Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - VANISHING IRELAND

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BOB MURPHY (1909-2002)
Gardener
Rathvilly, County Carlow

Bob grabs my hand suddenly and whispers: ‘That man there ... d’you see him?’ I look across the ward at another old man, lying down, itching his back. ‘He’s armed,’ says Bob, his eyes wide. ‘With a six chamber pistol.’

I think ‘Ah!’ and recall Bob’s paranoid visions the night he was taken in to the hospital in Carlow. Poor old Bob. The dapper gent of the mushy-pea suits, the feathered trilbies and the coal-fired greenhouse. It’s odd to see him here now, laid up in a hospital bed dressed in pale blue pajamas, convinced he’s got a homicidal maniac two beds over. Fair play to the old boy though. Bob has always liked his drink for sure, but he hasn’t had a drop in over a week. Now he looks at me and says, ‘Maybe I’ll live to be a hundred,’ and guffaws and we’re all grand again.

Thank goodness he did get got out one more time before he died. A friend whisked him over to Molloys of Rathvilly, his favourite haunt, for a farewell drink. Eithne Molloy caught a tear rolling down his cheek as he made his way out the door for the last time. ‘He knew the end was upon him,’ she says. She had known him all her life. Everyone in Rathvilly knew Bob. ‘He was an icon,’ declares Betty Scott, who lived in the cottage next door to him.

His celebrity became still more apparent with his brief cameo in the excellent 'Hands' series. He is the first man you see in this short extract from the episode which looked at Johnson's tailor in Tullow, Co. Carlow.

Bob was well known to most drinking establishments in north County Carlow. He was a quiet man but he loved the craic. His tipple was whiskey and 7Up, or a ‘7 ½’ as he called it. Betty would hear him being decanted onto his doorstep by a friendly chauffeur at 4 o’clock of a Sunday morning and not hear another peep from him until Tuesday evening. ‘He was in dry dock, you see,’ explained Betty.

Bob was one of seventeen children born to Patrick Murphy, the assistant gamekeeper at Lisnavagh, my family’s estate outside Rathvilly, County Carlow. It had previously been home to John Harte. Born in Co. Wexford in 1867, Patrick was recorded as a resident of Ballybit (beside Lisnavagh) in the 1901 census when, aged 31, he shared a house with Miles Tighe, a 30-year-old trapper from Co. Wicklow. Two years later, Patrick married Mary, a County Carlow girl born in 1879, and who moved into the Ballybit house. (See 1911 Census on Murphy family). Six of Bob's siblings were born by the time of the 1911 census; most would emigrate to England or America in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘We won’t get those people again,’ says Betty. ‘Bob was the end of an era.' (No more is known of Miles Tighe - he was not registered when the 1911 census was taken.)

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During my childhood, Bob was simply Bob, the funny wee fellow with the cowboy hat who stood in the doorway of his home nodding his head at us when we went to visit Betty. She was housekeeper at Lisnavagh while he was working in the garden there. Then, one afternoon, I met him looking befuddled, standing by the road outside his house. He was awaiting the 2 o’clock bus to Tullow. It was 2:45. After talking to him for a while, he realised the problem – autumn had begun the day before; and his Bob’s watch was an hour fast. Easy mistake, easily rectified. Bob duly tapped his watch, dismounted the wall and disappeared into his house. I waited uncertainly. He returned presently, strapping on a new watch. He explained that he had two watches. One came off at summer’s end; the other went on for the spring.

I was only in his cottage once. [1] From the outside, it was small, yellow and deceptively quaint. The windowsills and drainpipes were powdery blue and a pretty scarf of pink ran around the base. The interior was another matter. Orange tipped eggshells and blue-hued slices of Pat the Baker’s bread. Flailing red strings of peat briquette wraps. Upset primrose pots and chippings of terracotta. A soot-encrusted sofa with springs squiggling north and south. Open pots of blackberry jam with upturned lids looking like nightclub ashtrays. An eruption of loose black-eyed spuds galloping into the next door room. Betty claims that Bob never got ill. ‘There’s no germs alive that could have survived in his house,’ she reasons.

Conversely, Bob’s greenhouse was wonderful. It occupied an old pig-sty to the rear of his house, accessible via a shed full of old furniture and Nellie bikes. The greenhouse was Bob’s pride and joy, its soilss freshly raked and weedless; the petals wholesome and bright. Around the perimeter of the room ran a thick pipe connected to a small stove, fed with coal nuggets in the colder months. It was so incredibly pleasant there that I sometimes wondered is if that was where Bob actually slept.

Betty adored Bob to bits, but she never allowed herself to call him anything other than ‘a feckin’ torment’. She is still full of anecdotes about the bachelor’s persistently ‘bauld behaviour’, his quick-fire one-liners, his stubborn resistance to doctors and priests, his merry tours of the region’s drinking emporiums, and such like. When Father Flood came walking past their house one day, Bob drolly mumbled, ‘that’s the first time I seen a flood coming uphill.’

When he didn’t mumble drolly, Bob was still impossible to understand. His voice belonged to another generation. From his hospital bed, I had deciphered a little about his life and how he advanced via England from raking lawns for ‘The O’Byrne’ in Kildangan to laying pipes in glasshouses and pitching netting over the roses of my own late grandmother. His favourite flower, he confided, was a blue rambling rose. (Now I wonder did he mean 'The O'Byrne' or was it the Moore O'Farrells?)

On another occasion he told of Kevin Barry, the patriot from Rathvilly executed in 1920, standing up to a bully of a teacher and getting his ears smacked for his impudence.

As chance would have it, Bob’s funeral was presided over by Monsignor Deering, a Rathvilly citizen who had moved to Waco, Texas, and came to fame as ‘the Pastor with the blaster’ during the David Koresh debacle. The Monsignor was on a return visit to Ireland and had known Bob in his youth. ‘We all gotta go sometime,’ he drawled to the gathered mourners. ‘And Bob knew his time had come. He opened his arms to the Lord and said, “Take me home, Father.” Well, Bob, now that you’re up there, why don’t you plug in a light for all of us!’

Bob would have loved it.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Bob Murphy's house was formerly home to John Harte and his mother Anne. Born in John was a chaffer. He converted the Harte's old pigsty into a greenhouse with a coal-fired pipe. John was born in 1883 and, at time of 1901 census, he was living with two of his three siblings - namely his sister Mary (born 1876, a domestic servant), brother James (an agricultural labourer born in 1881). Their widowed mother Anne was born circa 1851, a Catholic from the Queen's County, and was a housekeeper, perhaps at Lisnavagh.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.