The first time I met Mick Murphy was during Easter of 2009. Earlier that week, I had stumbled across an article online somewhere that described his tales of barbaric training, heroic escapades on the bike, achievements in more sports that you can mention, and a carelessness that you might otherwise attribute to a person semi-removed from reality. I knew straight away that I was going to find him. I picked up from the article that Mick lived somewhere outside of Caherciveen, way down in the Kingdom, so on Easter Monday, I took off with the bike on the back of the car. Driving down there, I felt as if I was on some kind of a pilgrimage. Im not a holy person, but I’ve heard that there is invariably a bit of hardship involved in most pilgrimages (climbing up Cnoc Phádraig in the bare feet and whatnot), so I thought I’d better honor the pilgrims tradition, and parked around 20 miles from Caherciveen and endeavored to take off on my bike in search of the Iron Man from there.
I reached Caherciveen, and went to the one place I thought I would find directions. That shop that every village has that sells everything from penny sweets, to cleaning products, and birthday cards, and plays host to the elderly owner who has been running the same shop for the last few decades. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I left the shop armed with a piece of tissue paper with a map drawn on it to Mick’s house. A mile up the road they said. If anybody has made the journey to visit Mick Murphy, you will know that it’s more than a mile, and up a fairly steep incline. Anyway, I eventually got to the house, and recognized it only from the photo that was attached with the article I found online. I had paid my share of pilgrimage hardship by the time I got there. Anyway, I lifted my bike over the wire fence and I gave a knock on the corrugated iron ‘door’ at the front of the house. Suddenly the noise of the radio disappeared, and there was silence. At that moment in time, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be welcomed or chased out of it! A minute or two passed before Mick answered the door, and announced that I had brought the nice weather with me, and to bring my bike into the house because he wanted to inspect it. That’s how I first met the Iron Man, and I have been back on many occasions since then, sometimes bringing visitors, and more often on my own. Every time I went there, I brought him a block of cheese, some canned fish, and a tub of peanut butter. Known mostly for his cycling exploits, Mick had many talents, none less than telling the stories of years gone by, and a life well lived. Here are a few of his favorites.
Mick won Rás Tailteann in 1958, by all accounts on the back gutsy attacks, a disregard for pain, escaping from hospital through the window, stealing a farmers bicycle, and an unwavering determination to ‘defend the yellow mantle’. He told me once that he wore the same jersey for all his training sessions, and come race day, he tore a part of the jersey off and carried the rag with him in all his races. When things would get serious, or he would start to question his metal, he would take the rag from his pocket and the smell of blood, sweat, and dirt would remind him of the long training hours and the suffering that brought him to the RÁS. Mick worked in the Quarry in Kells by day breaking rocks, and cycled home in the early hours of the morning along the majestic coastline of West Kerry. One night, around 2am, a big white dog lunged out from a ditch at Mick, and to his surprise passed straight through the front wheel of his bicycle. The last time I visited Mick was in July 2015, and to that day he was adamant the dog was a ghost, and that the same dog helped him along on one of the darkest days of his RÁS Tailtean campaign.
The versatility of the man was obvious as we often chatted about his circus days. Balancing a ladder on his chin and having a woman walk up the ladder, hand balancing, tight rope walking, and juggling were his specialties. The last time I met him he also spoke about learning how to Cossack ride a horse, upside down hanging from the horses neck with his feet wrapped around the body. His circus days started when he was just a boy in Caherciveen, learning tricks from a neighbor, and eventually travelling with the Circus people, and learning the art of strength training from them. It was after this that he cast his own weights plates and put them on the end of an iron bar, and built a makeshift squat rack in his house. The first time I visited him, I squatted the homemade bar, and I think I earned my Mick Murphy stripes that day! Mick was also known for performing his circus tricks on the Coal Quay in Cork, while children would go around and collect the money for him. He would give them their share, and use the rest for his day-to-day expenses. He also got to know the Cork Shawlies during this time, and got great encouragement from them as he came through Cork during the RÁS. So much so, that he said he could hear the Shawlies shouts of encouragement from Cork all the way to Bandon.
