Colm Murphy, of a renowned Cork arts family, used to travel the world as bodhrán player with Dé Dannan, but these days he’s happiest fishing and observing bird life, writes.
One morning, an elderly teacher was preparing to leave her house in one of Cork’s tucked-away leafy Georgian terraces. As she stepped out the door, clutching her bag and books, a limousine pulled up to her front door.
Anjelica Huston and her husband, sculptor Robert Graham, stepped from the car, Huston holding a vast armful of flowers. They told the elderly woman her son said it would be ok to pay her a visit and to see some of the artworks in her house.
“Oh, yes,” the teacher said. “Well, you see, I’m just on my way to teach. So if you wouldn’t mind leaving the flowers in the sink, you can go in and take a look around and pull the door out after you when you’re finished?”
The teacher was more used to visits from interesting characters from the arts world than might be common; she was Maighread Murphy, wife of the renowned sculptor Seamus Murphy, daughter of another great sculptor, Joseph Higgins, and his wife, the painter Katherine Turnbull.
Herself an artist and designer, Maighread was a founder of the Cork Arts Society and the Cork Film Society, and her home had been a salon of sorts for actors, writers, painters, musicians and filmmakers.
Maighread’s son, the painter Colm Murphy, chuckles to himself as here counts the tale: “I came back from touring about a week later, and I asked her if she knew who they were, and she said, ‘Of course I did.’”
He’s sitting in the generously proportioned living room of the self-same house; Maighread passed away in 2014. It’s a room that exudes character, charm and a breath-taking sense of history. The walls are crowded with paintings and photographs, beautifully executed busts of family members by Murphy’s grandfather and father punctuate the shafts of morning sunlight slanting across shelves laden with art books.
A carved wooden bust of his grand-uncle, Pat Higgins, has an ominous crack running the length of the austere face. In the hallway, there’s a photograph of the same man with murdered independence-era Cork lord mayors Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney.
Murphy’s own paintings are here too: detailed, lovingly executed watercolours of birds, fish and waterways with a distinctively colourful signature style. Elements such as a lichen-laden branch or an intricate bird’s gem-like wing frequently escape the frame the artist has drawn for them. The bird species are particularly affectionately observed.
“It is affection, that’s the right word for it,” Murphy says. “The older I’m getting, the more time I have to observe them. You see the relationships they have with each other. Starlings are amazing. The more I read about them the more incredible I think they are. They have a voice box that allows them to sing two notes at the same time, did you know that?”
He launches into what amounts to an ode to the garrulous little birds: their mimicry and intelligence and, oh yes, did you know that Mozart had one as a pet?
Other bird species frequently feature: wind-tumbled scatterings of airborne crows on the Sheep’s Head peninsula, where Murphy lived for nearly 20 years, peregrine falcons, green-finches, woodcocks. Murphy grew up in his parents’ city home but says his love of nature was fostered by his father Seamus.
“He used to take me into the countryside a lot. I liked fishing as a young fella and he used to bring me, even though he didn’t fish himself. So essentially it was my father who introduced me to a love of nature, way back. We didn’t have a television so that was what I grew up with. He liked birds and animals and trees and I suppose that’s what you regurgitate.”
Although there’s no shortage of bird life to observe amongst the mature trees and quiet terraced gardens around Murphy’s home, he’s a keen fly fisherman and spends as much time as possible on lakes and rivers. Scenes from much-loved fishing beats can often be seen in his work.
The stillness of the sport permits a great deal of time for observing the natural world. “You don’t need to travel to Borneo to see amazing nature. It’s incredible what you see if you take the time.
“Most people are unaware of it all; we have all this going on, on the same planet that we’re busily burning to the ground for money. It’s such ignorance. As a species, we’re not really all that great, are we? Someday there’s going to be just one human left, with a big fist full of money in one hand and nothing else around them.”
There was a time when Murphy was better-known as a musician than a painter. He played bodhrán with trad phenomenon Dé Dannan from the late 1980s until the band’s split in the ‘00s. Nowadays, he’s happy to stroll down to the Corner House bar in Cork to play at the Thursday evening session and says his days of touring are behind him.
“I played with Dé Dannan for 20 years and we toured the world at a very high level. It was great fun, but that side of things is over for me now. It was top-level music, and you do miss the excitement of that. But it’s not easy. When you’re touring, the playing is blissful and the rest of it is a dose: all the travelling and the sitting around waiting.
“You do things and you move on; I’d prefer to concentrate on the painting now.”
Murphy comes from an astoundingly creative family, not only with his parents and grandparents, but also his sisters, the knitwear designer Bébhinn Marten and the author Orla Murphy. Is there a sense that these are big boots to fill?
He shrugs. “I don’t see myself in the same ballpark at all. I don’t consider myself a particularly good painter; Velasquez was a good painter, Vermeer was a good painter. Just because my dad was a good sculptor doesn’t mean I’m a good painter. But I do work at it.”
“Essentially, it’s communication. It’s a process and if they want to hang them on the wall, I’m doing something right. I’m not particularly interested in intellectualising why that is.”
Murphy extends the modesty and simplicity of this approach right all the way to the modest price-tags he puts on his work, with most paintings priced at between €1,000-€1,500.Although he doesn’t like discussing money. “People always ask me how long it takes to paint one, but what they’re really trying to calculate is how many you can sell,” he says with a rueful sigh.
“It’s all about money, isn’t it? But actually, it’s all quite simple. There’s the painting. Buy it if you want it, look at it if you like. I prefer the paintings to be of their own value rather than me having to talk about them.
“Let other people talk about it. I just do it. And that’s what I really got from my parents and grandparents.”