Legends abound about Mick Murphy, both of his feats on the bike and of his eccentricities, and his path to the 1958 Rás is as extraordinary as his winning of the event itself.
Murphy was born in 1934 into a small hill-farm, near Cahirciveen in County Kerry, that supported seven cows, an acre of potatoes, and an acre of oats.
His mentality was to be greatly shaped by the austerity and frugality of the physical, economic, and social environment of his youth.
On what he described as the ‘mean and bad’ land of the region, it was common for young children to contribute to the labour-intensive farm work and he got little schooling. At the age of 12 he was adding £3 (€3.81) per week to the farm income by drawing turf from the bogs with a donkey and creel during the ‘Emergency’ of the Second World War.
He was taught to read and write by his mother and developed, through reading, an interest in the world outside of Cahirciveen — a trait that was to be central to his eventual athletic success.
Murphy’s introduction to athleticism came through a neighbouring farmer, Joe Burke, who was interested in circus acting and performed in the various touring circuses that regularly visited the locality. Murphy became Burke’s assistant and apprentice, and one of his earliest memories, on the day before his first Holy Communion, is of a row that developed when his mother stumbled across Burke practising one of his tricks — she beheld Burke walking around his farmyard, with a ladder balanced on his chin, and the young Murphy tied to the top of it.
At the age of 12, Murphy was initiated by Burke into the circus world — a realm of professional performers who were part of a network that stretched across Europe. They introduced Murphy to sophisticated training techniques, weight training, and an awareness of diet. The circus people also gave him access to literature on training which he studied intently. He built up a gym and training-circuit at home and began a life-long interest in weight training.
One of Murphy’s first competitive interests and success was in running. He also competed in football and boxing — he received permanent hearing damage in a fight with a heavyweight.
Between 1954 and 1956, Murphy began travelling from home on a common bike for weeks on end, competing at sports and flapper meetings, sleeping in hay-barns and supplementing his winnings by performing his circus acts on the streets of towns and villages.
He liked performing as a form of expression — walking up a ladder on his hands and fire-eating were his specialities.
His training techniques continued to develop and he began a number of correspondence courses on training methods. He continued to receive training information from abroad through his circus contacts, mostly from Russia, and he developed a strong interest in diet. He became an advocate of raw food and ate uncooked cereals, eggs, vegetables, cow’s blood and meat — there are tales of him in Cahirciveen, cycling away from the butcher’s shop, eating the steak as he went. He bought mail-order herbal remedies for ailments and injuries.
Murphy was given a 100-yard handicap in a mile running-race in Sneem in 1956 and he didn’t win any prize as a result. Seeing an end to his income from running, he turned to cycling. Motivated by the relatively new Rás that he saw going through South Kerry, he made the decision to become ‘a proper cyclist’ at the end of the 1956 season.
He believed that he had the right recipe — the most advanced international training methods and dietary information available, as well as complete confidence in his own ability. The only missing ingredient was a proper road-racing bike, but he began a winter training regime on his common bike — 50 miles on week-nights, usually to Milltown and back, with up to 100 miles on Sundays, over circuits that included most of the big climbs in the Kerry mountains. He trained a lot at night, partly because he developed a peculiarity of being very secretive, but also because daylight was largely reserved for working.
Murphy’s first proper road race was the 25-mile Time Trial Championship of Kerry in ’57 on a borrowed racing bike. He took a wrong turn and came last. He bought his first road bike at a track meeting in Currow for £10 (€12.70) — a ‘Viking’ in poor condition that Johnny Switzer from Tralee used in the 1955 Rás. His first road win was the 50-mile championship of Kerry, a victory that he attributed to the fact he stayed in a hotel room rather than riding to the race that morning.
The winter of 57/58 was a difficult and decisive time for Murphy. He wanted to concentrate on cycling and win the 1958 Rás Tailteann, and continued his gruelling training schedule — he ate his Christmas dinner out of his pocket at the top of the Healy Pass, 60 miles from home.
However, the conflict between his cycling ambitions and the drudgery and toil of his work caused him to become unsettled. This, combined with his unorthodox lifestyle and single-minded attitudes, led to increasing tension at home to the point where he eventually had to leave.
In the tradition of the spailpíns, the landless peasants from the south-western seaboard who had attended the hiring-fares of Castleisland and Newcastlewest and went into ‘service’ in the rich farmlands of East Limerick and North Cork, Murphy looked towards Cork for work and shelter.
On Easter Saturday, 1958, Murphy packed his only belongings into an old grain sack, mounted his bike, traversed the Iveragh Peninsula via the passes of Ballaghisheen and Beallaghbeama, and rode into Kenmare. He carried on through Killgarvan and Barradubh, and eventually arrived in Banteer.
The Blackwater valley was indeed a new world to him, with its lush landscape, modern farming methods, unionised farm labour with work ending at 6pm, and farmers who treated workers well.
