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A Tribute to Chris Murray

Professor Christopher Murray, A Tribute from UCD School of English, Drama and Film

It is with great regret that the School marks the passing of a cherished colleague and deeply respected scholar and teacher, Professor Chris Murray. Professor Murray began his academic career in University College Galway, where he studied English, and began a lifelong devotion to the art of the theatre. He went on to teach as Assistant Lecturer in English in Galway from 1962 to 1965, before taking up a fellowship at Yale University in the USA to undertake a PhD. He came to UCD in 1971, and for over thirty years was renowned as an inspiring and gifted lecturer, and a brilliant and original scholar. Chris was deeply versed in European and American drama, from the Renaissance to the Contemporary, and brought this depth of knowledge to every facet of his teaching and research. He became known around the world, however, for his incisive and thorough research on Irish theatre. He was the author of Twentieth-Century Irish Drama: Mirror up to Nation (1997), Sean O’Casey, Writer at Work: A Critical Biography (2004), and The Theatre of Brian Friel (2014). He succeeded Maurice Harmon as editor of the Irish University Review in 1987, and edited the journal assiduously and astutely over the next ten years. Chris also served as President of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures from 2000 to 2003. In UCD, he led many initiatives in the development of Drama Studies as a subject of research and teaching, including co-founding and directing the Centre for Drama Studies. After his retirement from UCD in 2006, he remained a frequent attendee of University events, and continued to be a passionate supporter of his treasured subjects, English and Drama.

Professor Murray’s last essay, on ‘Beckett and the Representation of Age on Stage’, appears in the volume Negotiating Age edited by Maria Kurdi, and can be accessed for free (opens in a new window)here.

Professor Murray is sadly missed by his former colleagues and students. Professor Emilie Pine writes: “I knew Christopher Murray’s work long before I actually met the man – from his landmark book Twentieth Century Irish Drama: Mirror Up to Nation. In this work Chris wrote of how ‘in Irish drama the mirror does not give back the real; it gives back images of a perceived reality. The play as mirror up to nation, rather than to nature in Hamlet’s sense, results in a dynamic process … fluid and proleptic.’ Murray’s argument was that ‘a prescriptive approach … is unfruitful’ and so he opted instead for ‘an open, pluralist form of dramatic criticism’. The book that emerged was, as a result, a nuanced and fluid discussion of the canon of Irish drama, of how that canon shapes as well as reflects, Ireland in its different forms from imagined-nation to Republic. It was evident, even to my student-self,reading it for the first time, that this was work by someone who cared about his subject. It should not have been a surprise to me, then, when I started working at UCD and met Chris, that he was like his work – not just open minded, but open hearted. That first meeting happened at an event for the Irish University Review journal, of which Chris had been Editor in chief for a decade (1987-1997). I was nervous as I introduced myself – here was the giant of Irish theatre criticism whose work was quoted in everything I wrote! – but he dispelled that nervousness immediately. He asked about what I was writing, he quizzed me on the recent plays we’d both seen, he laughed at my not-very-good jokes. He was genial and gracious and, most of all, kind. Retirement clearly did not hold him back. Chris and Cathleen were fixtures at School of English, Drama and Film celebrations, Irish University Review launches, and the major Irish theatre events. Always ready with a warm greeting, and a candid opinion, Chris drew us all into conversation. He had an inspiring gift – that unusual and special ability to radiate both warmth and respect. I will miss him.”

Professor Anthony Roche added this tribute: “When I first came to UCD and its School of English at the close of the 1980s, it was heartening to be in the same Department as Chris Murray. I had never met him before but our shared love of drama in general and Brian Friel's plays in particular soon bound us together. I had already read many of Chris's articles on Irish drama and was struck over and over again by their quality and the strength of the research. We co-taught an undergraduate lecture course in Twentieth Century Drama (along with the late John Barrett) which actually began in the late nineteenth century with masterpieces by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov. Chris soon invited me to join the Editorial Board of the Irish University Review. I had been an avid reader of the IUR in my postgraduate years and certainly regarded it as the leading journal in Irish studies. I began to contribute to the Special Issues and in 1998, became editor for five years. Chris contributed two outstanding essays to the Special Issues on Brian Friel and Tom Kilroy. Chris was eleven years older than I am and retired from UCD in 2005. I saw less of him after that but I still ran into him at various conferences and at Abbey Theatre first nights. Chris and Kathleen were always there until about a year or so ago. It was then that I knew the health wasn't good. But as was said at the funeral he had good health up until then. UCD was a better place for his presence and his scholarship continues to be an invaluable resource in our shared field of study. Just last month, I drew on his superb biography of Sean Casey for a work in progress. But the man I will miss, his warm, witty, humane presence.”

