Saturday 19 October 2019

'Evangelist for words' with a passion for life

Sean McGinley reading an excerpt from ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’ at the service Photos: Tony Gavin
Sean McGinley reading an excerpt from ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’ at the service Photos: Tony Gavin
Jane Brennan, with her sister Catherine Brennan, follows the coffin of her husband Tom Murphy into the Mansion House for his funeral service. Behind her is Tom’s first wife Mary Murphy Photos: Tony Gavin
President Michael D Higgins with his wife Sabina
Darragh Kelly and John Kavanagh
Kate O’Toole
Neil Jordan
Tom’s granddaughter Molly Murphy
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

"Tom used to say the Greeks thought there was only one question worth asking about a man when he died: was he passionate?" Tom Murphy's widow, Jane Brennan, told the attendance at his funeral service yesterday. When they applauded, she continued: "Well, that answers that.".

"He was passionate, he was occasionally difficult, but he was always forgiven because of his roguish charm," she said.

The Mansion House in Dublin city centre rather than the bleak setting of one of his more famous plays, The White House in smalltown Ireland, was the stage for the last act in Tom Murphy's restless life, a humanist funeral service.

The playwright, who died in Dublin last Tuesday at the age of 83, was remembered by a gathering of the "great and the good" of the stage world led by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina. And despite his much discussed "anti-clericalism", it opened appropriately with the old-style Catholic standard, Queen of the May.

"I will miss him, we will all miss him," President Higgins told the gathering in the historic Round Hall. "We will miss his humour, his passion, his generosity and his courage."

In his own passionate way, the President said Murphy was "an evangelist for words that wanted to get out... but while others settled for cynicism, Tom took up a pen and caught it all."

As well as his widow, Jane Brennan, the funeral was attended by the playwright's first wife, Mary Murphy and their three children Bennan, Nell and Johnny.

A large portrait of the playwright took centre stage as the service was conducted by Susie Kennedy. The commentator, Fintan O'Toole, who had flown in from New York, delivered the eulogy.

This was followed by excerpts from his plays read by Frank McCusker (The Sanctuary Lamp), Sean McGinley (Conversations on a Homecoming), Stephen Brennan (The Gigli Concert) and Maire Mullen (Bailegangaire).

Tenor Patrick Hyland and musicians Conor Linehan and Ellen Cranitch performed I'll Walk Beside You, Macushla and O Paradiso, while the playwright's friend, Catriona Crowe did a solo performance of Handel's Where E'er You Walk.

A huge cast of actors and friends were in attendance including Barry McGovern and Medb Ruane, Rosaleen Linehan, Stephen Rea, Kate O'Toole, Eamon Morrissey, Phelim Drew, writers Ann Enright, Bernard Farrell, Peter and Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, friends Willie Jackman, Tomas Hardiman, artist Robert Ballagh, singer Maria Doyle-Kennedy, the Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Patrick Hederman, psychiatrist Ivor Browne, politicians Des O'Malley, who used to have a Sunday morning drink with him in Rathgar, and Tom and Michael Kitt, whose father gave him a lift to school when he was a metal work teacher in Mountbellew, Co Galway.

Tom Murphy emigrated to London after the Abbey Theatre rejected his first full-length play, A Whistle in the Dark in 1961. While living there, he married his first wife, Mary Hippisley, whom he had met during rehearsals for the play, in 1966. He returned to Ireland in 1970 to write for the newly opened Abbey Theatre and avail of the tax exemption for writers.

Despite the rural or ''townie'' nature of much of his work, Tom Murphy lived for the rest of his life in that bastion of middle-class privilege, Rathgar, Dublin. He married his long-time partner Jane Brennan in 2012.

"If I wasn't a writer, I'd be a gardener" he told one interviewer, looking out over the well-manicured gardens of his home. On his life in general, he told Colin Murphy in an interview: "I do regret my neglect of loved ones but - I don't give a f*** what people say - I don't think I'd much choice."

The celebrant Susie Kennedy said that Tom Murphy had left "a legacy that will enrich our lives for many years to come", while Fintan O'Toole said: "We are very fortunate that Tom was not a better singer, if he was, he would have chosen that profession."

President Higgins said that if there was one word that Tom Murphy dreaded and detested, it was "respectability" and that his plays gave voice to the marginalised, the emigrants and the forgotten.

Sunday Independent

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