IN KITCHENS across Ireland there is usually something that occupies the focal point of the room, the centrepiece of the home or the heart if you like.
For some it might be a television, for others a radio, years ago it might have been a holy picture towering above the table or for more it might be a special picture, a treasured memory.
But in the Murphy house at the beginning of the Straight Mile between Carnew and Shillelagh the heart of the kitchen is the dartboard.
A strip of tape, long worn to a few measly crumbs is stuck to the lino exactly 115.25 inches diagonally from the board and it is on this homemade oche that Martin Murphy positions his toe over and over and over again, night after night as he fires his 25gr Les Wallace darts across the kitchen table.
Martin 'The Big Lad' Murphy is one of the finest darts players on the island of Ireland at this moment in time. Presently he sits in second in the Ladbrokes Irish Darts Championship, a competition that features up to 80 of the top players in the country. He's just returned from Wigan in England where he missed out of qualifying from the PDC Q School due to what he calls "wiring doubles".
"I played Kevin Dowling and Ray Palfreyman. With Dowling we were 3-3 but I was wiring doubles, missing by millimetres," begins Martin. "I left double 18, he finished 156. I left double 16 he finished 95 and I left double top and he finished 86," he added.
It's blatantly obvious that the game of darts consumes this man. He speaks it, thinks it, knows it inside out. The family sitting room is overflowing with cups, trophies, pictures of him standing beside the household names of darts the majority of whom he played and beat at exhibitions. Think Adrian Lewis who he defeated 2-1 in an exhibition in Carlow. Think Vincent Van Der Voort who he beat 2-0 in Dublin. Think Terry Jenkins who beat the Carnew man 2-1 in Carnew. Think Phil 'The Power' Taylor, although some years ago now, who he took on in an exhibition and against whom he fared very competently.
"I got down to a finish," remembers Martin. "It was a game of 701, he got four 140s and I was on 139 so I was happy enough," he added.
For two hours most nights Martin will be found with his toe to the eroded strip of tape on the kitchen floor pegging darts across the table. When not here he'll be in either Carlow, Wexford or Carnew playing in county leagues and if you've no luck in either of these places then you're in serious trouble because he could be anywhere in the world competing, striving, honing, desperately seeking the high of the 180, the devilishly addictive double top finish or the legendary nine-darter.
"I threw one nine-darter in my life," he says. "It was in Carnew and I dropped to my knees with happiness. Then I followed that up with another 180 and then I couldn't hit the dartboard. Ninedarters can do that to you. I've seen nine-darters lose games for players. It can ruin your game on the night," he added.
His darts career had humble beginnings although as the saying goes he didn't pick it up off the road. His father Christy was a dab hand at the game as well and he fondly remembers helping a team win a handsome pot in Gorey one night many years ago.
But like all youngsters in Carnew Martin's first loves were hurling and football and it was on the way home from training in the field in Carnew that he first formed a longing for the darts.
"Myself and Stephen Hayden used to play hurling and football together and we'd go into the Corner House on the way home for a mineral and we used to watch the lads playing in there. So one day we put our money together, five pounds each and we bought a set of darts off a lad called Wayne Kilbride. We had one set of darts between us and we used to throw in the Corner House two or three nights a week. It was always the two of us and Stephen was very good but I kept at it.
"Then there was a fellow called Gay Byrne at a tournament in Ardattin. I played a set against him and he asked me would I be interested in playing for the county team in Carlow. I said why not, it was something different. From there my game just kept improving but it was him who started me off," he recalls.
Kept improving is one way to put it. At the moment Martin plays in Carlow, Wicklow and is a member of the Wexford County team. In Carlow he throws under the flag of the Dereen Inn in Tullow alongside Ian Austin, Brian Leonard and Billy Molloy.
In Wicklow he plays for his beloved Corner House and with the Wexford county team he's contested All-Ireland finals where the men of Donegal have denied him success on two occasions. And for the past 10 or 11 years he's been competing in singles tournaments as his confidence has grown and grown with a high point for himself coming in 2003 when he featured on Sky Sports in a tournament against Mark Walsh.
