J P O'Malley

Interview with a poet: Richard Murphy, an old Spectator hand

Interview with a poet: Richard Murphy, an old Spectator hand
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Richard Murphy was born in County Mayo in Ireland in 1927. He spent part of his childhood in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where his father was the last British mayor of Colombo. From the age of eight he attended boarding schools in Ireland and England, eventually winning a scholarship to Oxford.

In 1959 Murphy moved to Inishbofin, an island off the coast of Connemara in County Galway. He settled there for twenty years, writing poems inspired by tragic tales from the local fishing community. These include ‘The Cleggan Disaster’, ‘The Last Galway Hooker’, ‘Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie’ and ‘Sailing to an Island’. The latter describes a dangerous boating trip Murphy took with his brother.

Murphy has always been an outsider. Coming from an Anglo-Irish background, he spent much of his career struggling to be accepted into Irish culture. This subject is reflected in many of his poems. The west of Ireland also features prominently in his work, inspiring him to write poems about Irish landscape, myth and history.

In 1980 Murphy moved to Dublin. He lived for a short time in South Africa, and then in 2007 he returned to Sri Lanka, where he still resides. Murphy has recently published The Pleasure Ground, a collection of poems spanning 1952 to 2012.

In your memoir The Kick, and in many of your poems, you write about a conflicted sense of identity: between being British and Irish. Did you always feel that you didn’t quite belong to either nationality?

I was born into an Anglo-Irish colonial world in which people were identified with their families and with the places to which they belonged or from which they had come. As a child of six or seven in Ceylon, I was as loyal to King George V as my father was when standing to attention at the Cenotaph on the Galle Face Green during the two minutes’ silence and the bugling of the Last Post at eleven o’clock on Armistice Day. But though Ceylon seemed to belong to us, we knew we belonged in Ireland, where no snakes or scorpions, leopards or malarial mosquitoes could kill us. Later on in my life, I was often criticised, sometimes sympathetically, for my forlorn attempt to shed my colonial past and implant myself in the ninety-nine per cent republican west of Ireland. But because I was unalterably Anglo-Irish, it seemed I was doomed to fail. 

How did that confusing sense of identity affect the relationship that you had with your father? It seems like his worldview was very different to yours and that it may have caused considerable friction in your relationship? 

The problem with my father was that he was too remote, working in the colonies while I was at boarding school. My father had been a most dutiful and obedient son to his pious Protestant Victorian parents. So he could not understand how I, who had won a Milner Scholarship to the King’s School, could not have been the same. I loved my father, but had lost him by growing up with him so far away. In 1963, two years before he died, I tried to retrieve this love in the poem ‘The God who Eats Corn.’

Could you tell me about your first attempt at writing poetry — you moved back to Ireland to begin with? 

At Oxford I rebelled in my second year, aged nineteen, when a frenzy to leave in mid-term on Armistice Day in the fog caused me to go to Ireland and live alone in a cottage by a waterfall at the foot of a mountain. I was seething with ambition to write a tragedy in Shakespearean blank verse. My subject was a legendary judge called Lynch in medieval Galway, who condemned his own son to death for murder and, when no Irishman could be persuaded to carry out the cruel sentence, he hanged his boy from an upstairs window of his house himself.

My frenzy ended in failure – no money – with my return to Oxford the following term to complete my degree. The shame of this prevented me thinking of myself as a poet until I had produced a number of verses that a poet or critic of authority judged to be poetry. 

Can you tell me about when your employment as a freelance writer with the Spectator began?

It was in 1950 when I went to share a flat with my sister Mary in London. I took a job for £5 a week as a clerk in C.E. Heath & Co, the Lloyds Insurance broker. This was in the bombed out and not yet rebuilt city of London after the war. In despair after six months of boredom, I wrote to Harold Nicolson, whose elegant ‘Marginal Comment’ in the Spectator I had greatly enjoyed. Soon after meeting and telling him about my desire to write poetry, and hearing his advice that I should begin by reviewing it, I received a postcard from Derek Hudson, the Spectator’s Literary Editor, inviting me to call at his office in Gower Street. Hudson was writing a book on Lewis Carroll at the time. And when I turned up at his office wearing a grey city suit, with a rolled umbrella on my arm, and a black bowler hat in my hand, he thought it so funny that he took a chance on my madness and said: ‘Choose a volume from these shelves and let me have about 500 words.’

I chose an anthology of Elizabethan lyrics. But that week I read in the Spectator a much longer laudatory review, by Professor Bonamy Dobrée, of the Faber edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Being young and foolish, I thought the review was wrong, because the play, though written in verse, was not dramatic ‘poetry’, and I rushed off a letter to the editor of the Spectator, Wilson Harris, attacking T.S. Eliot.

