Michael Murphy's life is utterly changed after fighting cancer and he realised what really matters in life.
'YOU must be calm before you can utter oracles," wrote the 19th-Century American poet Thoreau. Michael Murphy, the utterer of oracles on RTE for more than 30 years, has such a soft, calming presence about him that you could sit with him for hours. It is not just that voice – a beautiful sound that we have been hearing on the national station for so long, and I was lucky enough to hear in the Shelbourne hotel last Monday – Michael also never stops smiling in that gentle, almost innocent way of his. This made the revelation of how viciously his strict father beat him up when he was a young child all the more shocking, all the more repulsive.
He can remember being on a tricycle as a four-year-old at home. There were bottles of oil in a crate between the two petrol pumps near where he lived in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Young Michael accidentally clipped them with the back of his bike and they overturned.
When his father, a pharmacist, came home from work that evening, Michael got "an appalling beating – there were several such beatings but this seems to be the archetypal one I remembered. I thought I was going to die. I actually thought I was going to die," he says.
"My mother watched it and at a certain point she said: 'That's enough now.' Then she intervened. Sometimes it happens early in a marriage; the father I think resents the child being landed like a Scud missile into the centre of the partnership."
Is that how he has subsequently rationalised his father's vicious assault on him as a four-year-old child?
"Yes. I think there was a bit of that," Michael says, adding that he only came to this realisation after he had been working at psychoanalysis for a number of years. "I don't think you can forgive something like that. He was showing who was boss. But after that, I went upstairs, I got my pyjamas and I went next door to my grandmother's."
For how long?
"I never went home again," he says. "That was my father's mother. She lived next door. I can't remember anything being said about it but I stayed there from then on until she died. I knew instinctively that she would welcome me. My grandmother gave me unconditional love."
You felt your father didn't love you?
"Yes. I am only thinking this now. I hadn't actually thought it before."
I ask Michael – who is almost as well known as a psychoanalyst as he is a broadcaster and author – did his mother ever talk to him about the violence. "Yes, she said he was mostly drunk when those things happened. That was her explanation years later of what my father did," Michael says of his father who died 20 years ago. Michael's mother, now in her 90s, is in a nursing home; he is going to visit her this weekend with his partner of 28 years, Terry O'Sullivan. Terry is the love of Michael's life and the inspiration for most of his new book of poetry, The Republic Of Love.
Terry, Michael's muse, also unconditionally supported his partner when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. "The pain was dreadful, but I found out that if the pain was bad, it is only bad for 20 minutes. It was like a knife in your guts, like a sword in your stomach. You just lie there and hope it will go. Terry was always with me."
I ask Michael, did cancer in some perverse way strengthen his relationship with Terry? "Yes. Terry was there with an unconditional support. Whatever I had to say at any moment of the day or night was accepted by him gratefully. That action is discrete, in that you can never go back on it. It sets the foundation for a new life."
Michael Murphy is perhaps the most philosophical man you could ever meet. Yet you can't help wondering, how did he get through it all emotionally when he was told he had cancer? Did he spend his whole time consumed with the anger of 'why him'?
"It has to happen to somebody," he says with a gentle smile. "My brother Kieran died. He was only 42. That was the lowest point in my life, the worst to lose someone you are so close to. I was lucky. I was spared. That was five years ago. It can come back at any stage. Every new day is a blessing. You have to believe that. Or you couldn't get up in the morning, you'd stay in bed. I think that's what depression is." He quotes from two lines from the first poem in the book, The Poppy: 'Because there is no point to anything anyway?/It is necessary to be defiant and protesting.'
Michael adds that after experiencing death knocking on your door following the diagnosis of cancer, the joy of each new day that "I am above ground" is, he says, "embraced wholly because of the realisation that time is limited. Each day takes on a new urgency, and I tend to pack as much as possible into the day."
I ask him was there a Pre-Cancer Michael and a Post-Cancer Michael? In the sense, did cancer change him in some way emotionally? "Life changes utterly after cancer. You begin to concentrate on what really matters, which is love, and the relationships which nourish you, and the shedding of relationships which don't. Life is too short for compromises.
"I thought I was going to die. That's what triggered the final phase of the writing, which is why I wrote the first book. Ten days after the operation, I asked for a laptop. I just wanted to leave something behind. And something truthful."
Michael wrote an extraordinary memoir about battling the disease, At Five in the Afternoon: My Battle with Male Cancer, with a foreword by Mary Robinson. "I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce a new Irish voice to the world," the former President of Ireland announced. The voice is there as powerful as ever in the 25 poems in The Republic Of Love, which he wrote over the past five years.
