‘A great town to get a letter from’ Early recollections of Tom Murphy (1935- 2018) ‘HOME TOWNS’ by Fergal MacCabe

One evening in the summer of 1962, in ‘The Queen’s Elm’ on the Fulham Road, Tom and I had a long conversation about our home towns. I knew Tuam reasonably well but Tom had never been to Tullamore and was curious. Who were the big men? Who the failures? What made the town tick? In Tuam patois, who were the ‘fly shams’ and the ‘rager shams’? His interrogation covered the multiple interactions and complexity of a society whose scale created a close-knit but relatively comprehensible, socio-economic unit.
We both agreed that growing up in a provincial town was a very valuable education in that it gave insights into the kind of experiences and personalities that would later be replicated in the bigger world. How things worked in small town society could be observed and understood in a way that would not be so comprehensively available to those living in a rural community or a metropolis. For us Tuam and Tullamore were the formative catalysts.


Tom Murphy reduced, a drawing by Fergal MacCabe 400 dpi



In his great works On the Outside which he wrote with his friend the solicitor Noel O’Donoghue, Conversations on a Homecoming and A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant Tom was to provide the definitive pictures of life in small town Ireland in the 50s and 60s – that peculiar era between the end of de Valera’s agrarian and authoritarian vision and the onset of Lemass’s technological and capital driven new world. We were both children of that era and therefore acutely aware of its downsides as well as its benefits. When I had finished my overview, Tom dryly observed that Tullamore, like Tuam, ‘must be a great town- to get a letter from’. In other words, while we had both got a lot from our home towns, there was no going back.


Amateur Drama
Our early friendship was based on a shared experience of the amateur drama movement. Tom had been an enthusiastic member of the Tuam Little Theatre Guild and was well known for his portrayal of Christy Mahon in their production of The Playboy of the Western World which had reached the finals of the All Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone. I had recently been involved in ’The Runners’ the Tullamore drama group who under the direction of their talented producer Noel MacMahon and with wonderful actors such as Mick Shelley and Joe Kenny, had won first prize in the Festival in 1956 and 1957 and whose earlier production of Yeats’s verse play The Dreaming of the Bones had scooped honours also.

By the early 1960s ‘The Runners’ were still a force to be reckoned, particularly for their productions of plays by contemporary European writers such as Henri Gheon and Diego Fabbri or the Anglo Irish playwright Bridget Boland. At a time when the staple diet of amateur drama groups were the kitchen comedies of T.C. Murray or Brinsley MacNamara, such productions were unfamiliar and exciting. Significantly however, all these plays had Catholic themes which made them acceptable, particularly to the Jesuits in Tullabeg who were at that time, the arbiters of more sophisticated artistic endeavours in County Offaly and who I have always suspected, suggested their production in the first instance.

This was to be proved when the company took a more independent stand and decided to put on a production of Step in the Hollow by Donagh McDonagh. Jesuit approval was not forthcoming (for reasons which escape me when I read the play today) and resulted in a split the company which led to its eventual demise and the departure of MacMahon to Dublin.


Tom Naughton
Amateur drama gossip such as this, gave Tom and I a lot to talk about and also I was now familiar with Tuam which Tom had left two years previously. In particular we shared a good friend, the handsome and charismatic businessman Tom Naughton, a Waterford native who had moved to Tuam to manage John Egan’s, the wholesale drinks suppliers and who owned the Imperial Hotel, the social centre of Tuam located in the town square. Tom had been introduced to me by Andy O’Mahony with whom I shared digs at 45 Percy Place in Dublin.
Tom Naughton had gathered around him a stimulating and colourful group of friends including Michael O’Nuallain, the artist and brother of Myles na Gopaleen, Sean Purcell, the great Galway footballer and P.J. Grealish the local businessman and talented actor. As Andy recounts in his wide ranging autobiography, Tom who had ‘the mind of a scholar and the sensitivity of an artist’, attracted all kinds of stimulating personalities into his version of Camelot.
His obsession with John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the interaction of politics and the arts was to be reflected in Tom Murphy’s bittersweet evocation of the times Conversations on a Homecoming, written after Tom Naughton’s tragic death in a car crash early on a morning in February 1973. His massive and emotional funeral was literally the end of an era and a first experience for his friends of ‘the awful fucking finality of death’ as Tom Murphy put it at the heart-breaking wake in Tuam.

