Daughter and wife of eminent Irish sculptors who was a staunch supporter of the arts, writes Eamon Delaney
Maigread Murphy who has passed away aged 94 in Cork, had a unique position in the world of Irish art and sculpture. She was the wife of Seamus Murphy (1907-1975), Ireland's pre-eminent post-war sculptor and the daughter of Joseph Higgins (1885-1925) who had an equal standing in the world of figurative and memorial sculpture.
She acted as tireless custodian of the reputations of both sculptors and, along with her family, did much to curate and publicise their work. Both have been subject of handsome art books and in 2007, on the centenary of Seamus Murphy's birth, many exhibitions and events were held, especially in Cork, a city exceptionally proud of its native artists.
A play was also performed based on Stone Mad, Murphy's acclaimed 1950 book about the city's dying trade of often anonymous stone carvers. Whereas Murphy worked in stone and limestone, Higgins made sculptures in wood and clay, many of which his family had cast into bronze after his death.
Maigread was a great supporter of the arts in general. A founder of the Cork Arts Society and the Cork Film Society, her famous home at No 6 Wellesley Terrace was an 'open house' for cultural visitors to the city including RTE people, Abbey Theatre actors, writers, painters, musicians and film-makers.
After visits to the raucous Fleadh Ceoils of the early Sixties – the 'rock festivals' of a newly buoyant Ireland – Maigread began holding her own sessions at No 6. Her son Colm later became a bodhran player, and played with the De Danann group, among others. Among the many visitors were the former rebel and writer Ernie O'Malley, and Eric Cross, author of the notoriously banned book The Tailor and the Ansty (and who stayed for six months!). Another visitor was actress Angelica Huston who came with her late husband and sculptor, Robert Graham, eager to see some of the work of Joseph Higgins.
Maigread O Murchadha was born in Youghal, Co Cork, in November 1919, to Joseph Higgins and Katherine Turnbull, who was a painter and art teacher. Maigread would herself become an art teacher, teaching at Scoil Mhuire, Wellington Road, Cork, for over 50 years.
She was educated at Ring Irish College, Co Waterford, Drishane Convent Millstreet, Co Cork, and the Crawford School of Art, Cork. In 1944, she married Seamus Murphy, and they had three children: Beibhinn Marten, Colm Murphy and the writer, Orla Murphy, all of whom survive her, along with her sister Sr Ita Higgins IJS, who is also a painter.
A large crowd attended the funeral held at Ringaskiddy crematorium on February 20, with many mourners from the world of arts, culture and music.Speakers included Sr Maigread O'Sullivan IJS, and Professor John A Murphy who spoke of the deceased's involvement in Cork cultural life and referred to her as 'Mulier Fortis', a valiant woman. Other speakers included Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, the poet and professor of English at TCD), who spoke of the strong connections between her own family (her mother was the writer, Eilis Dillon) and that of the Murphys, and there was an amusing and heartfelt tribute from the writer and journalist Mary Leland, who in recent years had been Maigread's closest friend.
Singer Ciaran O Gealbhain gave a spellbinding version of An Paistin Fionn while uileann piper Eoin O Riabhaigh played a Scots air, The Dark Island, accompanied by Pat Ahearne. Later with Conal O Grada, Johnny McCarthy and Con O Drisceoil, he played Mo Ghiolla Mear, and a selection of reels.
Born into a rich artistic milieu, Maigread Murphy only enhanced this tradition by her own activities and her long and whole-hearted support in a city that cherishes its artistic heritage.