John Arnold: Coincidence, serendipity or fate? Finding Molly Murphy...

When John Arnold discovered a letter at his home on June 29, from many years ago - little did he know the significance of it's finding on that date and where it would lead him...
John Arnold: Coincidence, serendipity or fate? Finding Molly Murphy...
Molly Murphy, whose name was mentioned regularly on the radio request shows. She was a pen friend to John Arnold's dad, Dan.

IN the 1960’s and ‘70’s and I suppose into the early 1980’s ‘Request Programmes’ were very popular on RTÉ Radio. Different presenters might have a fifteen-minute or half an hour slot playing records and ‘requests’ for people. Sometimes listners sent in a request for themselves or for a family member or relation. It might be to remember a birthday or an anniversary, a wedding, christening or someone home on holidays from foreign parts. The programmes were as popular as the original ‘Hospital Requests’ which were broadcast on Radio Éireann in earlier times.

Even when the ‘formal’ request programmes went off the air the tradition was still continued by Donnacha O Dulaing. Up until his retirement April 2015 Donncha’s Saturday night ‘Fáilte Isteach’ programme was hugely popular in the four corners of Ireland.

When we were growing up the wireless was always on well from the moment the strains of O Donnell Abú sounded early in the morning ‘til Closedown before midnight. Over all those growing-up years I often heard a request played for a woman named Molly Murphy who lived somewhere in Offaly. When her name was called out over the airwaves mam would say ‘Ah poor Molly, I must write to her soon’. As far as I know Mam did write occasionally and also sent parcels containing tea and I don’t know what else to Molly. Mam said Mary Murphy, better known as Molly, was an invalid and lived in a caravan in a place called Geasehill in Offaly. That’s what I knew about Molly Murphy though I had an idea that maybe she knew my father who died in 1961. Perhaps they were in hospital together? Maybe she too suffered from TB? Questions, questions but of course as a young fella I never sought answers and to tell the truth as the years passed I thought little more about Molly Murphy.

In January of this year Larry Gogan died and when I heard the news Molly’s name came back to me straight away. Larry was one of the longest serving Disc Jockeys in the world. His career spanned Radio Éireann, RTÉ Radio 1 and 2FM. Larry and Val Joyce and Donncha too had so often mentioned Molly over the years -‘twas as if she was a family friend to them all. They always spoke with deep affection of her and wished her well. So after Larry’s death I thought I’d make an effort to find out more about this person.

Through googling and emailing and texting I contacted a Sinead Betson in Offaly. Sinead was very helpful and was living in the parish that Molly had dwelt in. She said Molly was dead with years and was buried in Ballingar cemetery not far from Geasehill where she had lived. Sinead told me that a local man Peter Quinn was Molly’s nephew. I was thrilled with all of this information. I tried ringing Peter but got his number mixed up with someone else. That was mid-January and the next thing the cows started calving and we were very busy here on the farm.

Covid came then in March and between the jigs and the reels I put further Offaly research on my ‘to do’ list for later.

A few weeks of lockdown turned into months. Just as ‘in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’ well in the same manner in May a middle aged man’s fancy turned heavily to thoughts of the past and the future. So I set out on my ‘magnum opus’- the mammoth task of ordering, indexing, cataloguing all the documents I had accumulated in over half a century.

Well the good news is that the weekend before last- the end of June I completed Part 1. What we called the Poultry House is more or less done with 22 plastic, airtight document boxes, 15 folders of letters and 30 other folders all numbered and Indexed on the computer. So far the Index amounts to close on 35 typed pages!

With the prospect of a GAA season becoming a reality in a few weeks I had two choices. I could leave the other two ‘venues’ full of material to be sorted - Under The Stairs and the Attic Room over the kitchen (Paddy’s Place) alone until mid-winter or make a start now, I chose the latter.

So on Monday evening of last week, after the cows were done and supper ate I took down the ancient ladder from the crook and up I went. It’s a small attic room where Paddy Geary had his bed for over 30 years until 1981. Since then boxes and bags and more boxes were stored up there. Over the years people were throwing out old papers and books and cuttings and someone would say ‘Yerra take them over to John Arnold, he’s always gathering stuff’ and so it increased and multiplied.

My first thoughts were to retreat down the ladder and just leave everything there, but no - I have started so I’ll try and finish. I began that evening to haul down dust and cobweb covered boxes. In one plastic bag amongst five copies of the script of the pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’ I found a small black notebook that I’d never held in my hand before. On opening it I saw in my father’s handwriting an account of the weekly wage paid to Paddy from 1951 onwards. Then at the end of 1961 the writing changed to Mam’s - my father was dead.

Further on Mam kept an account of her potato sales in the 1970’s -she often said those spuds kept the place going. I was just putting the note book away when a small, neatly folded, letter fell out from the centre pages. It was dated September 25th, 1961 - just over two weeks after Dada’s death, on printed notepaper from the Sacred Heart College, The Crescent, Limerick.

The letter stunned me and I cried as I read it. The writer was the famous Cork-born Jesuit priest and writer Fr Robert Nash. Obviously Mam had written him with the sad news.

Dear Mrs Arnold,

Poor Mary Murphy, a great sufferer and a pen friend of your loved Dan, has told me already about his death.

I can well understand how the pain smarts, but at the same time I cannot but be glad that poor Dan’s troubles are all passed and gone. May he rest in peace; His love for you and the five children will now be deeper than ever and he will watch over you all and pray continually for you and I feel sure his prayers will be effective……..

Through my tears I read on as Fr Nash promised to help in any way he could, suggesting that ‘It might be possible to get one or two of the children into a school in Dublin where they would be trained and treated with much love’…..

From reading and rereading the letter it’s obvious that Fr Nash was a good friend to both my parents and also to Molly Murphy who told him of Dada’s death. So however they got in contact Molly and my father were pen friend and exchanged letters. Now I knew why Mam often spoke so lovingly of Molly over the years. Within an hour I was talking to Peter Quinn on the phone. Before that I had checked his Parish (Killeigh) website and was stunned to see that on Sunday morning last Mass was being said in Ballingar Church for Molly. That was last Saturday night. On Tuesday morning I picked a bunch of flowers at home, called to our family grave in Rathcormac for a fist of little stones and set off for Offaly. Thurles, Roscrea, Kilcormac, Tullamore and finally to Ballingar.

Sinead Betson’s father directed me to Ballingar cemetery. A beautiful ‘new’ burial ground, Molly was the first to buy a grave there and the first to be buried there in 1995 at the age of 79. It was very emotional time when I knelt at her grave thinking of Mam and Dada and their friend Molly. I placed the Bartlemy flowers and Rathcormac stones on her final resting place.

I drove the few miles over to Geasehill to meet Molly’s nephew Peter Quinn and his wife. They said Molly was born in 1915 and at around ten years of age suffered a fall which left her crippled.

When Molly’s sister married Peter’s father she came to live in Geasehill - and Molly came too. She lived a while with the Quinn’s before asking for a place of her own. They got a caravan specially made for Molly. Totally crippled she was lifted each morning from her ‘High’ bed to her ‘Low’ bed. She had plenty friends and schoolchildren called regularly to visit her. Though having only the use of just one hand Molly wrote letters every day.

Fr Nash and fellow Jesuit Fr Hyde were regular callers as was Donncha O Dulaing and many, many others. Though unable to move Molly was always cheerful and never complained.

Molly Murphy died on June 29, 1995 and it was on last Monday week, June 29, 2020, 25 years later, that I found that little folded letter that explained everything.

Now I finally know who Molly Murphy was. May she rest in a well earned peace.

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