A Tribute to Jem Murphy

Kevin McMahon
Mullaghbane, 10 November 1995

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1997/98 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Jem Murphy (1919 - 1995)

It is an honour for me to have been asked to pay a tribute to Jem Murphy (Lord rest him), though I am very conscious of my shortcomings to be able to pay even an adequate tribute to an historian of his calibre.

However, I'll do my best.

About a month or two before he died, Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich called at our house and, while he and I sampled a wee drop of Powers, we got around to talking - as we usually did - about local history.

And I'll never forget something the Cardinal said that evening about Jem Murphy.

He said: "I regard Jem as the greatest living authority on the history of Creggan parish and I consider him to be one of Ireland's leading local historians".

No small praise, indeed, form the man considered by many to have been the greatest historian of them all!

The Cardinal was right.

Without doubt, Jem was the greatest authority on the history of Creggan parish and everyone - historians and non-historians alike - acknowledged this.

When you wanted to know something about Creggan, there was only one man to go to and that man was Jem Murphy.

Cardinal O'Fiaich always consulted him when he wanted to check out something.

Children attending Primary and Secondary schools trooped to his door for information for their school projects and it heartened Jem to see these young people taking an interest in the history of their district.

Returned emigrants came to him, year in, year out, searching for information about their roots.

Journalists, radio producers and TV producers called with him regularly looking for information.

None of these people were ever turned away.

In fact, I believe - and I'm sure Peter and Brian will be able to conform this - that he often downed tools and walked off a job, if someone had an historical problem or if there was an historical problem to be solved somewhere.

Love of local history and a willingness to share his extensive knowledge with anyone who was interested was one of the great driving-forces of his life.

Time, trouble or expense were of secondary importance.

Every single article that ever I wrote I came to Jem for help - it might be a date I wasn't sure of or the location of an incident, or whatever, and I always got the help I needed and I was always sure of the accuracy of the information received.

The Guide to Creggan Church and Graveyard could not have been written without Jem's information because only he knew that information.

And, speaking of Creggan graveyard - it was a wilderness and an eye-sore until he put his hands to it, in 1969.

Now, thanks to Jem and his willing band of helpers, it is one of the premier tourist attractions in Co. Armagh.

The discovery of the O'Neill Vault in 1971 was one of the historical highlights of Jem's life and it was fitting that he was there on that historic day because, apart from Cardinal O'Fiaich, perhaps, no one knew more about the O'Neills of the Fews than he did and certainly no one was more interested in the history of the O'Neill clan than he was.

And how fitting it is that Jem's last resting-place in Creggan graveyard is just beside the O'Neill Vault.

As well as being a great historian, Jem was also a very fine writer and his articles in the Creggan Joumals and the Silverbridge G.A.A. books are full of memorable lines.

A few of my favourites are as follows:

In his article of the restoration of Creggan graveyard, in the 1992 issue of Creggan, Jem, wrote:

"Creggan pulls the centuries together and lets you see them in the nudity of their correlation. It is local history laid bare before you. It gives food for thought and at no time of the day do whispers of the past become more vibrant than at the twilight hour - Creggan of the princes; Creggan of the poets. . . Creggan of the Gael and Gall. . ."

His description of showing the O'Neill Vault to Cardinal 0 Fiaich for the first time is particularly memorable.

He wrote:

"We moved round the south side of the church in the direction of the vault. I took a crowbar from a pile of tools, as we passed them and, between us, we moved the heavy McMahon stone from the opening. We climbed down through it. A moon-beam piercing through the opening lit up the old built-up entrance. He took a small battery-lamp from his pocket and shone it round the walls and arched roof of the enclosure. Neither of us spoke. He turned and looked at the moonlit, sealed entrance, the jambs and lintels, which were the work of some man five hundred years ago; the limestone quoins on either side, perfectly chiselled and equally perfectly set; the doorway that Art MacCooey staggered through on that October night two hundred years before. Whispers must be coming to him, I thought, as he surveyed the built-up doorway, and who better could they come to? If any man on earth could put flesh on the bones that lay around us, it would be him. He looked at it for two or three minutes and then said: 'It's amazing. This casts a new light on MacCooey's poetry and the discovery couldn't come at a better time'. . ."

And Jem's great grief at Cardinal O'Fiaich's death is almost tangible in the last few lines of his tribute to him:

"As I write on this miserable winter's evening, the country covered in snow, a curlew's call comes down the glen from the direction of Cnoc Luibe - a long, drawn-out lonesome call. West of the 'Bridge, a chilly, white mist rises from the valley and the old ford of Bear-Atha-an-Airgid, where the great Hugh O'Neill sheltered on his last journey in Ireland, is lost in a freezing fog and there is a sadness, unutterable in my thoughts. .

When I was first asked to be associated with this tribute to Jem, I wondered what I would say.

And, when he died, I wondered if I would be able to put two words together at all.

But, once I got started, I realised that if I wrote or talked for a whole year, I wouldn't have said half of what could be said about Jem.

There was only one Jem Murphy and we will never see his likes again.

But weren't we lucky to have had him and to have known him for so long. Annie, on behalf of the committee of Scoil Shliabh gCuillin, I present you and your family with this token of our great esteem for Jem and my one great regret is that it's not to Jem I'm making a presentation, as was originally planned.

Other Tribute to Jem Murphy

Articles by Jem Murphy in Creggan Journal

No. 2: Carnally House
No. 4: Memories
No. 5: The Cardinal and Creggan
No. 6: The Restoration of Creggan Graveyard