Keeping Busy

Richard Murphy
Richard Murphy; drawing by David Levine

If an Irishman’s home is his castle—or his coffin, in Leopold Bloom’s mordant variation on the old saw—then certainly the poet Richard Murphy has seen more crenelations rise and fall than most of his fellow countrymen. Murphy comes from the Anglo-Irish upper middle class, those Protestants “planted” in Ireland in Cromwellian times and earlier, a people for whom the house, and especially the Big House, was less a place of shelter, comfort, and privacy than a symbol in stone and brick of a separate and stubbornly enduring culture.

He spent his early childhood among the mansions of the west of Ireland, with repeated long intervals in Ceylon, where his father was the colonial mayor of Colombo, and where his mother did good works among the sick and saved the lives of thousands during a malaria epidemic. In adulthood he returned to the west, living in an isolated cottage, making himself into a poet, and earning his living from the sea; later he set out on restless wanderings in Ireland and abroad, building or renovating a series of houses, large and small, which in succession he left or lost, one of them to fire.

The place that dominates the earlier sections of The Kick, his elegant if inelegantly titled memoir, is the place of his birth, Milford, his maternal grandfather’s house on the Mayo–Galway border, built in 1625:

We were surrounded at Milford by dark mysterious old woods, where none of us dared to walk alone at night, full of hair-raising creatures that made weird sounds. Beyond the garden wall, too high to climb, an immense bog stretched as far as we could see, from the upstairs study window through the branches of a yew tree, to the pale blue hill of Castlehacket on the horizon.

Instead of building a house for his wife and children in Ireland, Murphy père had converted the former servants’ quarters and kitchens at Milford to make a self-contained home, known rather grandly as the East Wing; there was no electricity, gas, or telephone, and scant running water, but the five seasons that Murphy spent there with his mother and siblings and grandparents, which he describes without romantic frills, were an idyll, despite “our predicament as an Anglo-Irish family, isolated under the aegis of a Protestant clergyman on a remote demesne in neutral Eire, dominated by Roman Catholic priests and threatened by German invasion.” It is a predicament from which Murphy, like so many of his Anglo-Irish brethren, has never quite escaped. He retains that ambivalent attitude toward his ancestry which is the subject of many of the finest essays of Hubert Butler. Here is Murphy describing his mother’s antecedents:

Her parents may not have had two pennies to rub together, as they used to say, but both had Anglo-Irish pedigrees, going back on her father’s side to King Charles II and his mistress, Lucy…

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