Richard Murphy

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 19 2014

Colman's Column3

The distinguished Irish poet, Richard Murphy, spent a great deal of his childhood in Ceylon where his father, Sir William Lindsay Murphy, was the last colonial Mayor of Colombo. Richard first went to Ceylon at the age of six weeks. He made many visits to this country over the years and, according to Wikipedia, lives here now. Ashley Halpé’s translations inspired Murphy to write The Mirror Wall, versions of poems inscribed on a long wall of polished plaster at Sigiriya. Bloodaxe Books published the book in 1989 and it won the Poetry Book Society Translation Award.


Murphy’s autobiography, The Kick, 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 a 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.”

Despite his fears, 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…” However, his mother had insisted on getting introductions through the High Commission and, on arrival, the Tourist Board took the Murphys under its wing and arranged for them to meet President Jayewardene. On meeting the president, the 86-yer-old Lady Murphy said: “we were barbarians when you had a great civilisation at Anuradhapura.” Dickie 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 a 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, which was her first home in the country in October 1922. The street was named after Robert Brownrigg the “butcher of Uva-Wellassa”, who issued a gazette notice condemning as “traitors” all those who rebelled against British Rule. (President Rajapaksa revoked the gazette notice in 2011.)  Sentries from the Sinha Regiment commanded by Major Nihal Pelpola guarded Lady Murphy’s former home. In 1989, Murphy visited Colonel Pelpola in Colombo General Hospital where he was in intensive care after a member of the JVP stabbed him in the back on Galle Face Green
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 police. The Tamil wife of an Anglican 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.

Murphy’s former pupil, April Brunner, was now the wife of Britain’s High Commissioner, David Gladstone who invited him 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’s Ranasinghe Premadasa became  president after an election dominated, according to Murphy, by fraud and JVP intimidation. Murphy’s barber, Wasantha, was hacked to death by the JVP near the Ladyhill Hotel and the JVP gave detailed instructions about how to conduct the funeral. 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.”

When Murphy returned to Sri Lanka in November 1989 after a few months in Ireland, he found that the JVP had closed all the hospitals and fifty cancer patients had 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 responded by liquidating anyone remotely suspected of JVP connections. A friend 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, with his own eyes, 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 Wijiweera’s death accepted by Murphy is that he was thrown alive into the crematorium near Colombo golf course. 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.”

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.”

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 rather than the Army. He agreed that the UNP 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 had 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.  Murphy wrote, “I felt that the country I loved was being changed for the worse” by this president. In 1993, Premadasa, the UNP president 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 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, in January 2001, 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?

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