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Posted 17 June 2013

Text of the inroductory address delivered by Dr Eamonn Jordan on 15 June 2013, on the occasion of the presentation of the Ulysses Medal on Tom Murphy

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Deputy-President, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentleman.

Ireland has produced wonderful artists, performers, film makers, musicians, poets, writers, and, probably most successfully, a significant number of playwrights of world renown. Without doubt, and over a fifty year period, Tom Murphy has produced a body of work that matches the very best of those writing in the English language since the turn of the twentieth century.

Tom Murphy has had an extraordinary career as an award winning playwright, as a novelist, as a theatre director, but also as a screenwriter for RTE, Thames Television, and the BBC. He is a member of Aosdána, a patron of the Irish Theatre Institute and he holds honorary degrees from Trinity College, Dublin and NUI Galway.

His playwriting career started in 1959 with On the Outside, a play co-written with Noel O’Donoghue. The ground breaking A Whistle in the Dark, which premiered in 1961 at the Theatre Royal in London, is an exceptional play that has not been in any way diminished by time. In that decade, other landmark achievements followed with Famine (1968) and A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant (1969).

Set during Ireland’s Great Famine period, Murphy’s play Famine captures not only the horrors of starvation and the near collapse of hope during that era, but also the conflicts of the emerging nation of his own time, which had inherited in part a famine consciousness. A Crucial Week portrays the terrors of emigration, the lot of the disenfranchised, the consequences of subsistence living, and it makes visible the oppressions and repressions that Ireland’s society circulated at that time.

The 1970s saw a number of important pieces of work, including The Morning after Optimism (1971) and The Sanctuary Lamp (1975).  The next decade brought three extraordinary dramas, The Gigli Concert (1983), for the Abbey Theatre, which was directed by Patrick Mason, and for Druid Theatre Company, Conversations on a Homecoming (1983) and Bailegangaire (1985), both of which were directed by Garry Hynes. The Gigli Concert is notable for its extraordinary awareness of the dialectics between silence and musicality, light and shadow, despair and a magical, transformative theatricality, and Conversations for its wonderful reflections on friendship, the potentials and failures of collective aspirations, and, again, how emigration brings its own overwhelming conflicts.

Then, there is the most extraordinary of plays, Bailegangaire, which encapsulates how, through storytelling, a family comes to terms with and is mobilised by obsessions, loss and grief. By embracing and unravelling, in Tom Murphy’s term, the ‘blood knot’ of family bonds, trauma may be transformed when prompted by admission and by a redeeming laughter.

The most recent phase in Tom Murphy’s career is his on-going commitment to adaptations and new writing; these include The Drunkard (2003), The Cherry Orchard (2004), and The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant (2009) and original workssuch as The Wake (1997), The House (2000) and The Alice Trilogy (2005).

Of course, theatre is a collaborative art form. In the Abbey Theatre, after an initial early career rejection, Murphy has found a theatrical partner in tune with his vision. The Abbey Theatre has premiered many of his plays and adaptations, under the stewardships of various Artistic Directors, including Hugh Hunt, Joe Dowling, Lelia Doolan, Tomás Mac Anna, Alan Simpson, Garry Hynes, Vincent Dowling, Patrick Mason, Ben Barnes and Fiach MacConghail, to name but a few. The Abbey Theatre’s Murphy retrospective in 2001 is but one brilliant example of that relationship, and this season included a production of Bailegangaire, starring Pauline Flanagan, Derbhle Crotty and Jane Brennan, with Tom Murphy directing his own play. 

Last year’s Druid/Murphy season, toured both nationally and internationally with three plays: Famine, A Whistle in the Dark and Conversations on a Homecoming. This award winning project played to great acclaim in Galway, Dublin, London and New York and two of these three plays are currently on tour. Garry Hynes has called Tom Murphy a ‘house playwright’, and both the Abbey and Druid Theatres have been so fortunate to have a unique collaborator in Tom Murphy.  And, in both theatres, Murphy has found brilliantly collegial and creative allies, namely an array of directors, designers and actors that have collectively shaped the performances of his work.

Thanks to these theatrical partnerships, audiences have been given privileged access to plays that are dramaturgically complex, that are richly polyvocal, and that blend multiple spaces and simultaneous time frames. There is also Murphy’s often noted love of music, and the inclusion of music is evident right across his body of work.

Tom Murphy’s work inspired not only others of his own generation but also those that followed; playwrights such as Frank McGuinness, Marina Carr, Billy Roche, Enda Walsh and Conor McPherson have acknowledged their substantial indebtedness. In public interviews for print, radio and television and in interviews with graduate researchers and scholars, Tom Murphy has been exceptionally generous and forthright.  Also, three generations of scholars have been inspired to engage with his work, producing Phd theses, books, special journal issues and edited collections dedicated to Tom’s work. The richness and complexity of this body of critical commentary is testament to the regard in which Tom Murphy is held at home and abroad.

Many of the questions that social scientists, political and gender theorists, historians and philosophers have asked are evident in Murphy’s writings; the issues of morality, inequality and justice that all great art complicates are consistently raised by Murphy’s work; and it is also apparent that Murphy’s plays have dramatised many of the mental conundrums and conflictual impulses that cognitive psychology recognises and neuroscience now demonstrates. 

Tom Murphy’s great skill is to pare things right down to their essential sounds and gestures, their essential instincts and feelings, their essential conflicts and harmonies. The work is driven by a fundamental grasp of the importance of theatrical vitality and the reach of imagination, thus freeing a performative expressivity that presses towards assertions of resistance, defiance, hope and transformation. It must be said that few individual writing careers survive five decades, and fewer again can sustain a hunger and passion for their art form. Because of Tom’s remarkable creativity, because of his unusual bravery and uncanny virtuosity, and because of his immense dedication to and belief in the magic of the art of theatre, Tom Murphy’s work has not only contributed substantially to the world of  theatre, but he has addressed, articulated, and defined the consciousness of his nation. 

Praehonorabilis Pro-Praeses, totaque Universitas,

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui recipiatur insigne ulixis; idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo, totique Academiae.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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