However, before the watershed of Tom Naughton’s death, Tuam had begun to seduce me and as a student I had set out on the Galway road every Friday evening to hitch there or to Tullamore, depending on the time or traffic.
Tuam, I would have to say, had the edge over post MacMahon Tullamore, at that time. Everyone seemed to be writing plays or novels, usually about the doings of the town and their friends. It was expected at social gatherings that even the shyest person would perform a party piece a song, a poem or in the case of one particularly tongue tied gentleman-stand on his head. The drinking culture was much more intense than it was in Tullamore and violence was always just below the surface. Also, the pain of emigration was more evident in Tuam than it was in Tullamore, though in the late 1950s the crowds heading for the Holyhead boat were at their highest and the loss of friends and family was the principal feature everywhere in that dismal decade.

London in the 60s

By 1962 when we first met in London, Tom was an established playwright revelling in the success in the previous year of Whistle in the Dark, which the critic Kenneth Tynan had described as ‘the most uninhibited display of brutality that the London theatre has ever witnessed’. I had gone over with the notion of exploring a career as a stage designer and had managed to get a job with Sean Kenny, the Tipperary born architect from Portroe who had taken London by storm with his radical set designs for the Lionel Bart musical Oliver. I did some work on the sets for Blitz also by Bart, which was such a musical failure that Tynan claimed the audience came out humming the scenery.
I then worked for the charming former Guardsman Nicholas Luard on the conversion of a strip joint in Greek Street in Soho. The ground floor was to be laid out as the ‘Establishment Club’ where Nicholas, abetted by Peter Cook, would host the cabaret Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore and which soon became the catalyst for and inspiration of the future British satirical movement. Offices for Sean Kenny were to be located on the upper floors. However, as Sean was a bit erratic and tended to disappear for long periods, my engagement didn’t last very long, and I sought more reliable architectural employment elsewhere.
My new day job was boring but that didn’t matter very much, as for anyone interested in theatre, London at that time was the most exciting place in the world to be. The New Wave dramatists John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter were at the height of their powers and critics such as Harold Hobson illuminated their works. Kenneth Tynan was running the National Theatre and Laurence Olivier starring in its numerous successes.
Meeting Tom in the ‘Elm’, there was quite enough to talk about, but one play which made a particularly strong impact on both of us was the legendary production directed by Peter Brook, of The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Its theme of the disruptive impact on a small town of the return of a vengeful exile was one which Tom would later explore in some of his own work, such as the novel The Seduction of Morality in which the former prostitute Vera returns home to claim her inheritance of the Imperial Hotel.

The ‘Queens Elm’ and ‘Finch’s
Haunt of artists, minor royalty, actors, sportsmen, journalists, Russian spies, Great Train Robbers and playwrights, the ’Elm’ (long closed and now a florist) was at that time the foremost arty pub in London, with ‘The Coach and Horses’ in Soho coming a close second.
Tom who had made it his local, was a golfing companion of the landlord, Sean Treacy, also a Galway man and from Glenamaddy. A former member of the Irish Air Corps, Sean not only tolerated fights in his pub, but actively encouraged them to the extent that they were causing damage to the furniture and fittings. When asked by the writer Laurie Lee why he permitted such mayhem, he replied ‘Because I love the smell of broken glass’- a phrase that became the title of his wonderful name-dropping biography which is essential reading for anyone exploring bohemian life in London of the 1960s.
Occasionally for the sake of variety, I would visit Sean’s former pub ‘Finch’s’ further along the Fulham Road, usually to meet my friend the architect and sculptor Eamonn O’Doherty and his girlfriend Miriam McFarlane and it was here that I got into the first and last fight of my life.
Responding over aggressively to a barman who had rudely snatched a glass out of Miriam’s hand at closing time, I swung an ineffective punch. Eamonn joined in but within seconds a coordinated and almost balletic counter attack by the staff, found us standing out on the Fulham Road. As all our belongings were still inside, we had to return and apologise, but the now courteous barmen, for whom this was a regular occurrence, bore no ill will and we were not barred.