Professor Eamonn Jordan offered this tribute: “Chris Murray was the Director of the Drama Studies Centre UCD in 1990, when I applied for an MA in Modern Drama. I would go on to have Chris supervise my PhD. He was always an encouraging, honest and invaluable guiding figure. He also supported my career by contributing to some of the edited/co-edited collections I worked on over the years, especially during the early part of my career. I admired not just Chris’s breadth of knowledge, but his ability to capture ideas, moods, theories and arguments so succinctly and with such passion. When I get to write about older Irish plays,  I always know that there is a very strong likelihood that Chris has had something significant to say about it previously. Indeed, while preparing an upcoming session on Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, early this week, a day after his passing, I was including quotations from Chris’s work in my presentation and directing students towards his research. With Chris’s work, you never had to read between the lines, he said what he wanted to say with passion, originality and conviction. Equally, he was also not afraid to differentiate himself from other scholars and to stand his ground. Chris’s work is not just groundbreaking and courageous but his output and range set a near impossible standard for those scholars who followed. And for the opportunities he afforded me, I am forever indebted.” Dr Cathy Leeney writes: “Going back to English undergraduate years in the 1970s Chris's sharply insightful lectures on Drama were a point of connection for me at  time when Drama Studies, as such, did not exist in UCD. One might reasonably have predicted that Chris was to be a key figure in the future and ongoing development of UCD Drama and Theatre Studies as a dynamic undergraduate and postgraduate subject. Chris was a brilliant and scarily demanding PhD supervisor - unnerving in his comprehensive preparation for every consultation and seeming to take as given an awesome level of scholarship.  His evident love for theatre, his wry humour and his generosity in sharing knowledge and enthusiasm made me feel privileged, inspired and hopeful in a daunting challenge. His analysis of Irish theatre went far beyond the text in its awareness of the collaborative work of staging and performance in changing cultural contexts. I will miss him very much and greatly miss the discussions over coffee I shared with Kathleen and Chris and Monica Cullinan, on life and the latest performance adventures.”

Professor Harry White of UCD School of Music recalls: “I first met Christopher Murray when Iwas a student of English in UCD between 1976 and 1979. He was my tutor in my final year and although I was much involved with writing plays for Dramsoc (my peers included Gerard Stembridge, Ronan Smith, Martin Drury, Aidan Parkinson, Linda McDonnell and Ben Barnes), I was unaware at that time of Chris’s profound interest in contemporary Irishtheatre. As far as I recall, ‘we only had Dr Murray for Shakespeare and the Elizabethans’ (in the parlance of those far-off days), although as my tutor he calmly moderated my engagement with the Lake Poets, George Eliot, Dickens and whatever else the third-year syllabus afforded. It was only when I returned to UCD in 1985 as an assistant lecturer in Music that we really got to know each other. Two years later, when he became editor of the Irish University Review (in succession to Maurice Harmon), he wrote to me to say that he was ‘reorganizing the boards of the IUR’ and invited me to join its executive board. I can honestly attest that it was this enterprise which brought me back within the folds of the English Department (as it then was) for many years afterwards, even if my primary allegiance lay elsewhere. Chris made being part of the IUR a cherished experience, and over the ten years or so that he edited it his unobtrusive but firm stewardship was a subtle pleasure to witness (and to learn from). When I think of the ‘special issues’ that were published on his watch (including volumes dedicated to Tom Murphy, Derek Mahon, Eavan Boland and Maurice Harmon), I realize afresh how generous he was in surrendering the journal on such occasions to guest editors, even if he looked after the day-to-day business himself. Part of that business was to find reviewers for books received by the IUR. He was never offhand about asking you to review something: he made you feel that you were just the person the book in question required. By the time he came to publish his magnum opus in 2004, a magisterial biography of Seán O’Casey, I had become so overtaken by musicology that we saw comparatively little of each other in the intervening years. But his generous inscription on my copy of Seán O’Casey was a characteristic reminder of his loyalty and affection, and so too was his invitation to contribute an essay on Tom Murphy to Alive in Time, a volume he published in 2010 to mark Murphy’s 75 th birthday. For such an emphatically modest not to say retiring person, his unfettered praise on such occasions was all the more remarkable. One knew, somehow, that he meant every word, however undeserving one felt. I last saw Chris at the launch of Mirror up to Theatre, the special issue of IUR published in his honour in 2015. A few years later, he wrote to me on the occasion of my own Festschrift, as gracious as ever, and strikingly sincere in his remembrances of my long-abandoned love affair with theatre. His letter reminded me of how much I owed to his formative influence. This ‘steadfast, gentle, generous man’ (an adjectival borrowing that would make Chris smile if he were to read it) was the very best of UCD forty years ago, and for long after that. Those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed his friendship and support will
deeply miss and mourn him.”

Former School Manager, Pauline Slattery wrote: “I have known Chris through the many years I worked in UCD. Chris retired in 2006.   During the years that followed Chris kept in touch and would call in to the School Office with queries about this and that.  He was so pleasant, so interested and would always ask how you are.  We would have little chats often about family.  He was so proud of his family.  His face would light up when talking aboutthem.  I would meet Chris and Kathleen at various events. Always together, a united couple. Chris was a gentle, kind person and a most welcome friendly face coming through the door.  It was always a pleasure - I associate him very much with my UCD experience, one of the UCD stalwarts/pillars and now sadly one of those pillars is gone.”

