The Kick: a memoir, by Richard Murphy

A poetic life of kicking against the pricks

By Patricia Craig
Sunday 01 December 2013 05:39
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Richard Murphy's title refers to a kick administered by himself, aged three, to an intimidating female relative who was not amused; to the practice of kicking against the pricks; and to all the things he has got a kick out of in the course of his 70 odd years. They include friendships, sex, fatherhood, enterprises such as building a West of Ireland house out of local stone. And, of course, poetry.

Richard Murphy is a poet of verve and integrity, whose impetus comes from the rhythms of life and death along the western seaboard, whether Irish or Anglo-Irish in orientation. As far as class or political friction is concerned, he recalls his mother burning a copy of Dan Breen's My Fight for Irish Freedom on the fire: a tiny riposte, perhaps, to the Irish rebels' burning of many stately houses. But Murphy himself is able to embrace both traditions.

"Sailing to an Island" (1963), the title poem from his first collection, records a journey, abundant in myth and incident, successfully negotiated. The equally inspiriting "The Last Galway Hooker" concerns a local boat named the Ave Maria, restored by Murphy and used to earn a living by ferrying tourists to Inishbofin: "She was lucky always the Ave Maria."

The Kick fills in the gaps between the poems. Murphy, born in 1927 in a Connemara rectory, spent a part of his childhood in Ceylon, where his father was the last British mayor of Colombo. He attended a succession of boarding schools, in Ireland and England, before going to Magdalen College, Oxford, under the tutelage of CS Lewis.

As with other literary reminiscences, convergences and cross-connections supply a striking motif. From The Kick, for example, you gain a new sidelight on the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath relationship, on the antics of prodigious drinkers such as the American poet Theodore Roethke (who visited Murphy), on TS Eliot's courtesy and on Auden and his early bedtimes.

It's intriguing to consider that the house outside Dublin bought by Murphy and his wife Patricia Avis soon after their marriage in 1955 had previously belonged to Ernest Gebler and his wife Edna O'Brien and features in O'Brien's novel The Lonely Girl. (Avis herself plays a part in the Philip Larkin story, as readers of Andrew Motion's biography will know.) The house was sold by Murphy after his marriage collapsed, and he moved to the west to run his antique Galway hooker in the intervals between lecturing at American universities.

A fastidious observer, he casts a dispassionate eye on his own and others' vicissitudes and keeps his commentary steady and illuminating. If a note of melancholy seems to infuse the text from time to time, it's tempered by a measured buoyancy of outlook. For example: an image from childhood – a pet duck in the garden that had vanished, presumed eaten by a fox – surfaces years later as a piece of adult reassurance to a distraught child in Murphy's vibrant sonnet sequence "The Price of Stone" (1985).

It makes a nimble point about hope, miracles, nature and the creative process: "Listen to me! She's coming back. O look!/ Here, with seven ducklings. You could write a book."

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