As he hangs up his headphones for the last time, newsreader and psychoanalyst Michael Murphy looks back at four decades at RTÉ.
ON the last Sunday in June, Michael Murphy delivered the news on the News At One. Few would have realised the significance of the bulletin. After 43 years, Michael had read the news on RTÉ for the very last time.
Nothing was said to mark the event, there was no fanfare. “It was as it should be,” Michael says, with trademark modesty.
The reality, of course, was so much more. That Sunday we heard for the last time on the news a voice that so many of us grew up with on radio and TV — a voice that delivered the headlines to us each day for decades with authority, honesty and gravitas. His was the voice that told us of the Dublin bombings, the IRA ceasefire, the deaths of John Lennon and Diana.
It is a natural talent, and one that cannot be taught. Though Michael learned to perfect it.
“You don’t read the news — you tell it,” he explains.
Hence Michael’s obsessional reading and rereading of radio scripts.
“For the first 6am news, when you’ve been off for a few days, I would start to read the script at 5.20am. And I would read it over and over again. You keep reading until it flows, until the rhythm is right.”
Watching Michael tell the news on the Morning Ireland webcam is like watching a conductor stand before his orchestra — while others grasp their radio scripts, his hands move through the air to the rhythm of the script. It is beautiful to observe.
“Well, people use their hands when they talk,” Michael says matter of factly.
Today, the reality is news reading may no longer be respected as the artform it truly is.
“The connection with the listener perhaps today isn’t as important,” Michael says. “One hundred people killed in bomb is delivered in the same way as the lotto.”
It’s a very different newsroom too.
“We had a Head of Speech Services and you’d get a note on a Friday to say on such and such a day you pronounced ‘x’ incorrectly. That’s not there anymore.
“The older generation was taught that way. I saw an ad for RTÉ in the 70s. I came in the batch with Pat Kenny. You were trained in those days — it was six months before they let you near a microphone.”
I interview Michael at Hayfield Manor and he is stopped at various points in the middle of our photo shoot by members of the public. They speak to him as if they know him, and he responds with great warmth. It is a common occurrence, and one Michael is quietly and modestly appreciative of.
“Isn’t it wonderful,” he says shaking his head and smiling as they walk away. I ask him why he thinks he is so loved by the Irish public.
“I always say TV is like an x-ray,” he says. “Turn down the sound and you can tell if they are truthful or not. It’s the same on radio. There is nothing to distract from the voice. If you listen, you know that guy is selling something, another is giving a political answer.”
Michael received a letter to say that his contract at RTÉ would not be renewed a couple of months ago. There were newspaper reports of ageism. Michael says he was given no reason. “The contract was very free on both sides, either of us could bring it to an end at any time. I needn’t even have turned up for work, but of course when you’re in that casual position, if they ask you to stand on your head you’ll do it,” he says.
“I think the standard line from RTÉ is that people retire at 65. And I’m coming up to 67, so they gave me an extra few years and a run down period. I am very grateful to RTÉ — for 43 years they allowed me to broadcast. Very few people get that opportunity. And for 10 of those years I was a producer/director so I got to play with the train set.”
Michael admits he would have kept news reading for at least another year or two.
“Do you know today the Mayo Clinic considers 85 old age? The whole country needs to change its thinking. If you’re self-employed you don’t retire. Hillary Clinton is three days older than me and look where she is headed. They need to adjust the retirement age upwards — if that’s what people want of course. Give them the choice. Older people have so much to contribute — they are loyal, they have experience, tradition, knowledge.”
Michael breaks off and gently laughs. “It’s a bit of a hobby horse at the moment I suppose.”
Were his days of newsreading coming to a gradual end anyway?
“I think it was and I think it’s changing. A whole raft of people left and it’s very much a new generation. The internet has changed things completely.”
As Michael puts it so eloquently himself, while the “voice will be stilled in that area”, it will still be continuing in programmes on radio and television. Every Thursday night he analyses listeners’ dreams with Chris and Ciara on 2FM and he’s back on the Today Show with Maura and Daithi at RTÉ Cork in September as their resident psychoanalyst. So he will “still be inhabiting the voice”.
What many listeners may not have realised was that Michael’s work with RTÉ was a weekend job, Friday to Sunday. Newsreading was only one small part of a work schedule that saw him work seven days a week.
Michael is a psychoanalyst, with a successful practice — Psychological Therapy Services — with his partner of almost 30 years, psychotherapist Terry O’Sullivan.
Four days a week, from 7am to 7pm, he sees clients. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays there was a 4am wake up call for RTÉ. And somehow, he also managed to write two best-selling books (the third part of the trilogy is already underway, with the working title Lemons and the Waning Moon — “it refers to the time you prune a lemon tree so that the sap won’t rise, and then you can expect a bumper crop”). When we meet in Cork it is his first weekend off in Ireland in years. He laughs as he recalls an online comment the week of his RTÉ retirement that said he never did a day’s work in his life. “If only they knew.”
His admits his relationship with RTÉ was, at times, a rocky one. In the 1980s he created the award-winning Access Community Television, where an Outside Broadcast unit moved around the country to enable young people to make their own programmes. It was, in a real sense, a forerunner for reality TV. A couple of issues though, including a change of management, saw the series come to an end.
