A vanished world.
EARLY IN The Kick, Richard Murphy recalls an incident from his childhood that provides a kind of image for his relationship to the dual forces that have shaped his life and work. It is the summer of 1940. The remnants of the British Army have escaped from Dunkirk, and Britain expects a German invasion. Murphy, then twelve, is at Milford House in County Mayo, the home of his mother's people. The family has assembled in the drawing-room to hear King George VI broadcast to the Empire. Richard, arriving a little late, listens to the King from just outside an open window. After the broadcast his mother upbraids him as "a disgrace to the family: England was standing alone, thousands were being killed in air raids, Daddy was far away in Ceylon serving the empire, and I had shown no respect to the King by arriving late to listen to his speech in my shirt-sleeves and with a dirty face."
That image, of the young Richard Murphy listening to the King, but from outside the window, not inside with his attentively loyalist family, encapsulates Murphy's dual identity: from a Protestant Ascendancy background, with an English education and accent, but at the same time an Irish poet shaped by the landscape and the local customs and attitudes of Mayo and Galway, and determined to speak for both Irish traditions--the "peasantry" and the "country gentlemen" of Yeats's prescriptive poem.
In The Kick Murphy, born in 1927, describes a now vanished way of life, an Anglo-Irish childhood when Ascendancy attitudes and customs still survived almost intact. He lived in a Mayo "Big House," and was part of the tiny Church of Ireland congregation that assembled weekly at Kilmaine for a service conducted by his grandfather, Colonel the Reverend Thomas Ormsby, DSO. Milford was not grand, but it exemplified what Elizabeth Bowen called "The hermetic solitude and the autocracy" of the Anglo-Irish country house, sustained by the contradictory myths of its own proud isolation from the lives around it and of its centrality in the local order of things. In "The Woman of the House" (1959), an elegy for his grandmother, he describes her as "Mistress of mossy acres and unpaid rent" but celebrates her local generosities and her "healing talent" that earned her the love of the poor. There were horses and farm animals, servants, a sizable demesne--a paradise for children, and for Murphy a kind of lost paradise which he has tried to recreate again and again, in his poems and in the various houses he built and inhabited over the years.
If Murphy spent part of his childhood in what was essentially nineteenth-century Anglo-Ireland, he also experienced an Anglo-Indian childhood in that lost time when much of the world map was still colored pink to denote British possessions. Life in Connemara alternated with life in Ceylon, where his father was rising in the Colonial Service, eventually to be appointed mayor of Colombo. The West of Ireland and Ceylon/Sri Lanka alternate as the settings for his childhood until 1935, when he was sent back to Milford House, according to Colonial Service custom, "to avoid growing up too fast in Ceylon, and becoming decadent, corrupt and unreliable." Kipling and others have described this separation of children from parents, much more drastic than the custom of sending English boys away to school at an early age. Kick is entertaining on the several schools Murphy attended, notably the choir school attached to Canterbury Cathedral, where as a chorister he participated in the elaborate ceremonies of the liturgical year.
If Murphy's recollections of life at Milford House evoke a now vanished Ascendancy world, his account of Ceylon describes an exotic outpost of an Empire that seemed permanent and benevolent. His father was an enlightened administrator who saw his role as guiding the people of Ceylon toward self-rule and eventual independence. Colonial, colonialist, and post-colonial are now controversial terms. But the contrast between the peaceful and prosperous Ceylon of Murphy's childhood and the savage violence he has found there in a series of visits to Sri Lanka since 1984 reminds us that the Raj was not all repression and exploitation. Murphy acknowledges his own sense of guilt for his involuntary "colonial past," but reminds us of the wealth of Ceylon when the British left peacefully in 1948, and of its high rate of literacy.
Murphy's father was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahamas in 1945, and became Sir William. Murphy served there for a time as his aide and secretary, a second experience of Empire, this time on an island where the Governor's duties included entertaining the many rich British and Americans who wintered there. When his parents retired, they settled on a farm in the highlands of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), one of the few places in central Africa with a climate comfortable for Europeans. Murphy's account of visits to Rhodesia are another depiction of the Empire in twilight as well as a useful gloss to "The God Who Eats Corn" (1964), Murphy's poem about his father and the "Big House" he built in Africa, with a garden where European and African plants grew side by side, and a school for his workers' children.
