Billy Murphy’s strolls were a constant in a changing world

Not part of the bay but part of the view of the bay was this elderly man, springy of step and healthy of complexion, forging along with his walking stick at a lively clip and no-nonsense gait, in latter years wearing an overcoat in late autumn and winter and, only in the last few years or so, companioned by a daughter or son.

The late Billy Murphy on the walkway along Courtmacsherry Bay.

He was Billy Murphy, 94 years old the last time I saw him out walking. He passed away on November 28. He had been a feature of the bay side path, not once, but twice daily, morning and afternoon, long before I came here 24 years ago.

The little dog than always ran beside him in latter years was Barney, a short-legged sheep dog, a faithful companion that predeceased him, as had the friends he knew at Timoleague National School. He first went there at age five, walking two miles along the bay, booted in winter and barefoot in summer, from his father’s farm at Abbeymahon, with its plough horses and brake of useful furze behind the house, passing the Cistercian Monastery, built in 1272, now in ruins.

It’s likely that, in the long span of life, he witnessed that ancient abbey succumb more of its parts to time. Indeed, he may have seen 13th century Timoleague Abbey itself, which he daily passed in term-time, age further as he grew. When you live to be near 100, you are already in the realm of antiquities.

After leaving school at 16, he worked on the home farm with his father, sadly left a widower with five sons to rear in the same month that Billy was born in 1923. In his book, I Remember, I Remember, Billy relates living in the home of a aunt whose nearby farmstead was known as a ‘dancing house’, so famous was it for its music.

In the first half of the last century, he recalls the harvestings, hay-makings, threshings, wakes and funerals as the social occasions of the year, dancing at the open air dancing platforms in summer, road bowling, ‘stations’, and ‘scoráiocts’ in the homes, and a storyteller in every parish, card games of winter nights, and a time when there was “no hurry, and always time to chat”.

His book, as related to Dermot Begley, his friend and amanuensis, is replete with photographs of family, neighbours, village events, his marriage, scenes of a bygone era which relate the changes in his lifetime, a unique time of change, the first gramophones, the first appearance of motor cars on West Cork roads, the rural electrification of villages and, eventually, remote farms, telephones, and modernity, Billy’s early life was lived in another Ireland.

In the years that followed, he witnessed the deluge of changes engulfing the world. He had two lives, the life at home with the traditions still around him, and a new life when in 1949, aged 26, after much persuasion, he changed from farm boy to insurance agent. For the first 10 years on a bicycle, afterwards in a car, he built a successful business along the local coast and hinterland. He retired in 1988, allowing more time for walks in the parish.

As a child, he walked a dirt road to school, with the railway line between him and the water. In latter days, he walked that road, now paved, and a concrete path where that line, closed in 1960, once ran, bringing the summer crowds from Cork pouring off the locomotive at the end of the line, Courtmac Pier. Once, it delivered 600 passengers on a single outing, swaying leisurely long the curves of the track, at little more than walking pace on the last lap from Timoleague.

Young men, suit jackets slung over their shoulders, women handing down babies (or Pedigree prams) to men, boys in short pants, girls in Heidi dresses, gala parties with tennis rackets, young men with hurleys and sliotars, footballs, and fishing rods, and, sometimes, the local ‘Whitsun Weddings’, followed by the all-night dances at Ruddock’s Splendid Dance Hall (“Dancing nightly during summer season”).

Billy would have been the repository of memories and, with his passing, there is no one now alive who saw Courtmac in 1924 when there were ass carts in the street. It’s still just one street, and I can’t see where there’d be room for another at the bottom of the wooded hill, behind the row of houses that face the bay.

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