‘John Murphy was a leading figure in the construction industry who founded his own civil engineering firm,. His company, J Murphy and Sons, was responsible for countless major construction projects over many decades, from second world war runways, through to preparations for the London 2012 Olympics. At the time of his death he was one of Britain’s wealthiest men, worth around £190m, and a yearly fixture on the Sunday Times Rich List, but he was also notoriously secretive, and an air of mystery surrounded him to the end.’
Gerry Harrison, The Guardian, Tuesday 23 June, 2009
Like so many immigrants in Ireland today, in the London of the eighties we were strangers in a strange land, but every Paddy knew the green vans of Murphy Construction, and when times were hard Big John Murphy was Santa Claus to many.
With his Saville Row suits and Kerry accent, Big John employed hundreds of young Irish immigrants. He had big hands and a big heart and according to The Sunday Times 150 million big bucks in the bank. If you were young, Irish and broke, you told friends going home for Christmas, ‘I’m working for Big John. Tell them all I’m doing fine.’
Five days a week Big John lunched at San Carlos, the Italian restaurant on Highgate High Street, where a main course cost a day’s wages for the Irish labourers who lined up down the hill in Camden Town at seven thirty in the morning, waiting for his green vans to arrive and hoping for a start building the new London.
For those hired, a big breakfast lay ahead and at the end of a hard day’s work a Bank of Ireland cheque for fifty pounds, a lot of money in those times.
In the Archway Tavern, the publican cashed your cheque for a small commission, gave you half your money to drink over Christmas and the rest in an envelope with a Christmas card. You addressed the envelope and signed the card and he personally sent it home to your family from the post office where we queued when the Sligo Champion and the Kerryman arrived on Saturday mornings.
If you were out of cash on Stephen’s Day, he would always give you a sub.
We were Irish pioneers in London, but Big John was a Pioneer with a capital P.
After Sunday morning Mass in Holy Joe’s Church, he drank only Barry’s tea in the Clifton Hotel in St John’s Wood.
The Clifton was the headquarters for what the Irish diaspora across in Camden called the Murphia or the Posh Paddies, and when I arrived from Liverpool I was welcomed into the club.
The Clifton had almost certainly never seen such a motley crew: Pat, the London director of a fledging airline with only one aircraft; Conor, a young Dublin reporter for the Irish News; John, a photographer working for The Evening Standard; a Belfast comedian called Frank, and Big John’s son, John Óg.
But we were regular guests at the Irish Embassy’s Christmas Party for which a barrel of Guinness was always flown over from Dublin.
Like a true Pioneer, Big John never drank. He also never learnt to read or write. But he had a way of dealing with his correspondence. ‘I’m too busy to read it,’ he would tell his chauffeur, who was also his accountant. ‘Look after this.’
One Christmas week on the way back to the Clifton from the Embassy party with Charlie Haughey’s friend Terry Keane sitting alongside me in the back of the Rolls Royce, Big John asked his accountant to pull up on the banks of the Thames. ‘I bought a site here a few years ago for a couple of million,’ he said. ‘I can’t remember where it is, but I’d like to check that it’s still there.’
Unlike his father, John Óg was fond of the jar.
When his drinking got too much, Big John would give him money, tell his driver to take John Óg to Heathrow and put him on a one-way Concorde ticket to relatives in New York, in the hope he would be dried out, or as we said in the Clifton, ‘Hung on the washing line.’
But John Óg would arrive at JFK, buy a return Concorde ticket and be back in London before we noticed he was missing.
I worked for the breakfast television station TV AM. My colleague Moya, a neighbour from Donegal, cried on my shoulder and told me her partner, another John, had gone home and now wanted her to follow.
‘If I go I may never work again,’ she sobbed. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘Go.’ I said.
Across the road from Egg Cup House in the Devonshire Arms, punk was all the rage and a London Irish guy from Tipperary was rehearsing with his band. In Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead, another Irish pal was considering an offer to present a music programme on the new radio station Classic FM.
It was Christmas Eve in the Clifton in 1986 and Big John Murphy was there to meet his son John Óg, who had just flown back into Heathrow.
‘How did you get on?’ asked Big John.
‘Great,’ said John Óg. ‘I’m on the washing line.’
‘I hope it’s not raining,’ said Airplane Pat.
‘It’s the way he tells it,’ said Frank.
There was a row outside. The accents were Irish and Cockney. Big John strode out. The young drunk with the bloodied face was lying in the snow in the gutter. ‘Where are you from?’ Big John asked. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Liam from Mullingar.’
Big John pulled out a wad of notes and called his driver. ‘Luton Airport,’ he said. ‘Get him on Pat’s flight to Dublin and make sure he has enough to buy a drink when he gets home.’
Christmas Eve a year later saw us in our usual corner in the Clifton. with a children’s choir singing carols outside. Big John was drinking Barry’s Tea and we were downing pints of Guinness. John Óg was supping Ballygowan.
The barman produced a Christmas Card that was addressed to The Murphia.
‘Read it to me,’ Big John said.
The barman smiled.
‘It says, ‘Tell them all I’m doing fine.’ It’s signed by Liam from Mullingar.’
Big John had a tear in his eye.
‘Happy Christmas,’ he said.
‘Thank God, we’re all doing fine.’
And although we didn’t know it, in Christmases to come we would all still be doing fine.
John Óg had flown back from New York.
Pat Carroll’s Ryanair was flying thousands home to their families.
Conor Lenihan had a brilliant career ahead in the Dáil.
John Minihan was winning worldwide acclaim for his portraits of Sam Beckett.
Frank Carson had his own show on TV.
And Moya Doherty and John McColgan’s ‘Riverdance’ was taking the world by storm.
I was just as lucky.
I’d saved enough money to buy a cottage in my father’s birthplace in Sligo.
And on Classic FM Radio, Henry Kelly and radio presenters around the globe were playing the song I’d heard a young Shane McGowan and the Pogues rehearsing in the Devonshire Arms in Camden Town at Christmas all those years ago.
It was called ‘Fairytale of New York’.