Most of all he found the place peaceful. He quickly found farm work and based his training on Nadd Mountain. Much of his riding was again done at night. He was desperate for the use of a gym, the cornerstone of his training, and set about preparing one. He selected a secluded spot in a wooded area near Mallow Racecourse. From a neighbouring farm, he took two ‘half-hundredweights’ — 56lb. (25 kilos) iron weights that were commonly used on weighing scales at the time, and he took two similar 28lb. (12.6 kilos) weights from a shop in the village. He used socks filled with sand for the smaller weights. From this base, he launched his assault on the 1958 Rás.
Early in the summer of 1958, Murphy suffered a serious loss of form that shattered his self-confidence and deeply upset him. He had left home and structured his life around his preparations and had publicised himself to a certain extent. He now had poor form at track-meetings and felt that he was being ridiculed. Racked with self-doubt, he decided that he couldn’t combine adequate training and rest with the regime of a farm labourer. He gave up his job, retreated to his woodland lair to rest and concentrated on his training.
Murphy performed his circus tricks in Cork city to pay for the enormous quantities of food that he was eating — he was especially consuming huge quantities of milk which he also put in his water-bottles, mixed at various times with raw eggs, honey, glucose, cow’s blood and a juice that he extracted from the stems of nettles.
From his woodland lair, Murphy trained, performed his acts and worked part-time with various farmers around the Banteer region in the run-up to the Rás. His form returned, and his win in the longest stage of Rás Mumhan ensured his place on the Kerry Rás team.
A detailed investigation of the 1958 Rás confirms that much of what was written in the newspapers of the time, and the folklore that subsequently developed, was indeed exaggerated.
Nevertheless, it all originated in actual fact and the scale of the embellishment is an indicator of the remarkable nature of the real events. Gene Mangan was one of the favourites but he was heavily marked on the first 100-mile (160 km) stage from Dublin to Wexford, especially by the Dublin team.
It was Kerry’s 18-year-old Dan Ahern and the unknown Murphy that got away, both in their first Rás, and Ahern won the stage. Murphy is reported to have had his first crash on this stage, about two miles outside Wexford — he clipped a bridge and his shorts were torn, but he came in second.
Monday’s second 120-mile stage (192 km), from Wexford to Kilkenny, was where Murphy’s riding prowess was nationally seen for the first time. He was reported to have simply ridden away from the bunch and ‘strolled’ into Kilkenny on his own. However, the events of the stage demonstrated not only Murphy’s strength, but also his single-mindedness and disregard for established etiquette and team strategy. Murphy powered away from the bunch after Carrick-on-Suir, leaving his team-mate, in the yellow jersey, behind.
Ben McKenna of Meath went with him, followed by Gene Mangan, also of Kerry. Two strong Kerry riders had now abandoned the yellow jersey to his fate in the bunch. Murphy arrived at the finish on his own, followed by McKenna at 58 seconds, with Mangan third. The unknown rider was now in yellow, after a performance that left the Rás astonished.
Murphy rode away from the stage finish at Kilkenny and disappeared for a while. This occurred a number of times during the Rás and led to another part of the Murphy legend — that he did 30-mile (48 km) training spins after the stages. Murphy had in fact become dependent on his weight training and diet, and he rode out into the countryside, until he found a stone wall. He then did his weight training with suitably sized stones in a field for an hour.
The third 120-mile (192 km) stage from Kilkenny to Clonakilty gave rise to one of the more remarkable events in the history of the Rás, from which the Murphy legend really began. He had wanted to lead the race going through Cork city and had the field strung out behind him on the climb at Watergrasshill. His freewheel mechanism failed on the run down into Glanmire, however, and he had to dismount when he rolled to a stop. The bunch passed and with no sign of his team car, Murphy watched the race disappear up the road and saw the end of his Rás hopes.
While he was standing in despair, with the race gone, two cows emerged from a gap up the road, followed by a farmer casually rolling the bike with his left hand on the handlebar. In the words of one report at the time, ‘instincts dictated’ — without consciously thinking he sprinted, jumped, landed cleanly on the bike and was gone even before the farmer realised what was happening. The bike was too big for him and under-geared, but he happily set out on the chase. Murphy didn’t catch the bunch on the common bike as was reported, and the length of the chase was relatively short — probably between five and 10 miles, but enough time was saved to keep him in contention.
The team car eventually came up and met with a bewildered farmer holding Murphy’s bike. They retrieved it, went up to Murphy and gave him the spare bike. He went through Cork city, again on his own and fearing that he would get lost, and chased into West Cork. He caught sight of the car cavalcade on the outskirts of Clonakilty, after 40 miles (64 km) of chasing, and closed with the bunch just at the finish. He lost no time on the stage.
The fourth 115-mile (184 km) stage from Clonakilty to Tralee was to be even more dramatic.
Murphy had been anticipating the Kerry mountains with relish — he admired the great Charly Gaul of Luxembourg who won the Tour de France the same year and he coveted the King of the Hills prize as much as the yellow jersey. He was away with a group of about 10, which included Mangan, and was in his element in his familiar mountains, in wet, squally weather, when he struck a bridge on a downhill bend near Glengariff.
