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 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."