Richard Murphy (long version)

by Michael Patrick O'Leary


I have been writing a series of articles for the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today about American poets who impressed me in my long-departed youth. In my mind, I am using the working title The Mad Poets Society because these people – Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke- all knew each other and all battled with similar demons: alcohol, mental illness and troubled relationships with women.

The last sub-series, was about Theodore Roethke. While researching these articles, I recalled reading a memoir in Granta No. 75 in 2001 by the Irish poet Richard Murphy in which Murphy describes a trip Roethke and his wife Beatrice took on Murphy’s fishing boat in the west of Ireland. I also read Murphy’s autobiography, The Kick, from which the article was extracted. Murphy constructed the book from detailed diaries spanning fifty years.

Richard Murphy

The book would not be to the taste of another of my editors who has a phobia about names and quotations. If one cut the names out of Murphy’s book there would be nothing left as he is an inveterate name-dropper who has met everyone who is anyone. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, at 17 and his tutor was CS Lewis. He gave up going to lectures by JRR Tolkien because the creator of Lord of the Rings mumbled inaudibly. Ken Tynan (founder of the National Theatre and the first man to say “fuck” on BBC TV) arrived wearing a suit made of billiard cloth. Murphy met Stephen Spender and C Day Lewis and Jill Balcon,  parents of Daniel Day Lewis. He met all the then living poets of any significance – Empson, Auden, Eliot, Larkin, Lowell, Berryman, Richard Eberhart, XJ Kennedy, John Montague and Seamus Heaney. Poet James Dickey, author of the novel on which the film Deliverance was based, tried to upstage Murphy at poetry performances but later praised his work highly. In the corrugated roof of a shed he was living in Murphy  found some papers which turned out  to belong to a previous tenant – Ludwig Wittgenstein.


Left to right: Richard Murphy, Douglas Dunn, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes

In June 1950, Murphy stopped in Dublin and met Patrick Kavanagh in McDaid’s pub. He asked the poet how he might obtain a copy of his book The Great Hunger, which was out of print. Kavanagh told him he would be calling on Mrs Yeats that afternoon, and if Murphy could give him 10 shillings, he would get a copy of the Cuala Press edition from her and give it to Murphy later that day in McDaid’s. Kavanagh took the money and Murphy didn’t see him again for five years.

In 1954, he settled at Cleggan, on the coast of Galway. Several years later, in 1959, he purchased and renovated a traditional type of boat, which he used to ferry visitors to the island. In 1969, he purchased Ardoileán (High Island), a small island near Inishbofin. Visitors to Murphy’s Irish home included Robert Shaw of Jaws fame (who was also a noted playwright and novelist). A knock on his front door was by a new neighbour come to introduce himself – Peter O’Toole.

In 1962, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath came to stay with Murphy in Connemara. At dinner Sylvia gave Murphy a playful kick under the table and seemed to be flirting with him. Hughes left the next day without saying goodbye to his host.

Cork library

I was surprised to learn that Murphy spent a great deal of his childhood in Ceylon where his father, Sir William Lindsay Murphy was the last colonial Mayor of Colombo (and first Municipal Commissioner from 1937 to 1941). Richard was taken to Ceylon at the age of six weeks, having been born in a damp, decaying big house in the west of Ireland. The young Richard Murphy spent holidays in Diatalawa, which is not far from my home. After leaving Ceylon, Sir William succeeded the Duke of Windsor as Governor of the Bahamas.

John O’Regan pursued a long career in the British Colonial Service. He served in Ceylon, Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda and, finally, Iran. In From Empire To Commonwealth: Reflections on a Career in Britain’s Overseas Service he gives an account of the concerns of the Overseas Civil Service during the period spanning the end of the empire and the emergence of independent nation-states. He profiles figures such as Sir Andrew Caldicott and D.S. Senanayaka in Ceylon, Sir Hugh Foot, Sir Alexander Bustamente and Norman Manley in Jamaica, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in Nigeria. O’Regan  describes Sir William as a “genial Irishman” who was “respected and liked by all communities and I was therefore most fortunate to have my initial impressions of Ceylon influenced by him”.

In the late 1980s, Murphy returned to Sri Lanka and was inspired by Ashley Halpé’s translations to write The Mirror Wall, versions of poems inscribed on a long wall of polished plaster at Sigiriya. The book was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1989 and  received the Poetry Book Society Translation Award.

Murphy’s memoir reveals that he was in Sri Lanka during some troubled times for the nation. In 1971, HAI Goonetileke, librarian of Peradeniya University had invited him thus: “The son of your father will be welcome in this still resplendent isle”. However, the first JVP uprising had deterred Murphy from taking up the offer. Murphy notes that news of bodies floating down the Kalani River under the Victoria Bridge on the airport road brought back his childhood terror of dying in Ceylon.