Sometime in the early 80s, Tom rang me and to my surprise asked if I had ever been in a fight. I had presumed that the author of Whistle in the Dark would have been able to draw on his own personal experiences, but nevertheless proudly recounted my scrap in ‘Finch’s. I was astonished therefore at the first night of Conversations on a Homecoming, to find that Tom had transcribed our conversation almost word for word into the mouth of Michael, who, home from America, is trying to impress his friends with his involvement in a pub brawl in the States. Possibly because it was such an inconsequential affair which fails to impress Michael’s friends that my own pathetic tussle hit the spot. However, any pride that I might have had in furnishing Tom with material, was diminished by the line- ‘this buddy of mine-and he’s only a little guy-took a swing at the barman….’

Tom’s Music
At his funeral in the Mansion House, Dublin on the 18th of May, Fintan O’Toole observed that had Tom been a slightly better singer, Ireland might have lost a great playwright and during the service we were treated to renditions of his favourites such as ‘Macushla’, I’ll Walk Beside You’ and in particular, that great favourite at funerals in the west of Ireland and appropriate for the month that was in it, ‘Queen of the May’.
Tom’s sweet tenor voice could silence a room. Staple songs for after dinner sessions at which I would sometimes accompany him ineptly on the guitar, were ‘Carrickfergus’, ‘All in an April Evening’ and in particular ‘Silent Worship’ by Handel, sung as a duet with his wife Mary. As the night progressed, the hymns of Catholic boyhood would inevitably emerge- ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’, followed, if things were getting a bit out of hand, by ‘Tantum Ergo’.
After one party, a record producer who was present, was so impressed by Tom’s singing that he and I were invited together to do a demo tape the following week in his studio. We turned up and went through our repertoire. I was to hear nothing further about our efforts until almost fifty years later.
When we met for the last time in March of this year, I asked him about that trial recording we had made many years ago and whether it had ever gone anywhere. With his characteristic wry humour which lasted to the very end, he told me that he didn’t want to tell me until now but that he had had a call from the producer the following week who said ‘That went very well Tom and I’m sure we can do something with it- if only we can get rid of your man with the guitar.’

Small Town Theatre
I was extremely lucky in growing up in Tullamore in the 1950s at a time when there was a vivid cultural scene. Bunny Kennedy was organising exhibitions in the Market House which brought the most advanced painters of the time such as Louis Le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, Gerard Dillon, George Campbell and many others to our attention. An Realt and the Patrician Society presented serious debates on the topics of the day and organised archaeological exhibitions. There was a well-stocked local library and an enthusiastic county librarian. Cultural standards were high and second rate was not lightly accepted.

It was in drama however, that Tullamore excelled in that brief period and it certainly took hold of my young imagination as it had Tom’s in Tuam. Why the social structures or economic circumstances of provincial Ireland in that peculiar time were so conducive to a ready opening to the arts, particularly drama, is an interesting question. Possibly because it was the era just before television and a reliance on self-entertainment meant that more people could sing, play an instrument or act. Incomes were rising in the towns at least, and younger people were beginning to have more leisure time, so that involvement in local musical and dramatic societies was at its height. Certainly it was the era in which playwrights from provincial towns such as John B. Keane in Listowel and John Murphy in Charlestown made their mark while Brian Friel was immortalising his quintessential small town of Ballybeg.
The work of all of these writers attracted enthusiastic local audiences, because nothing can ever rival the intensity of engagement and emotion that immersion in a great theatrical performance can bring. I was aware and proud that Tom was a talented dramatist, but did not realise how great those talents were until the opening night of The Gigli Concert in the Abbey Theatre in September 1983. On that first night, when the final curtain had dropped, the audience sat totally silent in their seats for eight (I counted) seconds. They then stood to their feet as one and roared their appreciation of the advent of one of the greatest plays in the Irish theatrical repertoire. I will never forget that moment.