THE MURPHY BROTHERS
Simon (1929-2015) & Jimmy (b. 1934)
Cattle and Sheep Farmers
Ballymurphy, County Carlow
Born 1929 & 1934
(Photo: James Fennell)
Sprawled high upon the Blackstairs Mountains, the Murphy brothers’ farmstead is sheltered from the whistling winds by the rump of a grassy field, a maze of stone walls and a solitary row of Leyland cypress that seem to shiver incessantly.
Neither Sim nor his younger brother, Jimmy, know when the first Murphy came here – ‘generations and generations’ is their best guess. Murphys galore are recorded here in Knockymullgurry townland in the 1911 census, and when Sir Richard Griffith was making his valuations back in the 1840s, he clocked two Murphys ‘of Knock’, Andrew and Peter. Indeed, it’s little surprise that the closest village is called Ballymurphy.
Ballymurphy is where the Murphys prayed. ‘Oh, by God, we went to church every Sunday,’ says Jimmy. ‘And we prayed here at home too.’ Given that their kitchen wall is bedecked with images of the Blessed Virgin, the Messiah, the pope and the Sacred Heart, that is not a surprise.
You’d need religion to live in a place like this.
That’s what strikes me as we watch Jimmy come down from the mountain where he has been up feeding his cattle. He may be eighty-six but Jimmy still rides up there every day, seated upon a well-trimmed work horse. The cattle feed is transported in a half-dozen white sacks – bound with the same twine Jimmy uses as a belt – which hang down either side of the horse’s back.
Back in his kitchen, Jimmy spreads out his soot-black hands and urges us to take a seat ‘It’s cold enough up there,’ he says. ‘Will you have a cup of tea?’
The tea is made with soft rain pumped from a mountain stream. We sit and drink a while.
The kitchen is but a stage upon which the ‘generations’ of Murphys past have likewise come down from the mountain, shaken off the cold and taken a seat. Sim had faint memories of an aged grandfather sitting in one of the chairs. When they were children, the room was full of uncles. One uncle sometimes disappeared to South Africa and would then come back again. ‘He was a grand fellow,’ says Jimmy. ‘But then he went away and we never heard tell of him again.’
Their parents were Simon Murphy and Bridget Doyle, who was a farmer’s daughter from Rahanna, three townslands away. Sim, born in 1923, was the fourth of eleven children, and their eldest son. Jimmy was one of the youngest, which may be why he still goes through life as if he is as fit as a fish.
A century ago, there was a small community up here. The next-door house, now abandoned, was home to another Jimmy Murphy who lived with his wife, Johanna, and worked on the railway. ‘You’d hear all the dogs bark in the early morning and you’d know Jimmy was away to work on the railways. The railways is a long ways off from here, out beyant Ballymurphy, but he walked there and back every day.’
‘There’s only one family in it now and that’s us,’ says Jimmy.
Their school was in Inch, a three-mile trek through endless fields and ditches. ‘Oh, by God, it was a long walk,’ says Jimmy, as if he’s still coming to terms with it. And it wasn’t a particular joyful place to arrive into. ‘The teachers would hit you around the head a bit,’ he says. ‘I left school at fourteen. No more school after that. Straight to work. And there was plenty of work, all the time.’
Sim was already a seasoned farm hand by the time Jimmy left school. His father sometimes held him back from school so that he could teach him how to farm. ‘He was getting old, I suppose, and he wanted to learn me how to follow horses and that sort of thing.’
The Murphys never had a tractor. ‘We didn’t have the money,’ explains Sim. ‘And that’s the way it was going here for a long time before machinery or anything come.’ Instead of machines, they bred work horses. ‘You’d want to be working two or three of them in the fields. You’d need at least two because one on its own is no good.’
A combination of man and horse built the dry-stone walls that surround the Murphys’ farmstead, the like of which recalls the Aran Islands. ‘’Twas shocking hardy men to build those walls,’ says Jimmy. ‘Lifting all those rocks up from the fields. How in the name of God did they do that! And nothing only their hands to work with.’
Their cattle and sheep are scattered on chunks of grassland around the hills, although how many head and how many acres is anyone’s guess.
In decades past, they would drive the cattle to the Kilkenny market, some thirty-five kilometres to the west. An annual highlight was bringing the sheep down to the fair in Borris on 15 August. ‘That would be a grand day out,’ says Sim. ‘The whole town would be full of sheep, and people walking around with sheep. It might be the only time you’d see someone you knew in a whole year.’
It’s astonishing that these two men still live this way in 2013. They are certainly of sturdy stock. They don’t drink, but not because they are pioneers. ‘It’s just that we didn’t drink and that was that,’ says Jimmy, before adding with a chuckle, ‘apart from a cup of tea.’ Nor do they smoke, although they ‘were fond of that one time but, by God, we gave them up all the same’.
When pressed about how long he can keep the farm going, Jimmy concedes that ‘it was all right when we were younger but it’s nearly too much now’.
‘I go up the mountain every day,’ he says. ‘A couple of hours or more. It takes that time to straighten it all out, start in the morning, go see this, see that, but sure I was always at it, do you know? It’s not that there’d be money in it. You could be losing money at the same time, and you’d still be working, but you do.’
‘I suppose for our age we’re all right,’ muses Sim. ‘My father and his brother was the very same. But, to tell the truth, we got into form because we had sheep and cattle. We always used to buy them as stock for our own land, and we’d plant oats for the stock. That was the carry on the whole time. I tell you, it was a healthy kind of job on the land.’
Fortunately, they are not short of companionship. While we are there, they have visits from a niece, a great-nephew and a neighbour. Their farm also lies upon a popular walkway. ‘They’re all mad for the best of air,’ marvels Jimmy. ‘Sometimes you’d hear them walking past at twelve o’clock at night.’
Some are apparently hunting for gold hidden by a renegade militiaman during the 1798 Rising. ‘It was tried a lot of times but the gold didn’t come yet,’ chuckles Sim. ‘It was never there I suppose. But some people are very eager for money. And do you know what I think of the country now? I think it’s middling on and off. Would that be right?’
Simon Murphy passed away on 7 October 2015.
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