Food and education at this time would have been used to Proselytise people. Willie Jordan’s son was to take in the stories of the father and then pass them on down to Michael Junior. 

When Michael was eight years old, the family took the decision to return to South Armagh, setting up home again in Dromintee, and Michael Jr was to attend Dromintee National School, he was to leave school at 14. On one memorable occasion in the classroom, he remembered the teacher remarking to him, ‘You’re just like your father – a rebel from the toe-nails up’. This was the same teacher that the father threw the slate at all them years back. 

It was all this backdrop and family stories that shaped the life and the writings of Micheal J Murphy in later years, after leaving school like many young men and woman of the time, he was to go and work among the farms in the local areas. Whilst out in the fields and bogs, he was taking note of the songs and stories that the older men were telling. It wasn’t very long before he started writing these down and started contributing to publications such as The Bell and Hibernia. The Bell in particular was a monthly editorial which ran between 1940 and 1954, described sometimes as a liberal, left-wing social and liberal magazine, it was to have contributors from a varied background. This would have fitted perfectly with Michael J Murphy’s politics; his father was said to have been personal friends with James Connolly and Jim Larkin. 

IN 1938 Michael J Murphy started broadcasting for the BBC and then shortly after Radio Eireann (RTE). His first broadcast was ‘The Goat men of South Armagh’ and shortly after he soon was given a half hour section once a month. His talks were scripted, and they brought attention to him to a larger audience. One in particular would have been Sam Hannah Bell.

In December 1941, he was to publish his first book, At Slieve Gullion’s Foot and it was through this book that he came to the attention of Seamus O’Delurgai from the Folklore Commission. Initially becoming a part time collector for the commission, it would be another seven years before he became a full-time folklore collector. In the meantime, he had ceased to work as a labourer and had bought a house on Slieve Gullion, this was to be the basis of his later book, Mountain Year. 

Now in the employment of the Folklore Commission, married and two children, he moved to Co Tyrone with his new wife Alice to the village of Glenhull to collect Folklore, this resulted in another book, Tyrone Folk Quest.

It was in 1951, that our story becomes interesting, the Folklore Commission sent Michael J Murphy to Cushendall in the Antrim Glens, he was to stay on Layde mountain, where he collected folklore from people like Johnny Emerson, Rosie Emerson, Gortaclea, Cushendall. Frank Mc Auley of Layde and Michael Leach of Glenarriff, it was through the early 50’s he was to spend a year in the glens, through this time he collected stories in Carey from the Mc Bride Brothers of Eglish, they owned a blacksmith opposite what is now hunters bar, Francey Lamont , the poet from Coolinlough Clachan, the Gillan’s of Losset and down into Glenshesk. He spent time in Ballycastle where he spent time with Jack Donnelly the Blacksmith, one of the last in the area, and the Clark Family who owned the public house on Anne Street (now O’Connor’s Bar)

He moved then into Ballintoy where he interviewed and spent time with the O’Rourke brothers of the harbour, Charley Glass and the violin maker John Mc Gill, David Donegan alongside other names. 

In 1955 and 1956 he was to spend a month each year on Rathlin Island, and his time on the island was subject to another book Rathlin- Island of Blood and enchantment. He took many pictures on the island and interviewed 31 Islanders altogether, between the ages of 40 and the oldest was 91 years of age. He collected stories about Fairies, about Religion about sea monsters and many more subjects. He collected stories from Mickey Jo Anderson, from Rose Mc Curdy and Mickey Mc Cuaig and many other Islanders to numerous to mention for this article. His work in the Glens was carried out on Bicycle as the years that he was collecting had been through the second world war and the aftermath when fuel was rationed. He was after the war to be given a car, but after issues with the Northern Ireland Government at the time, it wasn’t until 1957, he was to receive proper access to a car. 

He like all the collectors were given a notebook, an OS map an ediphone and a regular supply of ediphone cylinders. In 1936 Seamus O Deauleaurgai bought a roll flex camera and sent about their work.  Michael J Murphy was to collect in eight of the nine counties of Ulster, excluding Donegal. He was the only member of the team who hadn’t the Gaelic Language but was so important to the team that the rule was relaxed for his inclusion. 

It was also during his time in the Glens that his writing of plays came into the public sphere, his play ”Dust under our Feet” was played to a London audience this was followed up with “Men on the wall” which was played to propitious audiences in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Michael J Murphy was to write six plays altogether. He had correspondence with many notable figures, names such as John Hewitt, Maud Gonne Mac Bride, Kathleen Clarke. 

In 1971, the folklore Commission, became the department of Irish Folklore at UCD in Dublin and Murphy continued to work there up until his retirement in 1983. He then moved with his wife Alice to Castlebellingham, Co Louth.  Michael J Murphy was to pass away on 18th May 1996, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. 