“I knew then I had to control my own destiny,” Michael recalls. It was a gruelling time that included a “humbling” stint on the dole, though he now recognises that RTÉ did him a favour. Leaving full-time employment there resulted in him pursuing his true passion: psychoanalysis.
“He didn’t know what to do,” his partner Terry recalls. “So I asked him what his degree was in.”
At that stage Michael and Terry had been a couple for 10 years, but it had never even dawned on Michael to talk about his qualifications in psychoanalysis.
“I rang his mum and asked her to send up the scrolls. I nearly passed out when I saw his qualifications.” Michael went on to join him in his practice. They have been in business together 20 years now.
“He’s the fire fighter for crisis situations and I’m in it for the longer term dealing with underlying causes — we make a good team,” says Michael.
That period in RTÉ did him another huge favour. It was during filming on Access Community Television that he met Terry. One episode focused on the addiction process in the Rutland Centre. Terry was a founding member. (He was also involved in the creation of the St John of God Granada Institute for the clinical treatment of sexual offenders and those who suffer sexual abuse.) At the dinner to mark the end of filming, Michael made sure he had a seat beside him.
They will celebrate 30 years together next March; in 2011 they were married. Their lives are utterly entwined. Both admit to being “in awe” of one another.
“I fear what happens when one of us dies,” Terry admits. “It scares me sometimes. At points I say I’d rather go before he does, but then I don’t want to leave him having to grapple with my passing. Then I think I hope he goes before me because I’d handle it better.”
They were confronted with that mortality when Michael was diagnosed with prostate cancer. At Five in the Afternoon was Michael’s best-selling, beautiful and very brave account of his illness and the after-effects of his surgery. He wrote openly of incontinence, impotence and depression. He revealed beatings he endured at the hands of his father; and later the sexual abuse he experienced in his hometown.
“What affected me most was the outcome of the operation,” says Terry. “His anguish and distress upset me — it was awful to observe, it was invasive, painful. But the most significant event for me was reading the first draft of the book. I had no idea he was abused.”
I ask Michael if he intended to be so open in his book.
“My intention was to leave some kind of testament,” says Michael. “I thought I was going to die. I never considered the audience, that anyone would be shocked. We were told afterwards that men would go into the surgery holding the book and say ‘is it like this?’ It enabled them to talk to the doctors. It opened the door for people to talk about the ‘Big C’. It was not my intention. But it helped a lot of people.”
His appearance on the Late Late Show, where he answered questions — unflinching and without hesitation — about the after-effects of his cancer, down to buying nappies in Lidl, is still a talking point. I tell him it was incredibly brave.
“Brave? Not at all.” Michael brushes off the compliment. “It was practical.”
Thankfully surgery reversed the incontinence three years later. “It was a terrible time. I had accidents in the newsroom. People are just so good, you know.”
Today he still goes back for six-month checks. “Cancer leaves a mark. But I’m fine. I’m above ground,” he laughs.
Where Terry became the carer during Michael’s illness, today Michael is there to support Terry with his polio. With his pain increasing, Terry uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair. Yet he does not complain. “The disability I have softens people’s approach to us,” says Terry.
I ask them both what it was like to ‘come out’ in the Ireland of old.
“I came to it late, in my late 20s. Looking back, it was as plain as day but I did nothing about it. I told my parents one Sunday before dinner, which is not a good time in the Murphy household,” Michael says, laughing.
“There was consternation, but they got used to it. I kept it quiet in the early days of RTÉ, but it was a wonderfully creative environment. I went where I had most freedom.
“The book was when it really went public.”
“It was always under the radar,” agrees Terry. “I had very liberal parents and I had their support. I can’t say they understood it from their hearts, but they came from the right place. In our relationship, we never received anything undermining or nasty. There was just one incident and we called the guards. But we always received great respect.”
Today, they do everything together. From their day-to-day work at the practice, right down to Michael’s weekly drives to RTÉ Cork for the Today Show, Terry is at his side. I had the pleasure of sharing the Today show couch with Michael every Thursday. Behind the scenes each week I observed Michael and Terry brainstorm the very best advice for the viewer. Then, while Michael was on air, Terry would watch from the Green Room, chatting to the other guests. When the show wrapped, the two would set off again on the road to Dublin.
Michael doesn’t even own a mobile phone. He doesn’t want one, he explains, and anyway, Terry knows his schedule if anyone is looking for him.
I have never witnessed a more united couple.
Now, with their weekends free again, they have more time to spend together. It might even, perhaps, open up the opportunity to holiday more in Spain, a country that has become a second home to the couple.
Of course, it will take a little time to adjust to the new routine. Michael’s last bulletin was only two weeks ago, after all. “After the 11 o’clock news that morning they all came around my desk with a bottle of champagne and a card that had been signed by everyone,” says Michael, still evidently very touched by the moment.
“You know,” he says, reflecting on his 43 years in RTÉ, “it was something I really enjoyed doing. And hopefully it was something people thought I did well.”
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