A tribute to John A: A truly great Corkman

John A. Murphy passed away this week. In his weekly column, John Dolan pays tribute to the man who wrote for The Echo and Holly Bough
A tribute to John A: A truly great Corkman

Prof John A Murphy. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

NOW John A. Murphy will never get to write his autobiography.

It’s a pity. The Emeritus Professor of History at UCC, who died on Monday, crammed so much into his remarkable 95 years on this Earth, that it would have made for a rattling good read.

I engaged with him often, asking (pestering!) him to pen articles for The Echo and Holly Bough, and in one of our last meetings, he told me he had been approached several times to write his life story — but now he didn’t need to as the Holly Bough had chronicled it so well!

There must be thousands of his old pupils and students out there, not to mention colleagues, friends, admirers, and fellow senators, who grieved when they heard of his death. 

Truly, John A. was one of Cork’s greatest ever sons.

******

FOR well over half his 95 years, John A. Murphy was a pivotal figure in the rich tapestry of Cork life.

His legacy to the city’s education system is huge, while he was also an acclaimed author, a man unafraid to give controversial opinions, and a two-time senator.

A Cork Person of the Year, in 2005, he was born in Macroom — and the town that never reared a fool rarely turned out one so wise.

As editor of the Holly Bough, I reached out to him, seeking contributions not about the past of others, for once, but about himself and his own past. He was already over a decade retired from UCC, but I didn’t find him wanting.

He wrote about his father, who won an All-Ireland, about his time at Farranferris and UCC, and his influences; never by email, always written by hand, delivered personally to me, on foot from his home in Douglas Road, over a coffee.

He could be irascible and picky - but show me a good teacher who lacks those ‘qualities’! Whenever I laid out and edited (very, very sparingly!) his articles, I felt like a pupil trying his best to extract an B+ from an exacting master. I would triple-check the already reliable work of our copytakers. In truth, we were merely a conduit to John A’s wonderful insights and turns of phrase.

A lifetime in academia moulded him that way, but he remained sharp as a tack and retained his instinct to listen and learn as well as write and talk, well into his tenth decade. 

Whenever we met, his passions were always to the fore: He adored GAA, loved music, and was devoted to the Irish language. History, of course, was his forte.

This week, I read back on some of his articles for the Holly Bough. When people say the publication is often a first draft of Cork history, they are talking about the type of articles penned by John A.

For his first piece, in 2007, fittingly, he chose to start in the past and write about his father winning an All-Ireland at football in 1911.

Knowledge oozed from the page, as John A. described why football tended to flourish “in hillier and hungrier regions” like Macroom. He was born in 1927, “with West Cork beginning geographically at the top of Pound Lane... I don’t think I saw a hurling game until I was in my teens”.

Thade Murphy, a goalkeeper, won four county medals with Macroom between 1909 and 1913, but ironically, it was the one that got away, in 1911, that saw him land the Celtic Cross, as Cork champions Lees - “country boys in the city” - selected several Macrompians for the All-Ireland final. John A. said: “Cork scored 4-2 to Antrim’s 1-2. We used to tease my father about that — ‘Were you asleep, Dad, when that goal went in?’ A man of unshakeable convictions, my father fervently believed God was in his heaven and de Valera would one day put things right with our part of the world. You could possibly get away with religious irreverence in his company, but woe betide any anti-Dev dissenter!

“Other articles of faith were that Macroom was the finest town in Ireland (hadn’t he seen inferior specimens during his footballing travels?), its square the grandest (better than Bantry’s, even before it became cluttered) and the view of the Sullane upstream from the Old Bridge unsurpassable. And Kerrymen were not to be trusted!”

A year later, John A. was regaling Holly Bough readers with his memories of his first teaching job, as the sole layman on the staff at Farrenferris College.

His role required the necessary episcopal sanction from the aged, Kilmichael-born Bishop Daniel Cohalan. “Yerra, there was no problem, boy,” a Canon informed John A, ‘it wasn’t your brilliant student record that impressed him but when he heard you were Macroom born and bred!”

John gave an insight into his teaching style when he recalled acting out Shakespeare plays with pupils.

“In teaching, a certain element of showmanship is of the essence of presentation. I like to think gaining and holding the attention of 14-year-old boys, was an invaluable preparation for lecturing later on at third level, and speaking to public assemblies.”

Not afraid to poke fun at himself, John A. recalled an embarrassing classroom incident, when his religious upbringing came to the fore. 

“When I had finished the introductory prayer one day, I absentmindedly went on ‘God bless Mammy, God bless Daddy...’  Hilarious disorder prevailed and the incident was still being recalled for me by pupils years afterwards.”

He also spoke of his burgeoning political beliefs at Farranferris.

“My own leftish views were tolerated, or perhaps indulged as those of a pet lay radical. I denounced McCarthyism and took up the cudgels for Dr Noel Browne — in the very heart of the Cork clerical establishment. I gave a good account of myself in these jousts and that may be why another priest-colleague wondered aloud, not entirely in jest, about the wisdom of allowing a liberal layman like Sean to teach history to the future priests of the diocese!”

Now John A. was on board with the Holly Bough - and trusted our editorial process not to distort his words of wisdom! - and it benefited hugely from his presence.

He penned articles on the ‘real’ Éamon de Valera - “romantic, fun and witty” - and on his friendship with Cork musical great Aloys Fleischmann. This began on testy terms when John A. dismissed ballet dancers in print as a “class cult for daughters of the socially pretentious”. The two still became friends and John A admitted: “My ball-hopping was irresponsible, but the cavorting of ballerinas still leaves me cold.”

Ironically, in his role as Senator, he found himself doing Aloys’ bidding and opposing a move to abolish the Irish National Ballet!

John A. moved seamlessly on to describe his chequered time at UCC - from St Finbarr’s College to ‘Where Finbarr Taught’ - in a 2010 Holly Bough article. He adored his time there, but endured the slings and arrows of healthy debate! He drew criticism for his teaching and writing on Irish history - his was a brave and often lonely voice against the IRA in the dark days of The Troubles in the ’70s and ’80s.

John A. said: “Certain nationalists came to view the UCC history department as a nest of revisionist vipers, myself being the viper-in-chief. For these critics, the Irish past was engraved on tablets of stone which must not be tampered with. For historians, ‘revisionism’ was a normal scholarly activity - examining and re-examining the past in the light of evidence from the sources. And the jury is always out.”

In 1982, he delivered the speech at Béal na mBláth to mark the 60th anniversary of Michael Collins’ death, and, characteristically, declared reunification was not worth the shedding of a single drop of blood. 

He ended by calling for Béal na mBláth to become a national shrine - something now in motion as we mark the centenary of Collins’ death. Sadly, John A will now not be around to see it.

My favourite John A. quote is: “History is a record of the past, not a chronicle of grievances.”

It sums up the weight of history that constantly bears down on Irish people, and sometimes blurs their vision of both the past and the future.

It’s a quote as pertinent now - just months ago our President turned down the chance to attend a service commemorating the centenary of Partition, presumably because of grievance - as it ever was in John A’s lifetime.

A learned man, a man of peace, rest in peace, John A Murphy.

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