Denis Murphy was born on November 14, 1910, at Lisheen, Gneeveguilla Co. Kerry. His father Bill had a fife and drum band which performed at local events like Knocknagree races and he played flute, fife and fiddle. Bill married Mary (Mainie) Corbett, herself a fine singer, and they had eight children, of which Denis was the second youngest.
Denis’s grandfather was a linen weaver and they became known as “the Weavers” to tell them from other Murphys in the area. Pronounced ‘waiver’ the fiddler became known as “Denis the Waiver” and it’s was said that he even got letters for Denis Weaver.
“There was music in the house morning, noon and night,” according to Denis’s sister Julie Clifford who was herself to become a popular fiddle player and All-Ireland champion. Denis, who played several instruments, became a member of the Lisheen Fife and Drum Band. With Julia he used to go to the great Kerry fiddler, Padraig O’Keeffe of Gleanntain, for lessons.
According to Kerry box player Johnny O’Leary: “He was a pure gentleman and a fine looking man. He was about six foot two and thirteen or fourteen stone, and he wouldn’t injure a child. He was known all over the world.”
Denis had a rich store of tunes which he would share with Johnny O’Leary and they played regularly together at Thady Willie O’Connor’s Hall in Gneeveguilla. They also played at the Pipers Club in Dublin. His playing style was described as relaxed. According to one account – ” he used to take the last note of a phrase and belt it into the start of the next phrase which gave it great lift and excitement.”
In 1942 he married Julia Mary Sheehan of Tureencahill near Lisheen. They lived at home for some years before going to live in America in 1949, working at various odd jobs.
Denis Murphy made 78 rpm records in the States – both solo and as part of the Ballinmore Ceili Band. He also played with the great fiddlers Paddy Killoran and James Morrison and Andy McGann and Lad O’Beirne.
Denis and his wife came back regularly to Ireland for visits and returned to settle in Lisheen in 1965.
He became a good friend of Sean O Riada, and visited him in Coolea, Co Cork. O Riada loved his music and made a film about him, The Musician, part of a series The Country Life.
Denis was a regular at the Sunday music session at Dan O’Connells pub in Knocknagree.
He died at home on April 7, 1974, after returning from a regular session in Dan Connell’s with Johnny O’Leary.
The Kerry writer Con Houlihan wrote at the time: “There is more than technical virtuosity to great art. Others were as skilled as Denis, but his genius sprang from the very rare feeling for the world that made him … He painted in marvellous colours, but in his music the intuition of a place and a people was like outcropping rock.”
Music from Sliabh Luachra, Denis Murphy, RTE, 1994
Kerry Fiddles, Padraig O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Topic 1977
The Star Above the Garter, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, 1968
Stone Mad for Music, The Sliabh Luachra Story, Donal Hickey. Marino, 1999. ISBN 1 86023 097 0.