He played a bit of football, and won mile races at the local ‘Day of The Sports’ events that were once held around the country. He also took part in dirt track bike racing around fields, and is known to have been given a handicap during some of these races to allow for a fair competition from the field. He went out of his way to drink little glasses of cows blood, and once commandeered a goat for milk while he was training. He is also on record for eating raw beef coming out from the butcher shop in Caherciveen, and cracking eggs on the handlebars of his bicycle and eating them raw.
Mick worked in England as a bricklayer, and then ended up working in Germany for around 17 years before coming back to the house that he grew up in Caherciveen. Mick was always full of praise for the brickies from the north of Ireland whom he worked with. They worked hard and could lay a lot of bricks according to the man himself. While he was in England, he won the London Olympic Weightlifting Championships, competed successfully in wrestling, and had a stint as a pro boxer. His cauliflower ears were a testament to the tough battles that he came through. He also let it slip one day that he lost a lot of money in a game of darts before he left England behind him for a better wage and a new chapter in Germany. Over there, he worked hard, and played hard. One day as I visited, he emptied his German vocabulary out for me, and told about the fun of the beer halls and German women. I asked him whether he was ever married, and he responded with a smile; “I was never married, but I had a lot of girlfriends!”
At a glance you might think that Mick was a lonely character, living out the rest of his life as a recluse in a run down house that’s little more than a shed but this was not the case. Mick was very much in touch with what was going on around him, and kept himself especially abreast of the sporting world. He always knew what competition was being played out from boxing, GAA, and athletics, and knew of athletes up and down the country past and present. The radio was always on and he was never short of an opinion on the latest scandals to hit sports, or the national news. He was a learner his whole life. From picking up circus tricks from the locals as a boy, learning weight training from the Circus people (the Russians in particular), subscribing to the Charles Atlis bodybuilding course at a very young age, getting hold of Al Murray’s Strength Training for Sports book, and picking up the best training methods from his boxing and weightlifting coaches in London. He was ahead of his time. I can tell you with certainty that Mick would outclass most modern day University graduates when it comes to his knowledge of strength and conditioning practices, the history of physical training, and the know how of building a successful sporting career. Many’s a conversation we had about the history of Olympic Weightlifting, and its evolution from split cleans to the squat clean. In what seemed to be a chaotic living area, Mick could reach around and pick out a book that he has just mentioned, a newspaper clipping, or some old photos of his sporting career. He was living a happy life in the house on the side of the hill, and he told me before that he was delighted that he was back there, in the home that he grew up in after many hard years of laboring abroad.
Although he is known for his participation in many sports, hurling was his favorite by far, as he reminded me as we parted the last time we spoke. “The cycling and the football are great, but hurling is my favorite. It’s the greatest sport on earth.”
He would wear 7 layers of clothes in his house, where the breeze would cut through in the winter, and flies took refuge in the summer, but time passed quickly anytime I visited him. The shortest visit would be around 4 hours, and I would have to leave mostly because my bones would be rattling with the cold, or to cycle back to the car before the darkness hit. With Mick’s passing, we have lost a part of Ireland that is a rare commodity. Anyone who has ever spent time in the man’s company will attest to the glow in his eye as he spoke. He had it every time I ever spoke to him, and anyone else who came with me to visit would always comment on his energy, his enthusiasm for life, his stories, and his interest in other people and what was going on around the country. His stories will continue to be told, and his legend will live on for a long time to come. Ar Dheis Dé Go Raibh a Anam Uasal.
“The crowd cheer them on as the boys do their stuff
Mick Murphy is flying through the village of Bruff
The rest of the story is easy to tell
Mick Murphy rode solo beyond Patrickswell
Of all the great riders, not greater than he
The mighty Mick Murphy from Caherciveen
The mightly Mick Murphy won Rás Luimní
(Excerp from the poem “Rás Luimní’)