With the death of Richard Murphy on January 30th, 2018, Ireland lost one of its greatest poets. Best known for his four major collections, Sailing to an Island (1963), The Battle of Aughrim (1968), High Island (1974) and The Price of Stone (1985), his poetic achievements can be judged most fully in The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012 (Lilliput Press/Bloodaxe, 2013), a volume described by Peter Sirr in Poetry Ireland Review as exhibiting an “unforgettable music”. In the preface, Richard Murphy remembers “with gratitude all the friends, fellow poets, relations, editors, publishers and readers … who have helped and inspired me to write”. Always a poet of other people, in later years Richard Murphy was able to keep in touch with friends across the world from his home near Kandy, Sri Lanka by means of email and text message and he was heartened by the reception of his two final books, The Kick: A Memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy (Cork University Press, 2017) – a new edition of his classic memoir of 2002 – and In Search of Poetry (Clutag Press, 2017).
Richard Murphy’s long and eventful life is related with self-deprecating humour in The Kick, a volume which opens with the three-year-old poet administering a kick to his somewhat austere Aunt Bella at the Royal Hibernian Hotel by way of thanking her for afternoon tea. Murphy’s later decision to become a poet, the first intimations of which occurred to him at Wellington College during wartime (“no one had ever suggested I was born to be a poet”) cast him as the rebellious son of an Ascendancy family whose origins would inspire some of his finest poetry. He would later say that The Battle of Aughrim was an attempt to “look inward at the divisions and devastations in myself as well as in the country”.
Murphy’s endeavours to overcome the “borders and bigotries” inherent in his own class background were to inform not only this remarkable historical poem, since it was published alongside another long poem, “The God Who Eats Corn”, which demonstrates the analogous relevance of “colonial war and its consequences” in Africa (where Murphy’s parents had retired), as well as in Ireland, while poems written in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 1990s also examine (post-)colonial violence on that “teardrop” island.
Murphy’s background as a child of the British empire gave him a unique insight into the deeper structures of historical grievance. He never forgot the displacements of his childhood and adolescence which would continue to condition his sense of foreignness, even on home ground, captured eloquently in the sonnet “Liner” from The Price of Stone:
Child, when you’ve sailed half way around the world
And found that home is like a foreign country,
Think how I’ve had to keep an ironclad hold
On your belongings, not to lose heart at sea.
Indeed, one senses that the ultimate harbour of Richard Murphy’s peripatetic youth was his decision to live in the west of Ireland from 1959 as an integral part of the communities of Cleggan, Inishbofin and Claddaghduff, where he sailed his Galway hookers, the Ave Maria and the True Light, and also embarked on some noteworthy building projects.
Indeed, the signal achievements of his poems “Sailing to an Island”, “The Cleggan Disaster” and “The Last Galway Hooker” are testimony to his deep affinity with the Connemara coast and the seafaring traditions he found there. In 2015, the inaugural INISH festival on Inishbofin island, organised by Peadar King and attended by President Michael D Higgins, paid tribute to Richard Murphy’s contribution to this beautiful part of Ireland. The poet had humorously described himself as a “sunshine fisherman” in his essay “Photographs of Inishbofin – May 1960”, but he nevertheless played no small part in “putting Inishbofin on the map”, at least in literary terms, and in opening up what literary scholars have since termed the literature of the archipelago.
Equally important, Richard Murphy will be remembered for his magnificent meditations on solitude, on nature and on love in the 1974 volume High Island, which records the poet’s regular sojourns in the early 1970s on Ardoileán, site of an early medieval monastery founded by St Fechin in the seventh century. In these magnificent poems, set amid “rock, sea and star”, we perceive the charting of “an older calm” which the poetry of Richard Murphy has bequeathed to us.
Benjamin Keatinge is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. He has co-edited France and Ireland in the Public Imagination with Mary Pierse (Peter Lang, 2014) and Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey with Aengus Woods (Irish Academic Press, 2010) and he has published on different aspects of Richard Murphy’s poetry, most recently in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets edited by Gerald Dawe (2017). He is editor of Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy forthcoming from Cork University Press.