John’s home on Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula had been in the Murphy family for four generations when he sold it to a German in 1971. He and his wife then moved into the town of Waterville where they live today.
John’s father was one of the principal postmen on the peninsula, delivering mail on foot to households all over a 16-mile radius from Caherdaniel to Castlecove. John’s mother came from a farm stead near Sneem. She was practically the only member of her family who did not emigrate to America.
As a boy in the 1930s, John went to the national school in Waterville. ‘I think there are only two or three of us living now from that time’, he says. Most of his school contemporaries went overseas. Only ‘the odd one came back’ and several seem to have met with unhappy fates. ‘The outside world didn’t agree with them. There was a lot of bloody accidents and things’.
John was a little over 20 when he joined the ranks of the exiles and made his way to England. He found work at the sugar factory outside Ipswich. The pay from the sugar factory was insufficient, so John made some ‘extra money looking after people’s gardens in the evening’. ‘Christ there wasn’t a worry in the world then! I’d have two dinners a day - one with a lady I worked for and another with my landlady’.
‘The next thing, I was shoved into the middle of looking after flowers for the dead fellows’. By that John means his subsequent career maintaining a cemetery in Ipswich. ‘A cemetery isn’t just for burying fellows’, he explains. ‘There’s a lot of other stuff to be done too’. Working in such an environment gave him a stoic view on life. ‘The man who made time, made a lot of it’, he says, tapping his thigh. ‘But if you go too fast, you may never make it at all’.
When John returned to Ireland in the 1950s, his experience in gardening stood him in good stead. Until his retirement in the late 1980s, he worked on the 320-acre national park of Derrynane House, once home to Daniel ‘The Emancipator’ O’Connell. Among the other men working on the estate in John’s early days was a former prisoner and aspiring poet, Brendan Behan. ‘He was living in digs in the village with his father’s brother. An ordinary working man like the rest of us.’
He may have been a gardener but he’s always had an eye on cattle, holding a lush paddock to the rear of his house for grazing. When cattle prices fell, his policy was to promptly make his way ‘up the road’ and make an offer to any farmer who’d hear him out. ‘Ah yeah’, he chuckles, ‘that was the trick alright’.
He is a generous, open-minded soul. Until recently he left his paddock open in case his neighbours were passing and wanted ‘to put a beast out back for a while’. He is a regular attendant at Sunday mass but has no interest in parliamentary affairs. “Feck politics, amen”, he suggests. His particular gripe is against the ‘rules and all kinds of feckology that came in about showers and water and things’ when he and his wife tried to set up a small caravan park in the 1980s. ‘I’d have built houses instead but they wouldn’t allow it– and now there’s houses all over the place, God bless us!’