Peter Murphy is a big guy. Relaxed, affable, with no chips. He is, he says, “a fat single white guy, with a cat . . . I’m basically any comedian’s wet dream.” Currently he works near Boston “in consumer electronics. I sell televisions”.
He spent three years at the University of Connecticut (UConn). “ I did more drinking than I did studying,” he says.
He was a “typical jackass American of that age. I didn’t know what I wanted to be so I changed majors every three months and I majored in having fun. I loved UConn . . . In what would have been my junior year I moved to Boston.”
Then he went to Emerson College. “It’s an arts school. I never went to a lot of the classes. I hated structured academia.”
His father got him his first job. “To get myself through school, to make a living, Eamon, through the Irish Immigration Centre, got me a job at a hotel and I got a job in a bar called the Last Hurrah . . . It got me into the restaurant industry.”
He worked in restaurants until 2003 when, through a love of film, he began working at the Tweeter chain of consumer electronic shops. It went out of business in 2008, after which he started his present line of work “selling high-end electronics, 100 per cent commission”.
Now aged 38, Murphy first became aware of his father as a small boy.
“I was five or six. My grandmother told me. I don’t remember the instant when she told me. My mom always had this newspaper article with a picture of Eamon blowing on some brass instrument, a trumpet . . .”
One morning in 1983 or 1984 his mother, Annie, woke him, saying, “ ‘Listen, wake up. Do you want to see your father?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve seen the photo.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘do you want to see him?’
“Then she brought me downstairs . . . I remember coming down the stairwell and [on the television screen] I could see [President Ronald] Reagan on the one side and I could tell there was another person on the other . . . and I recognised him right away. It was, what do you call it? An epiphany. It was some Sunday-morning political show.”
He was 15 years old before he met his father for the first time. It was “in the law offices of the attorney Peter McKay, who represented the paternity suit my mom made . . . in New York. That was the first time I met Eamon.”
It did not go well. “He didn’t want to talk to me. In hindsight I was the representation of the end of everything he worked for. Of course I took it incredibly personally. I ran down. Got the elevator. Came downstairs. Tried to keep a stoic face. Saw my mom and burst into tears . . . You’re 15, have questions. He didn’t want to answer them. I felt slighted.”
The purpose of the meeting was “to get something back for the years that my mom had to, basically, pay for me. For me the most important thing was meeting him. When you’re 15, you don’t understand. So, it was what it was.”
They met again shortly after The Irish Times broke the story, in May 1992, that revealed Murphy’s existence.
“I met him in 1992 a few months after, maybe June. I can’t remember correctly. I met him quickly. He wanted to strike while the iron was hot. He met me right away. [At the first meeting] I was an angry little prick, but he was patient and calm, understanding. He said he wanted to do it again and I said, ‘Maybe’. I agreed when I was up at UConn.”
Their second meeting was at the university. “It was the fall of 1992 or spring 1993. I was still a little bit . . . I was not going to give in to him. He was entrancing. One of those figures. It was a heck of a lot more positive an interaction.”
Their next meeting was in New York, “and that was a great time, summer of 1993. He was so engaging. There was no agenda, no ‘Let’s get into this’. We just talked. He was very smart, the way he dealt with it. He really kept it open and airy and ‘Just let’s have a good time and let’s talk. You have a question for me, ask it. I may be able to answer it and I may not.’ That’s just the way it worked. We talked about politics, anything, the day, the weather, I don’t know, whatever came into my brain.”
They continued to meet regularly thereafter, “at least two, maybe three times a year. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002, it reduced down to one time a year. Because, I mean, at this [stage] he was 75.”
In the latter years they met in Boston. “Always in Boston. The first few times in New York. I moved up to Boston in 1995. Once I moved up to Boston we always met there. He loved it . . . I worked in the restaurant industry for a long time. I went to all the places either my friends managed or I worked at . . . They loved to meet him.”
These get-togethers “were Olympic-like events of eating and drinking”, says Murphy. But about 10 years ago he noticed for the first time that his father was losing his sharpness.
“I think it must’ve been 2002 or 2003. He got very flummoxed. At first I blamed it on the alcohol . . . It was the following year that we needed to have lunches, not dinners. I don’t know if that was the beginning of the deterioration or just . . . he was 76 or 77 years old.”
Having seen his maternal grandmother deteriorate from Alzheimer’s disease, Murphy recognised the symptoms in his father.
Then, following one of their phone conversations, “I knew right away. About three years ago. I called him up and he didn’t know who I was.”
Recounting the conversation Murphy says, in a Kerry accent, “ ‘Who are you?’ ‘It’s Peter.’ ‘I don’t know you.’ ‘Are you okay?’ ‘I can’t talk to you . . . I . . . I . . . I’m sorry and I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you.’
“He could hear my voice. He knew he should know who I was.”
It was the last time they spoke.
“I tried calling the number many times after that, and it just went, ‘This voicemail is full,’ and I just said, ‘You know what, they’ve got their hands full.’ ”
Regarding how they got on, Peter anticipates the questions.
“Did I form a relationship? Did I get to love the man? Sure. But in the end we were never father and son. We were two people who got to know each other. Him, very much in the twilight of his life. Me, as a young adult. We became very good friends. That’s all I ever wanted from him.”
Where the Catholic Church’s treatment of his father is concerned, Murphy is very clear.
“It was ridiculous. I mean, six years’ penance in a foreign country and then the five years he spent in England made it even more egregious and more painful because of how close he was to his goal and all he wanted to do was go home and say Mass. Was that so terrible?
“ So, no, especially with what has come across our eyes in the last 20, 17 years . . . all the paedophile scandals. To tell you the truth, I felt this way from the get-go. What did the guy do? He had an affair.”
Being forbidden to say Mass in public was something Bishop Casey found particularly hard.
“The last two or three times that we met, that was it. That’s all he wanted to be able to do. He felt if he could do that he could really be at peace with everything that had happened. That was one thing that gnawed at him that he wasn’t able to take part in or to do . . . His faith was paramount to who he was. No matter what he believed, that was a massive part of him. And the Church? He loved the Church. No matter what it did to him, he still loved it.”
Annie Murphy’s former partner Arthur Pennell, who contacted The Irish Times in 1992 to reveal who Peter’s father was, died in 2006. He and Annie Murphy had separated about five years earlier. She is now 65 and lives in California with a new partner, an artist, “a very bright guy, very sardonic, very interesting sense of humour. They get along like two peas in a pod,” says Murphy.
His mother doesn’t dwell on the past. She has moved on. What happened was “part of her life. She’s got her art. She draws, writes stories and that.”
He has no sense of anger.
“I’ve no time for that sh*t, to be blunt. There’s enough stresses in my life. I’ve to pay bills. I’m getting fat. I’ve got to lose weight. You know what I mean?
“I’m nearly 40, around the corner. I don’t want to waste my time being angry about something neither I nor anyone else has any control over. That’s the kind of stuff that gives you ulcers and cancer.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m far from perfect. I’ve got my own idiosyncrasies and asinine things, but [I’m not being] angry about things [that happened] over a long period, about stuff I can’t control.”
lPeter Murphy appears in the first part of Print and Be Damned, a four-part series that starts on TV3 on Thursday