Delia Murphy was born on February 16, 1902 in Ardroe, Claremorris. Soon the family moved to Mount Jennings in Hollymount. Her father, Jack Murphy from near Hollymount, Co Mayo, made his money during the Klondyke gold rush. While in the USA he married Anna Fanning from Roscrea, Co Tipperary and they returned to live in Ireland in 1901.
As a young girl she befriended the travellers who camped near her home. One of them, Tom Maugham, around Delia’s age, introduced her to ballad singing. In time she would also get her songs from her father, from books, from people in her home village and from the collector Dr Arthur Darley.
She was encouraged to sing at the local school and later at the Presentation Convent in Tuam and the Dominican College in Dublin, where she struck up a lifelong friendship with the singer Margaret Burke Sheridan.
At university in Galway, where she studied commerce, she met her future husband, Tom Kiernan, who was to become a leading Irish diplomat. They were married in 1924 and they had four children. They moved to London where she would sing at diplomatic gatherings and exiles’ parties and where she became a friend of John McCormack. She returned in Ireland in 1935. In 1939 she recorded The Blackbird, The Spinning Wheel and Three Lovely Lassies for HMV. In that early period she was also to record many duets with the singer Richard Hayward and they often appeared on the same bill together.
The folk singer Liam Clancy sees Delia as a pivotal figure in the Irish tradition. “I grew up in the height of what could be called The National Inferiority Complex in Ireland. Irish people were very sensitive to the pig-in-the-parlour, ‘dirty Irish’ image, and they even became ashamed of their own music and songs. But what we must remember about Delia Murphy was the context of the times when she started recording. We were coming out of desperate poverty, and it wasn’t fashionable any more to sing the ballads, or come-all-ye’s, as my mother used to call them. … But … there was Delia Murphy. And it gave us all a feeling of confidence and a feeling of value that there was something to our traditions, and that we had no need to be ashamed of it, because she wasn’t. And she became a heroine and the most popular singer in the country.”
From 1941 onwards she moved to various postings with her husband: to the Vatican, Australia, Bonn and Ottawa. But between 1951 and 1955 she lived in Ireland, and it was in that period that she became a singer and performer in her own right. Within months she was touring Ireland, giving concerts in local halls.
By 1952 she was performing in England and her songs, particularly The Spinning Wheel, and The Moonshiner, were to be heard regularly on BBC radio. Reg Hall wrote that she could always be outrageous. “A typical example of her joining in ‘the crack’ took place in 1951, when a promoter arranged for her to parade through an area of dense Irish settlement from Chalk Farm underground station to the Galway Club in Camden Town, marching arm-in-arm with the Sligo boxer Joe Quigley, behind Tommy Nolan’s Inisfail Pipe Band.”
Film offers came and she appeared in The Island Man, filmed on the Blaskets.
When the family moved to Canada she bought a house in the country near Ottawa. In 1961, with Kenny Goldstein, the folk collector, she recorded The Queen of Connemara for his record label. It was the only LP she ever made.
In late 1968 the singer and author Aidan O’Hara introduced the Clancy Brothers to her. “She had been a great inspiration,” according to Liam Clancy. “We idolised her.”
In 1969 she returned to Dublin. She died on February 11, 1971.
Delia Murphy was an extrovert, who liked and was liked by many people. “I sing for the real people of the gods,” she once said. “I think her main contribution was that she made us all feel that we could respectably sing our own songs,” Liam Clancy commented years later in a tribute. ? 2000.
. See Also: I’ll Live Till I Die: The Story of Delia Murphy, by Aidan O’Hara. Drumlin Publications.
. Songs by Delia taken up in the ballad boom: The Spinning Wheel, Three Lovely Lassies, Courtin’ in the Kitchen, My Bonnie Irish Boy, The Boston Burglar (Johnny McEvoy), The Lowlands of Holland (Dubliners), Reynard the Fox (Emmet Spiceland), The Croppy Boy (Wolf Tones), Shores of Lough Bran, The Irish Rover (Dubliners, Pogues), Castle of Dromore (Clancys)
The Queen of Connemara, Delia Murphy, 1961