In describing his father's career, Murphy is doing his duty as an autobiographer, explaining to us his family background. His account is affectionate. He respects his parents' achievements and the achievements of the imperial enterprise to which they devoted their lives. But his account is understandably haunted by his awareness of Ireland's colonial history, and of Ireland's War of Independence in 1919-22, only a few years before his own birth. "Who owns the land?" he asks in the opening line of "The Battle of Aughrim" (1968), the poem that imagines and meditates upon the final defeat of the Irish Catholic gentry in 1691, establishing the Protestant "Ascendancy" as the owners and rulers of Ireland. It is the basic question of Irish history, and the basic question of all colonial and post-colonial discourse. The property at Milford House once belonged to a Catholic family, "but after Aughrim's great disaster for the Irish, they yielded the house and land, with its lost names, to our grandfather's [Cromwellian] ancestor." For Murphy the poem commemorates events that still resonate in modern Ireland, and at the same time commemorates ancestors who fought on both sides. Implicit in the question is one of legitimacy: who is Irish, who is not, and who has the right to decide? And in what sense is anyone "an Irish poet"?
The Kick explores Murphy's continued commitment to the West of Ireland. Milford House, in "the Ireland where we belong," was always home during his schooldays in England. In October 1946, "convinced with religious intensity that the poetry I wanted to write would be written in Connemara," he left Oxford in mid-term to live alone in a remote cottage near Killary Harbour and write a verse tragedy about that Lynch of Galway who hanged his own son for murdering a guest. There are intervals of living in London, but always a pattern of return to the austere and coldly beautiful landscape around Killary: in 1951 to a cottage in Rosroe, the following year to a lyrically described summer guarding the River Erriff salmon pools from poachers. "It was like living in a poem there was no need to write," he tells us, "rich in local memory conserved in the pools' names, which commerce has long since abolished and replaced with numbers." Eventually he would settle for many years in or near Cleggan on the Galway coast, despite his mother's hope that none of her children would "settle in Ireland, where she feared we would degenerate," a fear that echoes at once Anglo-Indian fears and the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366), passed in hopes of averting the degeneracy of the English settled in Ireland.
Ever since Horace raised his monument in words more lasting than bronze, the poet has been metaphorically a builder, building in sonnets little rooms, or, in Murphy's case, more ambitious structures. The Price of Stone (1985) is a series of sonnets each of which gives a voice to a significant building, from Milford House, his own birthplace, to the Rotunda, where his son was born in 1982, an event portrayed as a change of residence:
Pushed from your fluid home, pronounced "a boy". You'll never find so well equipped a room. No house we build could hope to satisfy Every small need, now that you've made this move.
Murphy's building of poems has been done in tandem with the literal building or rebuilding of a series of houses, each rooted in its landscape: Lake Park near Glendalough in County Wicklow, where building and farming became for a time almost a substitute for poetry; the Old Forge and the New Forge, both in Cleggan; the Hexagon on Omey Island; Knockbrack high on a hill in Killiney, near Dublin. As a kind of bonding with the local past, and a kind of quoting, he built the New Forge with stones from ruined cottages a few miles away at Aughrusbeg--Little Hunger--abandoned at the time of the Great Famine. But as he does so, destroying the cottages to make his new house and his presence "integral" to the local landscape, he is ironically aware that tearing down such cabins was once the Ascendancy's way of "clearing" the land of unwanted tenants, even as he bonds with it:
Clearing them off the land, The seven cabins needed to create The granite house I planned. Once mine, I'd work on their dismemberment, Threshold, lintel, wall; And pick a hearthstone from a rubble fragment To make it integral. ("Little Hanger")
The slates that make his garden path encapsulate thirteen centuries of Irish history, quarried at Cleggan by monks to roof their church on Inishbofin, then successively used to roof a castle and later a bailiff's house that became a barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary until 1922. When he moved to Knockbrack in 1980, Murphy brought stone from Cleggan for walls and terrace.
Settling at Cleggan in 1959, after his troubled marriage ended in divorce, was partly a return to the nourishing West, and partly a commitment to a new theme. Murphy describes a 1952 attempt to sail a pookaun with his brother from Rosroe to Clare Island, thwarted by high seas that drove them instead into Bofin harbor. There, among the "courteous fishermen," he met Pat Cloherty, who had a song about the loss of a hooker called The Maisie in 1884, and Pat Concannon, who described his eight hour struggle to save himself and four companions in a rowing boat during the great storm of 20 October 1927, known locally as "the Cleggan disaster."
