Delia Murphy

Delia Murphy during her final major concert in Quebec, 1969. Photo courtesy of Aidan O'Hara.

Delia Murphy during her final major concert in Quebec, 1969. Photo courtesy of Aidan O'Hara.

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

Ronan Browne’s Delia Murphy website

6 Responses for “Delia Murphy”

  1. I remember working long side Delia Murphy’s daughter Dr kiernan at Our lady’s Hosp Crumlin Dublin , I just love the songs by Delia Murphy

  2. very sentimental meaning for my mother and grandmother – irish- long gone now.

  3. pandapolly says:

    He it goes . . .

    Dan O’Hara

    In the year of sixty four I had acres by the score
    And the grandest land you ever ran a plough through
    But the landlord came you know and he laid our old home low
    So it’s here I am today your broken-hearted.

    Then a chushla geal mo chroidhe won’t you take a box from me,
    And you’ll have the prayers of Dan from Connemara;
    I sell them cheap you know, buy a box before you go,
    From the poor old ruined farmer Dan O’Hara.

    For twenty years or more did misfortune cross our door
    And my poor old wife and I were parted
    We were scattered far and wide and our children starved and died
    So it’s here I am today your broken-hearted

    Tho’ in frost and snow I stand sure the shadow of God’s hand
    It lies warm about the brow of Dan O’Hara
    And soon with God above I will meet the ones I love
    And I’ll find the joys I lost in Connemara

    Alternate chorus:
    Sure it’s poor I am today for God gave and took away
    And he left without a home poor Dan O’Hara
    With these matches in my hand in the frost and snow I stand
    So it’s here I am today your broken hearted.

  4. Frances cuningham says:

    Do you have the words of the song with the lines” A cuhsla geal mo croi will you buy a box from me and you’ll have the prayers of Dan from Connameara I will sell them cheap and low buy a box before you go from a poor old broken farmer Dan O’Hara I loved to hear Delia sing it.

  5. Pat Barkworth says:

    Delia’s spinning wheel was my mother’s favourite song. She is long gone but this song brings such lovely memories. No one sings it like Delia

  6. Garvan Browne says:

    Hi! Thanks for the very nice article on my Grandmother, Delia Murphy. There are a few small errors, which were originally made in Aidan O’ Hara’s book, that my mother Orla (Delia’s daughter) is anxious to correct. Delia’s father was always known as John, and not Jack. He made his money in the Gold Rush, in Denver, not the Klondike. Otherwise things look right, and it is great that people are still interested in my grandmothers legacy after all these years!


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