Cork Film Festival: Seamus Murphy has a reputation set in stone

Cork sculptor Séamus Murphy is the subject of a new film, writes Colette Sheridan.

CORK-BORN sculptor Séamus Murphy, the subject of a new documentary to be screened at the Cork Film Festival, had a favourite story about a child that frequented his studio in Blackpool, observing the master carving a bust out of a block of stone. When the sculpture was complete, the child asked how Murphy knew the head was in there all the time.

“Seamus loved the child seeing the profundity of the work,” says Padraig Trehy, the director of the documentary, Seamus Murphy: A Quiet Revolution. The ‘revolution’ in the title of the film refers to Murphy trying to find an Irish visual language. “He was trying to get away from the classical tradition, wanting to give people something closer to them. Using stone, he was creating a link back to the distant past and at the same time, looking forward by creating monuments and carvings that would long outlive him.”

Trehy, whose first ever short documentary in 2001 focused on Murphy’s headstones, cites the Church of the Annunciation in Blackpool as an example of the realisation of the sculptor’s artistic ambitions. Murphy designed the church, commissioned by William Dwyer of the nearby Sunbeam Wolsey factory, and erected his own statues there.

“They’re quite unlike the kind of statues you see in any church in Ireland,” says Trehy. “They’re trying to get away from those plaster-cast mass-produced painted statues that you see in many churches. While he used some gold work for painting the lettering, the statues are for the most part, polished limestone.”

Trehy has long been fascinated with Murphy and was keen to make a documentary about the sculptor and his relationship with Cork city and its community. He got the backing of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, CIT and Framework Films in Cork.

Murphy (1907-1975) was born near Mallow. Encouraged by the writer Daniel Corkery, who was his teacher, Murphy, at the age of 14, took classes at the Crawford School of Art. From 1922 to 1930, he worked as an apprentice stone carver at O’Connell’s Stone Yard in Blackpool.

There were about 30 workers in the yard, including stone cutters (who were a closed family trade) and stone carvers. Murphy’s entertaining book, Stone Mad, gives an account of some of the characters in the yard, complete with nicknames such as ‘The Gargoyle’. Described by William Trevor as “a delightful and classically simple book”, Stone Mad documents the demise of Murphy’s craft, over taken by concrete.

SCHOLARSHIP TO PARIS

In 1931, a scholarship enabled Murphy to go to London and then Paris where he was a student at the Académie Colarossi and studied with the Irish-American sculptor Andrew O’Connor. After returning to Cork, Murphy worked in O’Connell’s stone yard and in 1934, opened his own studio nearby in Blackpool.

Among his first commissions were the Clonmult memorial in Midleton and a carved figure of St Gobnait in Ballyvourney graveyard. Other commissions include Saint Brigid and the Twelve Apostles, San Francisco, bronze busts of five presidents at Áras and Uachtaráin and John F Kennedy at the US embassy.

What initially drew Trehy to Murphy is his statue of Michael Collins in Cork’s Fitzgerald’s Park. “What really attracted me to Séamus was the fact that he was a renowned and respected artist who lived his life in Cork, stubbornly staying here and surviving here.”

But, despite his prolific output, Murphy struggled financially, supplementing his own work with headstones.

His wife, Maighread Higgins (daughter of the sculptor, Joseph Higgins), who died earlier this year, taught art at Scoil Mhuire. The couple had three children: knitwear designer Bebhinn Marten, writer Orla Murphy and painter and De Danann musician, Colm Murphy.

Colm says that growing up in the family home on Wellesley Terrace, Wellington road, where he still lives, “was hand to mouth at times”. He feels his father suffered when Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, displeased by the bust of him made by Murphy, instructed the Bishop of Cork, Cornelius Lucey, not to employ him. But Colm says that his father wasn’t anti-clerical.

“He did go to Mass and didn’t tend to be critical of people or of the Church. I found a letter from him to Connie Lucey. It was in relation to when the new church in Mayfield was being built. My father was really asking for employment. The letter back from the bishop is quite eye-opening. Considering the financial situation of my father, he was very even-tempered about the whole thing.”

CULTURAL LIFE IN CORK

Colm says that his father, who was elected as a member of the RHA (Royal Hibernian Academy), was like a friend to him. “We used to spend a lot of time together. He put me in the way of going fishing even though he didn’t fish himself. He gave me an interest in wildlife and the outdoors which is the subject matter that I now paint. He was great company, very gregarious, with lots of friends in different walks of life.”

The Murphy household became a great cultural and social meeting place. “There used to be lots of parties at home. A lot of well known people came through the house. I remember Edna O’Brien having a fainting fit in the house and Micheál MacLiammóir once slid down the banisters.”

Deeply involved in the cultural life of Cork city, Trehy says that Murphy saw himself as an artist in the community. “He was like Cork’s artist-in-residence for 40 years. The community in Blackpool has a great grá for Séamus.”

While Murphy’s work was recognised by official Ireland (he became a member of the Arts Council towards the end of his life and received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland), Trehy feels that he was dismissed by some for being old fashioned and possibly stuck in the realm of craft.

But Murphy succeeded in his project to sidestep the artist being looked on as suspicious. “He was open about his work; he welcomed people into his studio to see it. One half of the day, he’d be cutting a headstone and for the rest of the day, he could be working on a bust.”

A meticulous craftsman and an artist of note, Seamus Murphy carved out a distinctive niche in an era that could be hostile to artists.

  • Seamus Murphy: A Quiet Revolution will be screened at 11.30am at the Gate Theatre on Sunday as part of the Cork Film Festival. www.corkfilmfest.org

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