When Murphy moved to Cleggan both men became his friends and his instructors in the ways of the sea. Determined to "learn more from Pat [Concannon] about the sea and gain enough experience of handling an open boat in bad weather to make a poem of his heroic survival," he bought the Ave Maria, a single-masted vessel he could sail alone, and, in restoring her, began a new life and, in his poems about the sea, a new theme with "The Last Galway Hooker" (1960); the final version of "Sailing to an Island" (1960), about that abortive voyage to Clare Island eight years earlier; "The Cleggan Disaster" (1962); and "Pat Cloherty's Version of The Maisie" (1974). Like Synge's The Aran Islands and Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran these poems celebrate the bravery and skill of those who sail the treacherous waters along the western seaboard. They revive a tradition as old as St Brendan's voyage and the immram or "voyage into the Atlantic" narrative from which it stems:
Encased in a mirage, steam on the water, Loosely we coast where hideous rocks jag, An acropolis of cormorants, an extinct Volcano where spiders spin, a purgatory Guarded by hags and bristled with breakers. ("Sailing to an Island")
Murphy sailed the Ave Maria with a local crew, taking tourists fishing or to visit nearby islands. In 1961 he purchased a second hooker, The Truelight. In doing so he brought tourists and employment to Cleggan, but most importantly, he found for himself a new theme and a new way of life. By learning to sail, Murphy earned the right to consider himself a part of local life, to be accepted among those "courteous fishermen" who know the sea "intimately" and respect "the storm/That took nine of their men on one bad night" ("Sailing to an Island"). He began to write about their skills and their courage, and at the same time explore the parallels between the craft of poetry and the croft of navigation.
Murphy sold his boats in 1964, but continued to live in Cleggan. In 1969 he bought High Island, long ago the site of a monastic settlement. There he made a cottage habitable for short periods, an austere hermitage like those sought by seafaring monks who settled Skellig Michael and even reached Iceland. The island too became a theme, notably in "Brian Boru's Well" and "Seals at High Island" (both 1973); the stone cross he found beside the well, carried to Cleggan, joined "a metaphysical idea to the ground" when restored to its original site--a phrase that could summarize Murphy's poetry and much of his life.
Murphy offers vivid and often very moving descriptions of the people he has encountered over the years. His mother is a frequent presence in this book, often kind, sometimes portrayed with exasperated affection as he explores their long relationship. The figure of his great friend Tony White, "the reader I had borne in mind while writing poetry," was often present during the Cleggan years, where White too became part of the community--he disapproved of Murphy's plan to bring tourists--as well as supplying the critical response that every poet must have. There are moving accounts of a visit from a haunted Theodore Roethke, and later from Ted Hughes end Sylvia Plath as their marriage spiralled from crisis to crisis.
Despite Murphy's commitment to Cleggan, and the tourists and employment he brought to a then remote area with the Ave Maria, he was always aware of his "precarious footing as an outsider, a divorced Protestant with a British accent in a village then under the sway of a priest, who had no liking for me or for Protestants or for Brits." A poem about the custom by which fishermen left a few fish on the pier for the poor, and the "sharking" of those fish by a conspicuously pious family who had no need of them, aroused some of the hostility to those who are neither Catholic nor certifiably Irish that is still latent in Ireland. Like Yeats in his time, Beckett in his, Murphy has often been challenged about his right to consider himself an Irish artist.
The Kick is a brave and liberating book. Murphy is unquestionably Irish in his sense of guilt, that combined Jansenist and Presbyterian legacy which has darkened so many Irish lives, here heightened by the traditional sexual experience of the English public school. He frankly confronts his own sexual ambiguities. It is a contemporary phenomenon that friends will listen with sympathy and support to an admission of homosexuality, but turn away in embarrassment from confessions of religious belief, or even from any disposition to talk about the possibility of belief. Murphy describes himself as a "doubter" who nevertheless prepared the mined church on High Island for Mass and brought there an ecumenical congregation. He "prayed, or almost" when he found in the island's well an old stone cross, and heard in the fog a "clear, high and beautiful voice, crying and exulting," perhaps a seal in an echoing cavern, that "seemed to emanate from the heart of all creatures ... Mermaid, banshee and siren crossed my mind." In a particularly moving passage, he buries his wife's miscarriage and his burial of the stillborn child:
Having dug deep enough, I tip the body from the bowl, gently, and look at him as he lies in the earth ... After touching my tongue, I inscribe on his forehead with my forefinger the sign of the tree, and recite in he name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, though I do not believe in them. I bless him in his grave as I was Blessed in childhood; then bury my unborn son.
Baptism, we remember, requires no priest, only a little water, the sign of the cross, and intent.
We make poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves, Yeats insisted. Born into a condition of divided and acknowledged loyalties, Murphy has made generous poetry out of that division, and now he has given us a generous account of how that poetry and how that poet became, how one Irish poet reconciled, in himself and in his work, his dualities. "My underlying wish," he writes, discussing "The Battle of Aughrim," in a passage that is really a statement about all his work, "was to unite divided self, as a renegade from a family if Protestant imperialists, in our divided country in a sequence faithful to the disunity of both. The poetry was to occupy a no man's land between music, myth and history." That no man's land, and the divisions it reconciles, has become common ground.
--University of California, Berkeley
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|Title Annotation:||The Kick: A Memoir|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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