News Mary Kenny

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Carmen rescued her mother Angela's memory by interweaving fact and fiction in her story of 'Two Sisters Singing '

Published 15/12/2013 | 02:30

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WRITER: Carmen Cullen

How does a daughter pay tribute to a dead mother -- a mother who died in tragic circumstances when the child was just four? Carmen Cullen has done so by writing a novel based on her mother and her mother's sister too, interweaving fact and fiction in a narrative set in Ireland during the time of the Second World War -- then called 'The Emergency'.

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Carmen felt that her mother Angela's story was too sensitive to recount as straight biography and in Ireland so many people are related and inter-related "you have to be careful not to cause offence".

Carmen's mother was a beautiful singer, Angela Murphy, who died as a consequence of childbirth in 1954 -- though the event would now be seen as gross medical negligence.

Angela's elder sister was the more famous Delia Murphy, a songstress who had great renown in her day and who was a contributing pioneer to the revival of Irish folk music in our time.

In Carmen's novel 'Two Sisters Singing', published this year, the two sisters, renamed Moyra and Lily, are portrayed as deadly rivals, in music as in love -- because fiction needs conflict.

In real life, that wasn't so, Carmen says. Delia was the more extrovert -- Delia Murphy, indeed, was confident and uninhibited, and though married to an Irish diplomat, boldly affirmed her right to be her colourful self at all times.

Angela was shyer, with all the musical gifts, though perhaps less of the ego and temperament that divas often require.

Angela's death is recounted in biographical accounts of Delia Murphy's life, and it is still shocking. In her marriage to Leo Cullen, Angela gave birth to five children (and one stillbirth), but after the fifth child, there was a serious post-partum bleed.

The obstetrician/ gynaecologist had left the room in the private nursing home where the birth had taken place and because Angela was not properly checked, she subsequently died from haemorrhage.

The Cullen family had reason to believe that the obstetrician in question was drunk on duty -- anyway, he is well dead now, although the family still recall his name.

Carmen, as a child of four, was not even told her mother had died. Then, when it was revealed, she was instructed never to speak to her father about her dead mother, for fear of upsetting him.

Another shock awaited Carmen when she was visiting her cousin, Delia's son Colm Kiernan, in Australia a few years ago. Colm revealed that Angela had also had a baby out of wedlock, before her marriage.

Delia had helped her younger sister when she gave birth to that first baby, out of wedlock, but then, for some unknown reason, the child just totally disappeared. A relation told Carmen that the baby died, but no record of the child's death has been found.

The infant could have been adopted under another name, as sometimes happened (the baby was born either in London or Dublin). Anyway, it remains a family mystery that has never been cleared up.

Another startling aspect of Angela's life was that the father of that first child offered to marry her -- but he also wanted a dowry of land with the marriage.

The Murphy parents refused to comply. It's like a John B. Keane play.

Carmen, an award-winning poet, writer and former teacher, interweaves some of these stories into 'Two Sisters Singing' -- which is, by the way, a flawlessly accurate recapturing of Dublin in the 1940s: Nelson's Pillar, silk stockings, Findlater's and Switzer's, Caffola's cafeteria and horses and donkeys drawing carriages on O'Connell Street.

After Carmen's mother died so tragically -- and so needlessly -- her father, Leo, married again and there was then a stepfamily, and more half-siblings, growing up together in Tipperary.

Carmen got to university -- "under the free education system" -- as she recalls gratefully and she married and had three children.

The marriage lasted 20 years, but eventually broke down. She is now in a different relationship, which has worked out well. She was pleasantly surprised when an aunt of hers, a nun, warmly welcomed her new partner into the family.

Although the Catholic church comes in for something of a bashing in her book, Carmen remembers her own father as "humane and liberal" -- as, indeed, was Delia Murphy, who surrounded herself with priests, especially in Rome, though she never let the clergy inhibit her.

Delia Murphy -- who died in 1971 -- left a substantial body of recordings, available in the public realm, but Carmen also has 14 of Angela's recordings, which are a precious archive of her mother's voice.

I remember hearing one of Angela's recordings and the sound was sweet indeed.

Carmen herself performs 'A Tribute to Delia Murphy' in venues all around the country -- she's even done the gig at the Irish Embassy in Washington -- in which she also recounts the story of Angela's life.

Her next performance will be given at the Templemore Historical Society on December 19 and there are more dates lined up for 2014, including festivals in Galway and Ballina.

Delia Murphy was a remarkable -- and fearless -- woman, who assisted the 'Vatican Pimpernel', Hugh O'Flaherty, to hide Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution while she was an Irish diplomat's wife in Rome.

She was formally reprimanded for breaching Irish neutrality by her actions, but she spiritedly told the then Department of External Affairs: "Arrah, feck neutrality. Humanity is more important."

Angela, her younger sister, might have reached greater singing success if things had turned out differently. But it's wonderful that Angela's memory has been rescued by the daughter who still cherishes her memory.

mary@mary-kenny.com

Irish Independent

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