To my astonishment, the magazine published my insolent riposte to the professor. I may have seemed to be a sign of the younger generation turning against the obscure and over-praised modernists. Then Hudson gave me all the poetry that came into his office, to take home and read and select very carefully now and then a volume worth reviewing, which he might or might not approve, and to sell the rest if I didn’t want to keep them. So thanks to the Spectator, I was educated and brought up to date by reading and reviewing. I reviewed Robert Lowell’s first publication in England, Robert Frost’s Collected Poems, and the long-awaited first post-war edition of the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. 

But you left London and moved back to Ireland soon after this period?

Yes, I had submitted poems inspired by my love of the legends, history and landscape of Galway and Mayo for the AE Memorial Award in Dublin. I won the £100 on very long odds against the favourite, Anthony Cronin. Winning this award in 1951 gave me the means and courage to redeem my previous failure by going to live as near to the sea as possible on the north-west coast of Connemara. 

What kind of poems did this period inspire?

I began to write a narrative poem, based on the Diarmuid and Grania myth. This was done in the isolation of an old coast guard cottage on the quay of Rosroe. My neighbour took me fishing in his curragh on the Killary Bay and the high tide rose to within six feet of my bedroom window. Wittgenstein had once spent a few months there and had left a legend about taming the birds to eat out of his hand, which inspired one of my early poems, now called ‘Wittgenstein and the Birds.’ At last I was living in my dream, not without nightmares.

[caption id="attachment_8597211" align="alignnone" width="276"]Richard Murphy photographed by Patrick McGee. Richard Murphy photographed by Patrick McGee.[/caption]

In 1985 you published a collection of sonnets The Price of Stone. What did you feel you learnt about the sonnet as a form as well the places that have been important to you in your life by writing that collection? 

The sonnet, by origin a love poem, is so short that, if you have much to say, you are forced to use words of more than one meaning, and to use ambiguity in a way that can bring two or three meanings of the one word into serious play. In trying to write those indirectly autobiographical sonnets, I had a few mantras in mind that had to be balanced in the process. Firstly, ‘not to lie’, as in Tolstoy’s famous pronouncement, and, secondly, I tried in my notebooks to remind myself that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

By making the persona of each sonnet the spirit of that house or structure, I found I was better able to transmute the mud of remembered experience into urns of poetry, monuments, ruins, and lesser structures as ancient in design as a wattle tent, voices that had influenced my life — some of which were voices of my conscience arising from the past and admonishing me for my faults, while avoiding the hazards and avowals of confessional verse. When distracted, I used to remember a mantra of Yeats’, ‘Hammer your thoughts into unity’, and T.S. Eliot’s remark to Harold Nicolson in the 1950s, ‘Tell your friend Murphy that poetry is song.’

The sonnet ‘Gym’ you describe your own experience of a gay sauna. What were you trying to express in that poem?

That poem describes my deliberate fall, at different times and places, into what I regarded as a homosexual underworld of anonymous, illicit, promiscuous, risky and loveless sex. Each from a different angle speaks of the failure, denial or absence of love in pursuit of sex and the misery for me of this. Not because the pursuit was queer but because it was without a spoken word. In many of these poems the speaker, a voice of my conscience, admonishes me for utterly different faults: in this particularly poem it was for exposing myself to the risk of acquiring AIDS by entering the temptingly repellent atmosphere of a gay sauna in a lane under the wall of Dublin Castle called ‘the Gym’, an apt word that derives from the Greek for nakedness. ‘Absolute liberty’, as I once heard Isaiah Berlin say in a lecture, ‘leads to absolute tyranny’. In this case the tyranny that came in 1983 after the absolute liberty of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a deadly virus, unknown in those days, with no cure, spreading great fear.

You’ve written many historical poems that relate to the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. You once stated that this was the last decisive battle in Irish history: what attracted you to writing about this period of history? 

Writing, in the 1960s, a sequence of poems that arose from a long meditation on war that focussed on the Battle of Aughrim in 1691 was a way of appeasing my conscience over not becoming a soldier at the age of eighteen, like my brother, who volunteered before the war ended, and like our two army uncles, who had died in battle during the first and second world wars. It was also 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.

When I finished writing ‘The Battle of Aughrim’ in Cleggan on the 30th November 1967, I hoped the entrenched divisions in Ireland between north and south, Protestant and Catholic, could be resolved in a general reconciliation, going beyond and rising above the wretched nationalisms that had destroyed Europe and millions of lives in my lifetime.

The Pleasure Ground is now available from Bloodaxe