Michael J Murphy was the author of ten books and was one of the people responsible for leaving the largest collection of oral tradition in the western world. There is many quotations I could end this story with, but the one I found most apt, and it is about the men and woman he collected from, 

“it is a pity that men and woman like them will ever have to die, but still, they will not die, their tales and traditions are preserved and will live on to the pleasure and profit for future generations. 

Michael J Murphy was often referred to as “the last Druid” his friend and poet John Hewitt wrote the poem to him The Fairy Thresher. 

The Fairy Thresher

That winter night round the blazing turf

The children on the hobs, the talk ran on,

Most from the farmer and his sister Kitty,

His wife not holding much with superstitions,

to rhyme and ramble through familiar stories

Of ghosts and fairies, witches, blinks and spells.

For instance, when a cub, the man himself

Joined with his brother to herd cattle in,

and a stirk turned and would not be compelled,

when it had strayed across the wee, stone bridge,

to follow the others, and a neighbour stood

to mock their efforts till they gave it up,

and he said, laughing, she’ll come back all right

when that wee man there goes away,

a wee man threatening by the door of the byre,

seen only by the neighbour and the stirk.

The sister told how once between the lights

In the next house up the road a woman answered

A tap on the half-door, and peering over, saw

A wee old woman standing in the street

Who begged her please to empty no more pots?

Across the bru, for she’d come to lodge there

And all her family were nearly drowned.

The farmer launched into another tale

Of how a man, a famous storyteller,

To whom all happened, who was always present

When freets appeared, one midnight in Glenanne,

Carrying in his fist a smouldering turf

Which, blown to flame, would better any torch

To clear his homeward steps across the fields,

Heard a strange creature girning in the sheugh

And blew on his turf and by its light made out

A wee man with his face where his arse should be,

And charged towards him, thrusting the red turf

Into the scowling face, whereat the creature

Let out a yell and tore into the hedge,

Its speed a hare’s, its loud howl murderous.

This, told with vigour and economy,

Was new to me. I thought of Bosch and Breughel,

And wondered by what roads did the tale come here

Over Europe, out of the Dark Ages:

But thought it something out of character

With the old forts and thorns and fairy rings

And distant singing heard and fiddle music

And dancing light on hillsides, which I take

As proper to the ambience of the Glens

And the dim twilight of the tweedy poets.

The father faltered, as it seemed abashed

By his bold coarseness in that company

Of children and his womenfolk and us.

But suddenly the sister swept the talk

To charms and hedgerow cures dropped out of use,

For chin-cough and for cleaning of the blood,

That kept the people healthy years ago.

There at the brother at this hint began

A rambling story of a man he knew

Dead twenty years or more, lived bird alone,

Who had a charm for erysipelas, sprains –

With well-attested instances of each –

With nobody that he could pass it to.

He’d got it from an aunt, his mother’s sister,

And had been sworn to hand it to a niece,

For its transmission had to be from amble

To female and to male, alternately

By generation, a secret always held

Within that family only. But his niece

Was out in Boston. It could not be written.

He could not travel. She would not come back.

So ended what was known from Druid times.

His wife, the mother of the listening weans

Recalled a story that they loved to hear

A mother’s story, how a widow left,

Her corn unthreshed, her children infants, heard

A flail thump in the night, and peering out

To thank some kindly neighbour, saw a shadow

A little shadow, flit across the yard. 

And in the light when she came out, she found

The clean corn heaped in the middle of the floor.

And next night she heard the flail again

This time a fall of snow that smeared the ground

Exposed the track of feet from barn to gate;

The light impression showed the feet were small

And bare from heel to toe. So she went down

And bought a pair of shoes in the village shop

To match the little feet that she had measured

Smaller feet than any of her brood. 

She set them out beside the flailing floor

And, waiting late, the third night heard a cry,

A cry of utter anguish and despair

Would break your heart to hear it, and she saw

The little shadow running from the barn,

Giving his grief these pitiable words,

‘She’s paid me off – she’s given me my wages,’

Repeated as he ran, and dying out

Into the darkness of the wall of hills.

We nodded; expectation satisfied:

The children chanted together, ‘She’s paid me off.

She’s paid me off. She’s given me my wages’ –

They’d only held their tongues till the mother finished:

This was a tale their children would remember,

And a boy or a girl might one day understand.

Michael J Murphy and John Hewitt at the opening of the Cushendall House at Cultra owned by Dan Hyndman. Many years before, M J Murphy collected folklore stories in this very same house.
Picture property of RingofGullion.org
Michael J Murphy
Picture from Pinterest

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