Former IUR editor, and UCD colleague, Professor Anne Fogarty added: “Chris was a generous and kind colleague who was a wonderful teacher and scholar. Generations of UCD students will remember  his lectures on theatre from Shakespeare to Brian Friel.  He was a brilliant  editor of the Irish University Review which he loyally and tirelessly promoted. Above all, I will remember Chris for his passion for theatre and many lively conversations about recent plays and productions.”

Professor Andrew Carpenter added the following: "Chris Murray and I entered UCD on the same day -- 1 October 1970; (term began in October in those days). We were the two new members of Denis Donoghue's team in the English Department that year, joining Seamus Deane, Gus Martin, Jim Mays, Jim O'Malley, Tom Kilroy, Norman White, Primrose Thornley, Brian Cosgrove and about twenty other colleagues. It was a seminal moment for the English Department, as it was known then, as the department was being divided into three sections, "Old and Middle English and the History of the English Language", headed  by Father Tom Dunning and containing between eight and ten staff, "Modern English and American Literature", headed by Denis Donoghue and containing about ten staff (including both Chris and me) and "Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama", headed by Roger McHugh who taught in that area with Maurice Harmon. At that time, Anglo-Irish Literature was not an undergraduate subject but Roger and Maurice concentrated their energies on PhD students and on the Anglo-Irish MA which was a thriving course of up to thirty students from all corners of the globe. J 208 was a lively (and sometimes noisy) centre of operations for that group.

The rest of us, including Chris, covered the undergraduate curriculum -- at both Honours and Pass levels. Teaching in Theatre L was a daunting task in those days as there were always more students than seats, so one had to pick one's way carefully down the steps over bodies to get to the podium; when one got there, one found that the microphone was not working so that one had to project one's voice upwards towards the distant doors if one was to keep the attention of the rising semi-circles of faces all around. One only got to know students if they happened to be in one of one's tutorials, weekly events that took place in the lecturers' rooms. The lectures in Modern English covered the genres of poetry, prose and drama in the first year, and covered the whole range of English Literature chronologically from 1550 to about 1800 in second year, and from 1800 to about 1920 in third year. Denis expected us all to be able to lecture on anything so, though my PhD had been on Swift, my lectures in that first year were on 19c. American literature, the short poem from Wyatt to Dryden and Milton. Chris was luckier as he was able to teach drama of all periods, including Shakespeare.

Initially, since Chris's doctorate was from Yale and mine only from the NUI, I was a little nervous that someone with such a pedigree might be standoffish or superior. I was utterly wrong; we struck up a friendship from the beginning, particularly as the two of us, the 'new boys', had not been allocated offices with the rest of the department in the Arts Block (as it was then) but had been sent to occupy two offices on the Classics corridor, K202 and K203. Chris stayed in that office K203 for all his time in UCD, and I only moved in the late 80s, so we were next to each other for twenty five years. In the early days, we had a rural view from our offices of cows grazing in green fields -- all now built over for housing estates and student residences. Given that we both taught everything in the English curriculum, in lectures and in tutorials, Chris and I shared many outstanding students in the golden years of the 70s and 80s. When I was considering going for election as Dean of Arts, the first person I consulted on the wisdom of this move was, of course, Chris; I remember him saying emphatically "Yes, go for it. I'll support you in any way I can" -- which he certainly did. I also remember seeking Chris's advice when I had to teach drama of any kind, particularly Shakespeare -- which I sometimes had to do in the Saturday morning lecture slot.  If there was a decision to enact any scenes, Chris would come in to help and take a cheerful and active part -- as Hal or even Falstaff. We all enjoyed ourselves as did the students. In the 1970s, when I was editing a series of books called Irish Writings from the Age of Swift, Chris offered to edit William Philips's play St. Stephens's Green (1700) for the series; his edition was -- and still is -- one of the best editions of an early Irish play and I know he enjoyed working on it. When Seamus Deane and I were planning the first three volumes of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, there was no question who should be invited to edit the substantial section on drama in Ireland before 1800 -- Chris Murray. He did so and his wise selection of texts, as well as his sensitive editing and meticulous annotating was widely praised. Within UCD, I once saw Chris in a performance of one of Yeats's plays, and he was pivotal in the founding of the Drama Centre.

Chris was also an excellent chairman of the board of the Irish University Review, on which I served for a number of years -- firm in his adherence to the highest standards of scholarship but pragmatic, full of ideas and fun to work with. His great work on O'Casey brought him international recognition and remains an indispensable book for anyone interested in Irish theatre.

Chris and I both retired some years ago and Lucy and I have regularly encountered Chris and Kathleen at cultural events where we have all been delighted to see each other. Chris's death is a huge blow to all who knew him and our thoughts go out to Kathleen and to the whole family. It is some comfort to know that Chris's publications will continue to keep his name alive and he will also live in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have known him during his many years in UCD."