"I missed double top to take the first set and then he took over," he remembers and he also recalls the atmosphere, the cauldron of sound, the tension, the electric energy in almost all the tournaments he plays in.
"I love it, I love the atmosphere. I played a tournament in Davidstown and I won and there was only room for the dartboard and the two players, everywhere else there was the crowd. The feeling was unbelievable. The best match that I ever lost was to Jacko Barry from Dublin. He beat me 5-4 and it was a real ding-dong battle. It was in the Players Championship in Mount Wolseley in Tullow. The best match I won was against Philip Grace in Enfield. I was down 4-2 and I checked out on 120 to break his throw and I won 54. I won that tournament out too," he added.
But Martin wants more. He has a dream of playing the game professionally, of carving out a living on the circuit, of getting to a high enough standard to get invitations to the big tournaments on the television. He believes he can do it but first he needs to get sponsorship.
"You need a sponsor to get to that level and I have to be at a certain level to get the invitations to the tournaments but I could make a living from darts. This year I'm throwing the best darts ever so if I don't do it now I'll never do it. But getting sponsorship is the key so going to these tournaments won't cost you a fortune," he says.
Currently, when not throwing darts, Martin works as a team leader in Kerry Foods (incidentally he could almost throw a dart to the factory from his front door) and before that he worked as a plasterer. In his earlier days he was a talented hurler and footballer and is the brother of Joe Murphy, long-time Carnew Emmets soldier and Wicklow Senior hurling stalwart.
But always since that first set that cost him and Stephen Hayden the then mighty sum of 10 pounds there has been the darts.
"I try to practice for an hour or two every night no matter how busy I am. I'm throwing 17 years now and I've never lost interest and darts is getting bigger and bigger.
"The best atmosphere at any sporting event I ever witnessed was at the O2 in Dublin last year. The hairs just stood up on the back of my neck when 9,000 people were screaming their heads off. It was mad and the good thing about the darts is that there are very few troublemakers. There is no real trouble at darts, ever," he says.
To anyone pegging darts in their room and who, like a growing number of people, are becoming interested in the sport and who watched, as Martin did, the PDC World Championship on the television recently he has some simple advice. "If they think they have it in the arm then they have to go for it," he says. "Get on a team somewhere, get someone to show them the right guidelines for training. There is really only one way to find out but don't be knocked back. As I say I'm throwing 17 years," he added.
The best darts match he's ever watched was this year's Adrian Lewis v Michael Van Gerwen in the World Championship. The best player he's ever witnessed is, unsurprisingly, Phil Taylor. The best, and according to Martin, the only darts commentator was the great Sid Waddell. Up ahead for Martin are the UK Open Qualifiers in Crawley in February followed by the Belfast Open in April and then the World Championships in August. In between them will be the bread and butter stuff, the nights spent throwing darts with his friends all over the country. Does he ever get lonely on the road to these tournaments? Absolutely not he replies before adding that there are some wonderful people involved in the game of darts at the moment.
A visit to Martin Murphy's house wouldn't be complete without some sort of dart throwing and he sets about scoring a 180 before I leave. Interestingly in one tournament in Kilkenny recently he racked up a staggering 42 180s. Consequently he won the tournament.
And if ever a man looked more at home or more comfortable anywhere in the entire world then it's Martin 'The Big Lad' Murphy when he's standing in front of a dartboard in his kitchen and across his face comes that searching look. He's seeking, finding the path for his 25gr Les Wallaces to the seductive triple 20 slot. Occasionally he'll dive for a triple 19 when the route is blocked and at one stage he was millimetres away from three bulls (a feat he's achieved only once) but an artist will find a way. And after a few minutes and over the noise of a conversation he finds what he was looking for, a 180.
And he turns, offers a satisfied smile, and goes to retrieve his darts so he can start the search all over again.
He'll never stop, he knows that himself and someday soon when he's not wiring doubles and when someone like his present sponsor, Robbie Kelly Commerical Cleaning comes on board to back his super talent, who's to say that the darts commentators won't be yelling "ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY for "Martin ' The Big Lad' Murphy" as the Carnew man takes his place on the game's biggest stage.