Although Michael knew he was gay since he was a kid – "I had girlfriends and they were often puzzled" – it was not until he was 30 that he entered the republic of love. It was then, "quite late", as he says, that he first acted on his romantic feelings for the same sex.
"I met someone, the opportunity arose and I had sex one evening. It was joyous, absolutely joyous. It was an utter emotional release. Mind you, I went home and stood under the shower for about 90 minutes afterwards. I had been abused as a kid. Again, this is with hindsight ... I tried to figure out what was the connection: it was washing clean. It didn't fit with my partner, but it did fit with way back there along the timeline" – he says, referring to the abuse of his childhood – "when you did feel dirty and want to wash. They'd all be dead now. Horrible."
There is a line in The Republic Of Love about fear being his "default setting".
"All human beings have a default setting, when the visitations arrive at three in the morning to haunt us," he says. "Anxiety is the most common one, at its core the fear of not being able to survive – through the threat of disease or illness, or in various settings that take us out of our comfort zone. Paradoxically, it's never an absence – the lack or loss of this or that – but a suffocating presence, too much of something, in this instance, too much truth."
Michael Murphy knew from a very early age where to find truth in his life. He moved from his granny's to boarding school in Newbridge, where his interest in art and culture and playing the organ was nourished by Father Flanagan. "He taught me art on my own and introduced me to classical music. He stirred something in me."
It never dawned on him to study pharmacy, like his father. In his Leaving Cert year, Michael knew the three things he wanted to do in his life. He knew he wanted to do psychoanalysis (because he had always been interested in human nature and he had read an awful lot of Freud and Jung). He also knew he wanted to go into broadcasting because: "I had a good voice, at that stage. I was in the operas and I had done some broadcasting at home in Castlebar in the local radio station."
He also knew he wanted to write. He was writing poetry from his early teens. The first poem he wrote had the opening line: 'Prokofiev and blue sky ... ' It was inspired after listening to a Sergei Prokofiev piano concerto when he was 14. "There were a group of us in Castlebar and we were all writing poetry and showing it to each other."
Michael will turn 66 in October. I ask him what would the 14-year-old Michael think of him now? He smiles and says he thinks he would be happy with the journey he went on. "I think the level of hope and idealism has been fulfilled."
His foundation is undoubtedly Terry O'Sullivan, whom he married in a civil partnership ceremony on a midsummer's day in Dublin in June 2011. Asked what is the greatest wisdom he has learned, Michael says emphatically: "That the most important thing is love. That's all that matters. Not the banks, not whatever. What is really important is love between yourself and somebody else. That's it."
There is a poignant line in the book: "When I grow old and have no voice, no children there to care or to remember me ... " I wonder why he and Terry never adopted children. You would have been a great father, I say to Michael.
"It's kind of you to say so. When Terry and I met almost 30 years ago, Ireland was a very different place to the country we have now. For a start, we were illegal beings, and there would have been no possibility of adopting children. At this stage, in the autumn of our lives, it would be unfair to be essentially grandparents to children who deserve the best of our youth and strength ... "
Love's not so young dream met nearly three decades ago. "I was producer/director in RTE and we went up to do a programme at the Rutland Centre and Terry was one of those who founded the Rutland Centre. They couldn't do a programme about the inmates so they did role play," Michael smiles now. "Terry was in charge of that, I was watching him on screen. At the end of the shoot, on Thursday, we went off for a meal and I made sure I was sitting beside him."
He asked him what he was doing for the weekend. Terry said he was going to Donegal. "We have been together ever since," Michael smiles.
What's the secret of your love? "I admire the guy. I'm a bit in awe of him really. Terry has his own troubles. He suffers from polio. It comes back in later life. He is tremendously brave. I admire him. I admire him and love him. He's a good guy."
Four days later, I meet Michael and Terry for tea in the Herbert Park Hotel in Ballsbridge. I ask Terry, who is in a wheelchair, what he loves about the fella sitting opposite. "His kindness, modesty, intellectual rigour, a love for a poor injured country. His quest for truth and concern for others. His roller-coaster humour keeps me on my toes even in the wheelchair. I love him," says Terry.
I can tell by the smile on Michael's face that this truly is the republic of love.
'The Republic of Love' (€12.99) is published by Liberties Press and is available through www.libertiespress.com and bookshops