News of the July 1983 pogrom, which was, at best, badly mishandled by the UNP government,   troubled him.  Murphy hints that the pogrom was orchestrated by a UNP cabinet minister but does not name him. DBS Jeyaraj names Cyril Mathew and writes about violent groups that “had absolute impunity and had the protection of important members of the United National Party (UNP) Government then in power.” Jeyaraj also wrote: “Many of the mobs were led by functionaries of the UNP trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). Several UNP municipal and urban councillors were involved. Many prominent supporters and strong – arm men of cabinet ministers were involved. The Police were ordered by UNP politicians not to arrest the violent elements.”

Nevertheless,  Murphy decided to return, in November 1984, to the country that was by then called Sri Lanka, “intending to examine my colonial past in the light of its legacy and to purge my fear”. He had planned to spend his time wandering around Colombo, Kandy and Bandarawela on his own, “surprising myself with spontaneous recollections evoked by bodies, buildings, sounds and smells”. However, his mother had insisted on getting introductions through the High Commission and on arrival, he was taken under the wing of the Tourist Board and arrangements were made for him to meet President Jayewardene. Murphy’s 86-year-old mother accompanied him on his travels in Sri Lanka. On meeting the president she said: “we were barbarians when you had a great civilisation at Anuradhapura.” The president replied, “Yes, but a long time ago you overtook us.”

Murphy’s driver Samson pointed out Welikade Prison and said, “That’s where more than fifty Tamil detainees were killed during the riots”. Murphy and his mother chided him for spoiling the journey. Samson replied: “One hundred per cent terrorists”. A year later, the prison director gave Murphy an guided tour and showed him the woodshed from which guards allowed Sinhalese prisoners to take saws and axes with which they broke down Tamil prisoners’ cell doors and hacked them to death.

In Kandy, Murphy and his mother visited the house on Brownrigg Street (named after Robert Brownrigg the “butcher of Uva-Wellassa, whose gazette notice condemning  all those who rebelled against British Rule as “traitors” was revoked by President Rajapaksa in 2011) which was her first home in the country in October 1922. The house was guarded by sentries from the Sinha Regiment commanded by Major Nihal Pelpola, who greeted the visitors warmly. In 1989, Richard Murphy visited Colonel  Pelpola in Colombo General Hospital where he was in intensive care after being stabbed in the back by a member of the JVP.

On the 1984 trip, they travelled from Kandy to Trincomalee via Dambulla, passing several army checkpoints en route. Murphy noticed a line of chained prisoners accompanied by policemen. The Tamil wife of an Anglican church rector said these were young Tamil boys being taken to be castrated.

A Tamil man in his thirties called Stephen Anthony, who had lost his livelihood because of the pogrom, guided Murphy around Colombo. According to him sites belonging to Tamil professionals had been given away to enrich UNP supporters after the Tamil owners had fled from the looting. Stephen showed Murphy the Methodist orphanage in which he had been raised and introduced him to the warden Victor Atapattu, who tried to persuade Murphy to adopt a 17-year old boy called Nimal Jayasinghe.  Nimal had been assaulted with an axe by his mother’s boyfriend and could not return to her shanty. Murphy did indeed become his legal guardian and got him  US and UK visas. He arranged intensive training in the English language and Nimal became an Irish citizen, developed a successful fabric business and was able to buy his mother a house in Sri Lanka.

Murphy claims that, in spite of the horror stories he heard about Sri Lanka, he felt safer there than he did in Dublin. “No one robbed, mugged or threatened me or told me to go back to Britain where I belonged.”
On his 1987 visit, he met a 17-year-old friend of Nimal called Anura Wickremasinghe, who helped with cooking and shopping. Anura’s mother had been thrown out of her home on Peradeniya University land and the shanty was bulldozed. This was the time of the Indo-Sri Lankan Pact and the Indian Army was increasing tensions in the North and East. Anti-Indian and anti-government feelings gave fuel to the JVP.

Murphy’s former pupil, April Brunner, was now the wife of Britain’s High Commissioner, David Gladstone and he was invited to many social functions over the next three years. Gladstone told him that he was inundated with visa requests because of fears that the JVP would soon take over the country and install a Pol Pot-type regime. The JVP had forced schools to close and intimidated many employees to stay away from work.

On December 19, the UNP prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa became  president after an election dominated by fraud and JVP intimidation. Murphy’s barber, Wasantha, was hacked to death by the JVP near the Ladyhill Hotel. The JVP gave detailed instructions about how the funeral should be conducted. On 22  January 1989, Murphy noted in his diary that the body of an old man was floating in Kandy lake just in front of the Hotel Suisse and that the hotel telephone operator could not get anyone in the police department to take an interest. Murphy himself disturbed the DIG at his lunch and eventually seven armed police arrived. “Why bring such weaponry on a mission to remove a dead body from a temple lake in a sacred area in which it is prohibited to catch fish? Because the police are afraid of being shot at by subversives wherever they happen to go.”

In April 1989, Murphy managed to get visas for two more boys, Darrell and Sathiya. They were granted Irish citizenship and accepted by St Andrew’s College, Dublin, from where they went on to university and successful careers. In all Murphy took five boys to Ireland and got them an education and decent jobs. “None of the five that I brought to Ireland encountered racist hostility until the end of the millennium, by which time our country had become multiracial with an economy powered by multinationals.”

