Brooklyn Paper Boy to Villanova Man of Letters:
Dr. James J. Murphy Reflects on Irishness Past and Present
An Interview by Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew
Jim Murphy grew up in Brooklyn (Flatbush). As a child, he had a paper route, a home full of Irish songs and ballads, and a village’s worth of aunts, uncles, and cousins, in Brooklyn and beyond. Jim’s mother, Kathleen Sloyan, emigrated from Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, at age 16. His father Patrick Murphy was from Aughkiltubred, near Cloone, Co. Leitrim.
Jim was the first of his family to attend college (Manhattan College ’62, Niagara University MA ’63, Temple University Ph.D. ’71). He has taught at Villanova since 1963 and initiated its Irish Studies program in 1979. In addition, he has enhanced the Irish-Philadelphia experience by organizing countless activities on Villanova’s campus, and a few in local watering-holes. Many of these events have been open to the public and have included poetry readings, concerts, and lectures, with guests such as Seamus Heaney, Mick Moloney and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. As he retires after over 40 years at Villanova University, Jim reflects on Irishness in this interview with Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew.
RBL: How do you think your parents’ background affected your choice of career?
JM: The world I grew up in was ethnic 1940s, 1950s, America. My immediate ethnic world was Irish. My Dad was one of thirteen. Ten of them came to the United States and most of them settled in New York. My Mom’s side was different. She was one of eight but she was the only one to immigrate to the States. Her brothers went to England, into the building trades there, she was the only one to come here.
All my Dad’s and Mom’s friends were Irish. The gatherings around the house were almost exclusively Irish. There was music and cards, the game Twenty-Five, and watching boxing matches on TV. We lived in a 4-story apartment house, with about 60 units. I’d bet that 90 percent of the people were immigrants, mainly Irish, Italian and Jewish. It was a kind of miniature United Nations.
R: Did you realize at the time about the richness of Irish literature and how far back it went?
JM: No. But occasionally at the family gatherings, when the songs would start, there might be a recitation, especially if someone had had a few pints. We weren’t an especially literary family, but we were encouraged to read. We read the classic American books. I was shaped by Treasure Island, the Hardy Boys, and things like that.
My interest in literature began with my high school teachers, Christian Brothers. I majored in English in college. It was fairly unusual for someone in my community, in my generation, to go to college. Most of my buddies went in the service immediately or became cops, firemen. I was lucky enough to get a partial scholarship that allowed me to go to Manhattan College as a “dayhop.”
Although I was an English major, I didn’t really discover Irish literature. I did read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and that amazed me, because it was so close to my experience. It could have been set in Brooklyn, in terms of its Irish Catholicism. What was different was the references to Charles Stuart Parnell, but I knew Joyce’s Catholic world because I had entered the seminary at age 13.
A lot of us entered seminary. We were probably the last generation like this. I’d say maybe eight boys, eight girls who graduated from grade school went into religious life. If you had good grades in algebra and spelling, it meant you had a vocation. I stayed for two years and then was kicked out, for being in a fight.
But I had begun to lose interest in it. I had noticed girls! Looking back, it was a terrible system to put boys and girls in religious life at age 13. My first-year seminary class had about 120 students. Amazing really, that was just in the diocese of Brooklyn. Only a handful of them probably ever got ordained, those tectonic shifts were taking place.
That whole world [of Irishness] is what I recognized in Joyce. But even though I graduated as an English major, I didn’t see myself as an Irish literature person. I went to Niagara and did my Master’s on Stephen Crane, the American novelist. Then I was hired at Villanova. I went to Temple in the evening to get my Ph.D. Temple was great that way. It welcomed part-time Ph.D. students.
Temple had a number of people interested in Irish literature, particularly Joyce. I studied with Mabel Worthington, the leading scholar on song in the works of Joyce. And song is big in the works of Joyce. I came from an Irish song background so I appreciated that. None of this had I noticed when I read Portrait. With Mabel’s guidance, and looking mainly at Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, I became hooked on Joyce. Even then. I probably didn’t have a clear sense that this was going to be part of the world of Irish literature. Joyce was really studied at that time in the world of Modern British Fiction
When I came to Villanova, there were a couple of people interested in Irish writing as distinguished from Irish writers being lost in the British anthologies. Around 1979, there was a push here to develop interdisciplinary studies. Right away it struck me that Ireland would lend itself to that, history, culture, literature from many perspectives. The Troubles generated a lot of interest in Irish history and we added political science. The University’s history was connected to Ireland, so the administration was very responsive. The Augustinian history here goes back to 1842, closely tied to post-Famine Irish immigration. Later on, in terms of athletes, Irish Olympians. Everyone in Ireland knew the name Villanova, from the sports. There were good library collections. The collection of Joseph McGarrity, the builder. A lot of Augustinians over the years bequeathed personal libraries, so there was a good foundation for an Irish Studies program. It’s grown by leaps and bounds.
RBL: How many students currently?
JM: It’s hard to say because some only take individual courses, but there are probably about ten graduating with Irish Studies and about 60 going to Ireland. Hundreds take individual courses.
RBL: Do you envision teaching, maybe a course a year, after retirement?
JM: I might, ‘cause I’m probably going to miss it. But I have a memoir that I’ve been trying to get ready for publishing.
RBL: How much of it is done?
JM: The whole thing is done. What I have to do is undo it. It’s too long, too sprawling.
RBL: Does it have a title yet?
JM: Same as the story published in Irish America in 2008 and earlier in New Hibernia Review, “Finding Home,” which carries all kinds of ambiguities with it. I have a home in Galway, but it’s not my home.
RBL: What about the direction of Irish Studies in general these days?
JM: Irish Studies has become less parochial, in a healthy way. Now we’re looking at Irish-American Studies, and that connects to the larger field of ethnic studies. Today if you do Irish history, you talk about post-Colonial issues. I think it’s a healthy thing in Irish Studies to see Ireland as a model to view other cultural and
historical experiences. Also, Irish Studies is thriving as the Irish immigrant experience becomes less and less prominent. My colleagues starting up the field were mostly first generation, like myself, or maybe second generation. Many of today’s students are fifth generation!
R: Do you think that the economic downturn is going to have a big effect on Irish studies here?
JM: I don’t think so, though it’s minimizing the academic back and forth, because there’s less funding. But the fact that there‘s an economic downturn won’t affect the way our students approach it. Some didn’t even know there was a Celtic Tiger, as such [Ireland has been prosperous for their entire lifetime, until recently — RBL]. We introduced a course on the Celtic Tiger, around the time the economy was collapsing, and the class filled up. It included discussions of reverse immigration and the new phenomenon of non-white Irish-born people.
RBL: What’s left of the Celtic Tiger anyway?
JM: Well, the effect in Leitrim is very negative. I think Leitrim now leads Ireland in the number of unfinished house constructions. Leitrim was never a wealthy country, though it’s beautiful with the lakes and the Shannon. The house construction was started with no control. If there’s one possibly prosperous occupation in post- Tiger Ireland, it’s demolition!
For a lot of what post-Tiger tourists want to find in Ireland, they actually have to go to a purpose-built theme-park. To Bunratty Village, like going to Williamsburg. When I first went to Ireland with my Dad in 1969, to Aughkiltubred, the house had electricity, but no running water, that was ’69. We had an outhouse, a pump, a rain barrel, and a chamber pot at night. But things have changed now, lightning fast.
RBL: And I guess it’s the job of Irish Studies to keep up with it! Thanks again for your time, and best of luck in your retirement. We’ll be looking for your memoir!