School's in for fans of famous folklorist Michael J Murphy

Michael J Murphy pictured in 1982

THE life and legacy of noted Ulster folklorist, writer, broadcaster and journalist Michael J Murphy is still celebrated every year in his family's homeland of south Armagh.

The Michael J Murphy Winter School takes place on November 15 and 16 at Ti Chulainn Cultural Activity Centre in Maphoner, Mullaghbane, south Armagh, with the theme of this year's school being The Literature, Music and Songs of Oriel.

Over the course of his lifetime, 'Michael J' established himself as the pre-eminent collector of 'old Ulster' folklore as well as a respected journalist and broadcaster.

Born in Liverpool in 1913, Murphy returned with his family to their home town of Dromintee in Co Armagh when he was eight-and-a-half. His father Michael Murphy and his mother, Susan Campbell, were both storytellers and his paternal great-grandfather, William Jordan, was a Gaelic scribe and minor Gaelic poet.

Michael J's father, a seaman was a personal friend of both James Connolly and Jim Larkin. Michael senior had a big influence on his son as a socialist republican: one of Michael J's abiding passions was that he saw republicanism as being continually compromised by greed, a theme he returned to repeatedly in his articles, short stories, plays and broadcasts.

Despite leaving Dromintee National School – where teacher Paddy Hearty had encouraged creative writing in his pupils – before the age of 14 to become a farm labourer, Michael J read a wide range of contemporary and classical literature 's through the Catholic Students' Library in Dublin.

He was an intelligent thinker with a passion for his local surroundings. A great listener who was well respected by the local people as 'one of them', he documented the stories, songs, language and traditions of rural people in the Slieve Gullion, Rathlin and Tyrone areas while still working the fields.

When he was 19, he wrote an article on the harvest. Maud Gonne MacBride wrote to him praising the piece and encouraging him to continue writing.

Murphy also photographed people and places around Dromintee, at first developing his own negatives in an improvised dark room in his parents' house. He went on to photograph throughout 'old Ulster', from Rathlin to the Boyne.

Penning articles for newspapers including The Irish News and The Cork Examiner, Michael J later enjoyed a successful career as a broadcaster with the BBC and RTÉ from 1938 onwards, working alongside his friend Sam Hanna Bell at the BBC.

Michael J Murphy and John Hewitt at the Ulster Folk Museum in Cultra in 1965

The first of his folklore collections, At Slieve Gullion's Foot, was published in 1941. He then continued his work in an official capacity for the next 42 years with the Irish Folklore Commission and then University College Dublin's Department of Irish Folklore, while also compiling a glossary of Anglo-Irish speech and keeping a detailed journal of his travels.

Weighing in at nearly 40,000 pages, Murphy's writings remain the largest treasure trove of 'oral tradition' ever assembled by one man in the English-speaking world.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Michael J was well known in academic circles in Dublin and Belfast. He was a close friend of John Hewitt, the pair regularly corresponding by letter on literary, political, social and personal matters.

Throughout his life, Murphy also exchanged thousands of letters with other famous figures including Sam Hanna Bell, John Boyd, LAG Strong, Elizabeth Bowen, Maud Gonne MacBride, Peadar O'Donnell, Sean O'Faolain, Paul Vincent Carroll and Ethel Manning.

Michael J retired from The Department of Irish Folklore in 1983 and died 13 years later in Walterstown, Castlebellingham, Co Louth. He is buried, along with his wife, Alice, in Darver cemetery.

:: Visit for more details on The Michael J Murphy Winter School.

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