AS you read through the opening pages of Michael Murphy’s book At Five In The Afternoon you are entirely unaware of what is coming down the tracks.
An advance copy of the book is sent by the publishers for a review. You know it is, in-part, about the author’s battle with prostate cancer. But that doesn’t come close to preparing you for what’s ahead.
Revelation. Honesty. Frankness. Nothing is side-stepped. You know this book is going to fall into the category ‘controversial’. Certainly in Castlebar. The information flows at you and hits you like a geyser.
You only know of Michael Murphy. The guy from the Mall who used to read the news on TV. Aside from that he is a stranger. But then you see him on The Late Late Show and you can’t but help to see so much bravery and humanity in him.
You meet him then in Day’s Hotel in Castlebar shortly before his book is launched at the local library and his frankness and honesty become even more apparent.
He reveals things that many people would rank as off-limits. About physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Cancer. The consequences. Impotence. Incontinence.
Taboos that some people might not even tell their nearest and dearest, Murphy decides to tell the nation. Why? Because, he says, it happens and, in relation to the cancer, if it helps to heighten awareness, his work has been worthwhile. So he talks about wearing nappies at 60 and he talks graphically about the sexual abuse he suffered growing up in Castlebar.
The reaction thus far has been extraordinary. But then it’s no ordinary story.
A CHILD of the Mall in Castlebar, Michael Murphy is keen to point out that he lived a mostly idyllic childhood. The revelations in the book of physical abuse by his father and sexual abuse by three different individuals, outside the family, would point to a far from carefree existence.
But, while he is keenly aware of that now, he certainly wasn’t at the time.
“Castlebar was a wonderful place to grow up in,” he tells The Mayo News. “Our house was out on the Mall where you could play. The tennis courts were up to my right. You had this wonderful old hospital, a warren of buildings that you could play Cowboys and Indians in. Behind us was Bresnihan’s orchard. It was heaven for a child.
“Okay, there were some things that happened to me that when you look back as an adult you say ‘they should never have happened to a child’ but, look, a child knows no different. They were normal as far as a child was concerned. It is only looking back that you think there were a few abnormal things that happened that maybe shouldn’t have happened a child but I wouldn’t consider it a traumatic childhood.”
It was the physical beating he received as a three or four-year old at the hands of his late father, Thomas, that caught the attention of many people in Castlebar. The end result was a striking show of independence by one so young. His grandmother lived next door and over half of a century later, Murphy recalls the move.
“I thought ‘I’m not safe here. I have to move. There is a house next door with beds in it. I get on well with my granny’. The parents didn’t object. That particular beating demanded a response and I was going. There was no way I was staying and that was it. I went up, took my pyjamas, went next door. It is as simple as that and as childish as that.”
IN the same frank and vivid way, Murphy describes in detail his sexual abuse.
Three separate examples are referenced and two people are named. One might assume that this was one reason why Murphy found it difficult to get the book published (thirteen Irish publishing companies turned him down before Brandon came back to him).
The description of an incident in a caravan at the County Council machinery yard is not fit for these pages. It was told in detail by Michael Murphy on The Late Late Show. After 11pm. No coincidence. While it may seem grotesque for those of a delicate disposition, Murphy makes no apologies, stressing the importance of the truth.
“It is what happened. Things have changed since the Ryan Report, which shocked everybody to their souls. I think if everybody asks themselves truthfully, we did know what was going on, we did know about Letterfrack.
“The frightening thing about this particular incident was it happened within 20 yards of my home, when I was, in theory, completely safe. The child is just out of sight of the parents for a second and something like this can happen . . . ”
IT is the nature of book reviews, particularly biographies, that the controversial elements will be distilled under the microscope of public glare and more run of the mill, day-to-day experiences will exit stage left.
From a Castlebar perspective Michael Murphy’s childhood in the town was always going to be a salient point of the book - and even more so when physical and sexual abuse are so tightly woven into that story.
But Murphy’s entire life has been a very interesting one. That’s he’s openly gay and in a 24-year long relationship with his partner Terry would one time have been a huge talking point out of that book. That it is not does tends to demonstrate a certain evolution of the Irish mindset.
He talks at length about his friendship with two other cancer survivors, Anna and Helen. It’s moving to read of him explain about his mother’s suffering of Alzheimer’s.