He crashed heavily on his left shoulder and hip, and damaged his bike. Mangan (who had fallen back the field the previous day) gave him his bike without hesitation, a situation reminiscent of Paddy O’Callaghan giving his bike to Mangan on Moll’s Gap in 1955 — an act that was important in Mangan’s eventual victory.
Murphy lost little time and caught the bunch on the climb to Turner’s Rock on the ‘Tunnel Road’. It took some time before the effects of the adrenaline from the crash wore off and pain took over — he first realised that he was in serious trouble crossing the bridge into Kenmare. Séamus Devlin of Tyrone tried to get away on Moll’s Gap but Murphy contained the attack. The Dublin team launching further attacks before Killarney. Devlin eventually escaped. Meanwhile, Gene Mangan, who had lost five minutes waiting for the car to come up with the spare bike, was having one of his great rides. He left the bunch on the climb out of Glengariff and got across to the leaders outside Killarney, making up the five minutes that he had lost at the side of the road. Devlin went on to win but Mangan’s presence steadied the situation in the leading bunch.
Large crowds had come from all over Kerry to see the stage-end as Murphy’s ride had now become national news. They saw Mangan narrowly beaten into third place — an indication that his form was returning and of what was to come — but Murphy’s arrival, in eight place, resulted in high drama — he was torn and bleeding, cycling with one hand and in obvious pain with a suspected broken collarbone. The town was rife with excitement and speculation as to whether he could continue or not, and if he could last the 111 miles to Nenagh the following day. Mangan’s generosity was given lavish praise and he, in turn, described Murphy as ‘an Iron Man’ — a name that was to stick.
Murphy was taken to hospital and reports of his injury varied from a dislocated shoulder, to a broken shoulder, to a bruised shoulder with torn ligaments.
Murphy was reticent and did not encourage inquiry, making a judgement of his true condition difficult. He was in obvious distress at the start of the fourth stage, however, and had difficulty in putting on the yellow jersey. When pressed on the detail of Murphy’s condition at the start of that stage, one team member — Eddie Lacey — over 40 years later, illustrated Murphy’s condition simply and descriptively:
The fourth stage was a bad day for Murphy. He floated at the back of the bunch and dropped off occasionally. Gene Mangan and Dan Ahern helped him as much as they could.
They got brandy for him from the car which he drank, mixed with tea. He felt better after this. Ben McKenna attacked between Limerick and Nenagh and gained over a minute. Mangan went with him to mark him and won the sprint so easily from McKenna and Paddy Flanagan that the judges gave him five seconds. It was the first of his four consecutive stage wins. The main bunch came in a little over a minute afterwards with Murphy seventh from the front. He vomited at the finish but he had again saved the yellow jersey.
In the early years of the Rás, the race leader was given a minute’s bonus for each day he held the yellow jersey and this helped to increase his margin daily.
Murphy was recovering. On Friday’s sixth stage — 120 miles from Nenagh to Castlebar — he left the main bunch shortly before the finish to gain 10 seconds. Mangan again won with 45 yards to spare over Eamon Ryan of Kildare. The pattern of the race continued again on the second-last 100-mile stage from Castlebar to Sligo. Murphy rode away from the bunch and had a minute advantage when he crashed near Castlerea. Again, he was without support. He stood up but fell forward onto his bike. This worried him as he had been told in his boxing days never to get up if he fell forward as it was considered a sign of concussion.
He probably was concussed, because when he re-mounted, having straightening his handlebars, he rode the wrong way. The chasing riders were startled when they met the yellow jersey coming towards them and they pointed the other way to Murphy and shouted at him. Still confused, and suspecting some kind of trick, he rode on, but the next group of riders persuaded him to turn around. He got the knock later for want of food, and felt that his lead was seriously under threat. Eventually, he got food, survived, and arrived with the main bunch into Sligo.
Though he was reported to have numbness in his hands and having difficulty controlling his bike at times, Murphy took the final 140-mile stage from Sligo to Dublin by the scruff of the neck, although having a lead of three minutes and 54 seconds. He again rode away from the bunch shortly after Sligo, followed by two Meath men — Ben McKenna and Willie Heasley. Mangan came up them after another epic chase — he had left the chasing group when it was five minutes down in Mullingar, 50 miles from the finish, and caught the leading group over 35 miles (56 km). It was two Kerrymen versus two Meathmen, heading for the finish in Dublin, and both Kerrymen were convinced that they could win the stage. They exchanged words on the matter on the road. Mangan took his fourth consecutive stage and Murphy won the Rás by four minutes and 44 seconds.
Murphy went back home to Caherciveen after the Rás and again survived on whatever labouring work he could find in the region. Economic circumstances ended his cycling career. There were financial difficulties at home and he failed to get work on the drainage of the river Maine — one of a number of large schemes to provide employment as well as drainage in the ’50s and ’60s. He sold his gear, emigrated to the building sites in London in November, 1960, and never raced on a bike again.