About Richard Murphy
Richard Murphy has been called a poet of two traditions, British and Irish. Born in 1927 at Milford, a small “Big House” of his mother’s Anglo-Irish family near Kilmaine, County Mayo, Richard spent five of his childhood years in the British crown colony of Ceylon. There his Irish father, born in a Roscommon Rectory in 1887, became the last British Mayor of Colombo. Brought home at the age of 8, Richard attended all-male boarding schools, becoming a chorister of Canterbury Cathedral, winning a Milner Scholarship to the King’s School, Canterbury, and, from Wellington College at 17, a Demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where C.S. Lewis was his tutor.
After much post-war shifting about in search of roots and distinction – ADC to his father who had succeeded the Duke of Windsor as Governor of the Bahamas; reviewing poetry for the Spectator in London; winning the AE Memorial Award in 1951 and writing poetry in an isolated cottage in Connemara for two years; teaching English in Crete; studying briefly at the Sorbonne; marrying, fathering a daughter and divorcing in 1959 – Richard settled for twenty years on the northwest coast of Connemara and its islands – Cleggan, Inishbofin, Omey and High Island. His love of these places and their people inspired his best poetry, first published under T.S. Eliot’s direction in Sailing to an Island (1963). This was a Poetry Book Society Choice.
Murphy became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1969 and a member of Aosdána at its foundation in 1982. He taught as a visiting poet or professor at nine universities in America including Princeton, Colgate, Iowa, Tulsa, and Bard College. He has held positions at Reading and Hull universities and at University College, Dublin. In the USA his poetry has been published by Knopf, Harper and Row, and Wake Forest University Press. Murphy is well represented in Patrick Crotty’s The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry; and his memoir, The Kick: a Life among Writers (Granta Books, 2002), is available as an e-Book from Lilliput Press. John Banville described that book as, “A fine, considered and fascinating memoir of a life lived as close to the full as possible.”
After moving from Connemara to Dublin in 1980, and to post-apartheid South Africa to be near his daughter in 1997, and returning ten years later to Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), Murphy lived out his retirement overlooking a paddy field among hills not far from Kandy. The early poems of Murphy that have lasted were inspired by the land-and-sea-scape and oral history of the west of Ireland. These include “The Cleggan Disaster”, which commemorates the loss of 25 fishermen caught out in rowing boats at night in a storm on October 28th, 1927; and the title poem of his first collection, “Sailing to an Island”, which describes a perilous voyage that landed him, not in legendary Clare Island where he and his brother wanted to go, but in the real harbour of Inishbofin that changed his life.
These poems have the clarity, vividness, dramatic momentum and alertness to history evident in some of the great sea-poems of the twentieth century, such as W.S. Graham’s “The Nightfishing” and Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”. The extraordinary opening stanza of this poem demonstrates Murphy’s ability to create a vivid scene through a richly mimetic syntax which rushes and pauses, contracts and expands, like the sea beneath the boat, and the “secretive surge of sadness” which rises within us all:
The boom above my knees lifts, and the boat
Drops, and the surge departs, departs, my cheek
Kissed and rejected, kissed, as the gaff sways
A tangent, cuts the infinite sky to red
Maps, and the mast draws eight and eight across
Measureless blue, the boatmen sing or sleep.
The complexities of Murphy’s Anglo-Irish identity recur throughout his oeuvre, particularly in poems addressing the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, which, as the poet has remarked, were “a way of making sense of the complexities of my origin, and divided loyalties to Britain and to Ireland, to my family and to my friends.” In a spare poem like “Martial Law”, shocking in its restraint, Murphy allows line-length to be the primary mode of conveying the poet’s perspective:
A country woman and a country man
Come to a well with pitchers,
The well that has given them water since they were children:
And there they meet soldiers.
Suspecting they’ve come to poison the spring
The soldiers decide to deal
So they hang them on a tree by the well.
The immense ironical pressure placed upon that single word, “justly”, conveys succinctly Murphy’s approach to historical narrative, an approach which has proved highly influential. The Battle of Aughrim predates by four years The Rough Field by John Montague. Such oblique, highly-charged depictions of colonial collisions seem to anticipate the troubled discretion evident in some major contemporary poets, such as Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley, and mark Murphy out as one of the defining voices of twentieth century Anglophone poetry. Such ironies, among a dazzling array of other tones and voices, are further illuminated by Murphy’s highly musical and resonant readings of his poems.
AE Memorial Award
Poetry Book Society Choice. for 'Sailing to an Island'
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
member of Aosdána at its foundation