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Bob Murphy (1909-2002) – The End of an Era

Bob Murphy, gardener, in his greenhouse at Ballybit near Rathvilly, County Carlow. Photo: James Fennell.

A story about the first person interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project, arguably the smartest dresser in Rathvilly, with a cameo from two eels. ‘We won’t get those people again,’ said his neighbour. ‘Bob was the end of an era.’

 

*****

 

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 into 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 pyjamas, 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 Molloy’s 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. In July 2022, I chanced to meet Pat Nolan, grandson of the head gardener at Altamont, who told me that there had been three Murphy brothers – one called Greg, born in about 1817 –  who came north from Wexford in the 19th century. Their father had been involved with the 1798. One went to work on the Baillie estate at Sherwood Park, another went to Altamont and a third went to a Lisnavagh and was ancestor of Bob and his family. [1a]

Born in County 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. [1b] Two years later, Patrick married Mary, a County Carlow girl born in 1879, with whom he moved into the Ballybit house where Bob lived. [2] 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.

Photo: James Fennell.

We won’t get those people again,’ says Betty. ‘Bob was the end of an era.’

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 two 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. At the time of the 1901 census, it was home to Anne Harte, a 50-year-old widow from the ‘Queen’s County’ (ie Laois), who worked as a housekeeper, perhaps at Lisnavagh. Also present were three of her four children – John Harte, an 18-year-old chafer, Mary, a 25-year-old domestic servant, and James, a 20-year-old agricultural labourer.

From the outside, Bob’s cottage 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 the Harte’s old pigsty to the rear of the house, accessible via a shed full of old furniture and Nellie bikes. The greenhouse was Bob’s pride and joy, its soils 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.

Bob Murphy in the front door of his home. Photo: James Fennell.

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 in Kildangan to laying pipes in glasshouses and pitching netting over the roses of my own late grandmother. [3] His favourite flower, he confided, was a blue rambling rose.

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 in the early 1990s. 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.

 

Bob Murphy in action – a photo that fell out of a cookbook owned by my late aunt, Rosebud!!

 

 

FURTHER MEMORIES

 

Mary Curry recalls: ‘We were going into Tommy Byrne’s pub one Sunday night and Bob was looking at the chap in the band who was hammering the life out of the drum. Bob looked at us and said, ‘could you tell me, what did that drum do to him?’ It was very funny at the time.’

Ciaran Byrne also has this delight: ‘Bob told me a story when I was a small boy. He said he caught 2 eels in the river and put them in a plastic bag and tied a knot on it. He said he called into Osborne’s shop on the way home to buy something. He left the bag of eels outside the door. When he came out he checked the bag and it was empty? I said Bob, ‘Where did the eels go?’ He replied: ‘They were hungry and ate one another, ha ha.’ He roared laughing and so did I. I thought it was the best story ever. RIP Bob.’

Vanishing Ireland – Bob Murphy from AWAY2TRAVEL on Vimeo.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1a] I note that the papers of the Baillie estate include correspondence with members of the Murphy family, as well as cheques sent to Anne and Robert Murphy from William FitzMaurice and George Clement Baillie as executors of the estate of John Maclean Baillie Esq, deceased. Were they also perhaps connected to Murphy Brothers, the auctioneers who were so closely involved with Altamont in the early 20th century?

[1b] No more is known of Miles Tighe – he was not registered when the 1911 census was taken.

[2] See 1911 Census on Murphy family.

[3] He told me he was working in Kildangan for ‘The O’Byrne’ but I wonder did he mean the Moore O’Farrells?

Green Lane Cottage at Lisnavagh, 2023, where Bob grew up over a century ago.

 

Green Lane Cottage at Lisnavagh, 2023.