By the time Murphy returned to Sri Lanka in November 1989, the JVP had closed all the hospitals. Fifty cancer patients died without medical or nursing assistance. When the hospitals reopened  a child’s body was found stuck to a bed. JVP leader Rohana Wijiweera sent out a “request” to soldiers to desert. The request was backed up by a threat to kill their families. The police and army liquidated anyone remotely suspected of JVP connections. Sathiya’s uncle told Murphy that he had personally counted 300 bodies floating down the Kelani River. People stopped eating fish. Rohan Guneratna told Murphy that up to 60,000 “suspects” mainly young men had been taken by special units and summarily executed. Guneratna saw, beside the road leading down from Heeragilla, bodies  that had been burnt on tyres.

Wijiweera was captured living in bourgeois comfort in a planter’s house near Kandy and questioned for 72 hours by intelligence officers. The version of Wijeweera’s  death accepted by Murphy is that he was  thrown alive into the crematorium near the golf course in Colombo. A journalist called Nihal Ratnayake told Murphy “ironically” that there was no censorship in Sri Lanka because self-censorship operated effectively enough. Asoka Ratwatte, a cousin of Sirimavo Bandaranaike told Murphy he was convinced that the army was killing people with no connection to the JVP: “Now they are decorating trees in my village with chopped off hands and feet.” Murphy heard that his friend Anura, beaten badly, blindfolded and his head covered by a gunny sack, had been taken by soldiers from house to house. Rohan Guneratna’s contacts told him that Anura had eventually been shot dead. A major with military intelligence told Guneratna: “Tell your friend Murphy that Anura is non-existent.”

Tissa Wijeyratne, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to France, told Murphy: “In Colombo the municipal crematorium works all night  long…Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the rural areas approve the beating and killing of JVP suspects. I saw three corpses hung from an electric transformer, multiple injuries, holes in the head. My first reaction was immediate fear, that this could happen to me, not moral horror.”

An article on Richard Murphy’s memoir appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday November 20 2014. It was on page 11 of the E-paper


SB Dissanayake told Murphy that he had been on a bus when the driver slowed down to let the passengers  see  many bodies of young men and women, all stripped to the waist, by the roadside. Mothers held up their children so that they could see. Dissanayake also saw, at the temples at Lankatilleke, dismembered bodies lying under a tree. “Dogs eat the flesh that isn’t burnt by the tyres set alight under the corpses that are strewn along the roads at night.”

Murphy met Major Asoka Amunugama of the Sinha regiment at the bungalow where Sir William and Lady Murphy had lived soon after their marriage. The Major did not deny that atrocities were occurring but blamed vigilante groups. He agreed that the government fully supported these groups and would have a problem controlling them. He admitted that he thought a military victory would never solve the problems caused by poverty and frustrated youth.

Anuradha Seneviratna, Professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya had told Murphy that many of his students had been taken by the Army. He said his fifteen-year old son ahd not been able to eat or sleep after seeing a body burning on a tyre but eventually got used to seeing many of them and no longer got upset. A JVP man had shot dead the bursar of the university and escaped on a bicycle. The Army went on a rampage and the next morning there were fourteen severed heads with battered faces on the parapet wall around the lotus pond and fourteen butchered torsos in a secluded part of the campus.

When he visited Sri Lanka in December 1991, Murphy was disappointed that the Gladstones had been ejected from the country by President Premadasa because the British High Commissioner  had complained about election fraud perpetrated by the UNP. “I felt that the country I loved was being changed for the worse” by this UNP president. In 1993, Premadasa, who had supplied arms and funding to the LTTE, was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber.

As I have said before in these pages, as a foreigner, I have absolutely no emotional attachment to the UNP or the SLFP. Nevertheless, it surprises me to hear my UNP friends wax nostalgic about the good old days before Mahinda Rajapaksa became president. I have heard from these very people horror stories about their own experiences during the JVP times, similar to those recounted by Richard Murphy. To hear my UNP friends speak, Sri Lanka today is unprecedentedly awful. This is the worst of all times. It seems from my compatriot’s observations that unimaginable horrors occurred under UNP administrations. Are similar horrors prevalent today? To this Irishman who has lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years, life is far more comfortable, if a good deal more expensive than when he first arrived. On arrival, I was disconcerted that, under a UNP government, military roadblocks were such a normal part of life that they were sponsored by commercial advertisers. There are no roadblocks today. I have not seen any bodies burning on tyres. Even up here in the mountains, roads have improved greatly and facilities in our small town are better by far. More importantly, I can stroll around Colombo without fear of being blown up. Whatever about crime rates, I do not see hundreds of corpses floating down the river.

I understand that Richard Murphy, who is now in his 87th year, currently lives permanently in Sri Lanka. Can we assume that that Irishman, like this Irishman, believes the country he loved, “this resplendent isle”, whatever its many faults, has changed for the better?

Richard Murphy80

If anyone can tell me the whereabouts of Richard Murphy please contact me at