Sunday 18 August 2019

The world needs more people like Joan

Piano woman: Joan Murphy was a patient piano teacher and a kind-hearted and giving friend
Piano woman: Joan Murphy was a patient piano teacher and a kind-hearted and giving friend
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Joan Murphy did not get an obituary in this paper. And most of you will never have heard of her. But for many, primarily in Cork, the recent news of Joan Murphy's death will have been greeted with great sadness, but also with a warm smile, as they remembered this extraordinary woman.

Everybody will have different stories of Joan and different versions of her. And all I can give you is sketches of the Joan I knew. But she is worth hearing about. Because in a time when we need more people like Joan, fewer of us are like Joan.

I never realised until recent years that Joan was actually not a very tall woman. Because if you had asked me when I was a kid I would have said she was huge. When we are kids we sometimes judge people's size by the size of their personalities and Joan was not only larger than life but formidable. I used to quake heading up there for my piano lessons. Mainly because I'd never practised, and Joan could see right through you. I think she realised early on she would never make a pianist out of me, the way she had with my brother Brian, but nonetheless we muddled along. And they weren't just piano lessons. These were interspersed with singing lessons, and there was a bit of elocution thrown in for good measure. And you could say it was a lifelong learning thing. Joan, unstinting in her commitment to her pupils, always had feedback about my speech on television and radio any time she saw me. I was doing great, she would say, and then she would enumerate a number of specific flaws in my diction.

The crazy songs I learnt from her back then are still somehow burnt into my subconscious mind. At the drop of a hat I can launch into The Merry Peasant. ("He rises with the sun, and when he goes to bed at night the day is done.") Or Trotting to the Fair ("Trotting to the fair, Me and Moll Maloney.") Anyway, you get the gist. There are all kinds of Moore's Melodies and Percy French and religious music mixed up in the back of my head somewhere.

We were equally enthralled and terrified by Joan back then. And somehow I would stay in her orbit and she in mine until she died. Teaching was only one aspect of her. Joan was one of those people with boundless energy and a boundless heart. At Christmas, she'd have us out at the Cork Spastic Clinic at a time when none of us had ever really come to face to face with anyone with a disability. I've had cause to reflect on those Christmas concerts a bit more in recent years. She knew we were basically afraid of these children, who were so different from us. But she never indulged that. She just conquered it with that typical Joan brio and busyness. Later on, pre-audiobooks, she had us reading books on to tape for the blind. And on and on she went. Joan barged her way through life helping everyone she saw who needed help, without ever letting them feel it was charity. She never simpered or wrung her hands or made a big deal of it. She just saw things that needed to be done and she rolled up her sleeves and did it in her own formidable way. I never heard her talk about community or charity or any of those things. It was just second nature to her. And all the while she retained a great gift for delighting and entertaining. In latter years at Christmas she would call in and lead a sing song at the piano in Mum's house for O'Connor grandchildren, and she retained a beautiful singing voice.

I hope Joan's family or her other friends won't take exception to this piece and point to all the things I don't know about Joan. And I'm deliberately not putting in any of the more personal or the extraordinary things she did. But I think it is no harm to remind us all at this time of year about people like Joan, as we all become more and more about the self rather than the collective.

When I saw her last in Marymount Care Centre we had a great visit, all things considered. "There's my fellah," she said, clocking immediately who I was. And we even had a bit of banter.

Joan will live on among all the many friends she had through all the parts of her life, through all the people who were touched by her boundless heart and her boundless energy.

And in our house she lives on in two much-loved knitted blankets that are known simply as Joanmurphys. And like Joan, they comfort the afflicted without ever looking for anything back.

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