Humphrey Murphy — A Life in Music

As told by Pat Murphy

Humphrey Murphy

My father, Humphrey Murphy, was born in late December 1928 in Dublin, Ireland. His mother was Lily (McCabe) Murphy and his father shared the same name as him (as did his father too, back for many generations). He grew up in his mother's boarding house on Oakley Road in Ranelagh, a town within the greater Dublin area. Though I do not know exactly how or where, he and the piano interacted at a very early age, and it became clear he had a real talent with the instrument. No doubt his parents were a defining influence; I'm told his mother could play as well as him, and his father was a "good singer who did a lot of amateur work". At the age of 7, he was able to sing a good rendition of "Follow me up to Carlow".

Despite a brief flirtation with a "regular job" in a local insurance company, it was clear that music was in his soul and he had to pursue that career. Besides, he was making ten times more money playing the piano than from his day job when he was only 19.

Humphrey Murphy

During my growing years, I remember the phone constantly ringing with people calling to try and "book" my Dad for various events, most notably weddings. Apparently it's known in the trade that weddings are one "gig" at which the musician is almost certain to be paid; as he said once, "the bride's father would be too embarrassed not to pay" at the end of the night! There have to be hundreds, maybe thousands of couples scattered across Ireland now who remember his wonderful piano playing as part of their most memorable day. I can still see the old appointment book on the ornate carved wood hall table beside the big black old-fashioned rotary phone...

Humphrey Murphy

Early on, Humphrey formed a trio under his name, and they played in well known haunts at the time — the Swiss Chalet, Lansdowne Tennis Club, and during the summers at Butlins (Mosney) in the American bar. He was a fixture there for 22 years. During this time he amassed a truly amazing repertoire of music, from classical, light opera, and ballads through rock & roll, jazz, and pop. I once heard a story that someone bet that he couldn't play everything they'd ask him. After two hours, the protagonist conceded defeat and my Dad won the bet handily. I'm not in the least surprised.

But I remember even more so a couple of things where my Father was influential. One of these was in encouraging me to get piano lessons, even going so far as to arrange for me to have the use of a good piano in a neighbour's house (said neighbour was in the process of moving). As this piano was so much better than the ancient and well-worn one that graced our house, I actually took to it, though I still quake somewhat at the prospect of going to piano lessons (Miss Q. was very strict albeit a fine teacher). But I had some nascent musical talent, Dad recognised this, and encouraged me to stick with it. I did until the good piano was no longer available (our former neighbour, Mrs. F., had finally moved into her new house). But to this day I still find myself picking out tunes on imaginary keyboards when I hear a song that I like. My "talent", however, is only a pale echo of what Dad could do.

Humphrey Murphy playing piano in Ireland

The other area where Dad encouraged me turned out to shape my whole career. We had an old set of a children's encyclopædia from the 1940's or so that must have been his, and he often took volumes down to read to me about different topics. Once we read about Astronomy, and I can still remember the awe I had when I saw an artist's conception of the earth next to the sun to illustrate their relative size. I couldn't get enough about this new subject, and despite my Mother's concern that some of the facts might scare me (especially that picture!) I consumed all I could find about Astronomy with a voracious appetite. I was 6 at the time, and apart from a lull in my pre-teen and early teen years, I never looked back. Not only that, Dad consistently encouraged me to follow my dreams of becoming a full-blown Astronomer, including urging me to go to college as a step in that direction.

Humphrey Murphy playing in Ireland

Of course that (my pursuit of Astronomy) is a different story, one which took me far and wide, very much away from family and friends to new lands, new horizons. I suspect Dad always knew I was going to go far (at least literally!) but I also remember him being fascinated whenever we would talk about my work, my erstwhile research into Galaxies and Clusters, and Astronomy in general. I only wish I'd had more time to ponder our universe with him while I had the chance.

In his later years, he had to slow down his hectic schedule of "gigs", but he never, ever stopped playing. Even near the end, when he was in a nursing home, he played several times a week to entertain the other residents; I'm told that he would often have the Alzheimer's group up and dancing around the hall more often than not. I am so proud that he kept on giving like this even when his health was not the best; he was one of the gentlest, kindest, and happiest people I've ever known.

Humphrey Murphy passed away on May 23, 2007, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin. Besides yours truly, he is survived by my mother Sheelagh, and my brother Peter.

Dad, we miss you.

— Pat Murphy, May 27th, 2007.
Revised November 18, 2007

Note: if anyone reading this has an audio recording of Humphrey's music, please contact me.

Patrick P. Murphy
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA
(formerly from Dublin, Ireland)