His profession is as a psychoanalyst while news-reading, the area where he has become renowned, he describes as a ‘passion’. But the core focus of the book is cancer.
MICHAEL’S younger brother Kieran died from cancer at the age of 42. When Michael got the call to say that a blood test had shown his PSA (prostate specific antigen) was raised - a sign of a possibility of prostate cancer - he felt the Grim Reaper was upon him.
The premature death of Kieran informed Michael’s thinking. All he wanted was to get rid of the cancer. Chemotherapy was an option but Murphy simply wanted the cancer out of him so a prostatectomy was the chosen route.
“Yeah, I thought I was going to die. Here it is repeating, like with Kieran. They got most of it but there is a bit, a thumbnail bit, of cancer still left inside there and you wonder when is it going to go active again. It requires monitoring every six months and again it is what all men should do, have the MOT test. They’ll take the blood and examine to see if the PSA is raised.”
There is a small risk with a prostatectomy of incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Michael Murphy saw it envelope him.
He describes how he has to wear nappies and how his sex life is at an end but he’s philosophical about it.
“Everybody who has a prostatectomy, it affects them for a year with either incontinence or erectile dysfunction. Normally those things come back, except for in about two per cent or three per cent of cases, a very low percentage of cases. Unfortunately I happened to be one of those.
“I am very lucky with the incontinence. In fact it was a new technique that was developed, I found it on the internet, they were able to do that. Keep a little mesh inside, under the bladder, which is like a cylinder in a hot-press. That lifts a little pressure so it keeps everything closed and it means that with a slight bit of pressure I can go to the toilet normally. Wonderful engineering, that’s what it is.
“The other stuff hasn’t come back but as I said I had forty good years!”
The thought cannot but cross your mind. Less than an hour ago you had never met Michael Murphy yet here he is talking about very personal problems. Surely he must have difficulty talking so openly about such matters?
“Yes I do. It would be ridiculous to say that I don’t. I do. But the cancer was so awful that if I can somehow make some good come out of the cancer it will be worthwhile for me, not to mention other people. It makes me feel good about it. People responding through the website saying that they suffered and that it was great that I was able to talk because I was able to go to the doctor and they were able to talk about it so some good is coming out of this.”
At Five in the Afternoon is now available in bookshops nationwide. Visit Action Cancer Prostate at www.cancer.ie/prostate or freephone 1800-380-380, which provides expert information, support and advice to those affected by prostate cancer.
Michael Murphy on...
Men becoming more open to psycho-analysis
“Compared to when I began working men have changed. They’re more involved in raising their families now. It isn’t all work, father comes home and the kids have to be quiet while he’s reading the paper. Those days are gone.
“I think, too, that once you hit 40, life sort of switches over and you become more introspective. You’ve done all the pushing, you’ve got the career, you’ve got the house, you’ve got the girl and you’ve got the few kids so then you begin to think ‘what is it all about’?”
The ‘Hamlet’ question for men
“It is the Hamlet question that men are always concerned about - ‘to be or not to be’ - what is it all about? That is the question for men. Women are more . . . their question has to do relationships. Like ‘what does he see in her’? They’re two different dialogues and they don’t meet. If you are careful enough when she crashes the car to say ‘how are you’? when inside you’re saying ‘mother of God, how much damage did she do?’ At least say ‘are you alright?’, that’s all that matters for bridging the gap and then go and kick the cat or something!”
His love for newsreading
“The newsreading is an art. It is like writing a book or painting a picture. I’ve always regarded it as that, not really as work. It is something I really enjoy and can get totally absorbed in. At the end of a newsreading session it takes you an hour or two to come down, you’ve been so excited by it.”
His brother Kieran dying, aged 42
“I think the death of a sibling is far more important than the death of a parent. There is a sort of a gap between you and your mother and father. Okay, you will be very sorry when they die, without a doubt, but for one of your own, you’re part of the gang, bang and he’s gone. Suddenly. Five brothers, one of them is taken away. He’s gone at 42 years of age.”
“Mayo people have great Republican tendencies. Staball hill from 1798, the Land League, Michael Davitt, Straide. Scratch the surface and you have that sheer republicanism. Have you noticed that on the top of Croagh Patrick the church is worn slightly at an angle. It is not dead straight. There is a tilt. That’s Mayo. What used my father say about the clergy and the Guards? ‘Be civil but strange’. We still have that.”