Lives Remembered

Patrick Murphy: Fermanagh's Man of Straw

Patrick Murphy with his reaping hook in the oatfield on the Erne loughshore in 2019

ANYONE who has had involvement with the Fermanagh mumming tradition will mourn the recent passing of 88-year-old Patrick Murphy of Clonliff, Macken, near the Lough Erne shore in west Fermanagh.

A quiet, unassuming, retired farmer, Patrick came into his own with the annual winter custom of weaving and fashioning the iconic straw masks and accompanying rig-outs for which Fermanagh’s mummers have gained a reputation worldwide.

With rugged hands from years of toiling the land - often described as "big as shovels” - Patrick loved nothing better than passing on his practical knowledge of plaiting straw to youngsters and adults at workshops organized by the Mummers Foundation.

As Ireland’s oldest strawcraftsman, he would often be seen quietly plaiting straw in some corner of a public event on living heritage and people were drawn to him by his gentle demeanour and willingness to engage in conversations on the calendar-based folk customs such as St Brigid’s Day, which are marked by rituals of craftwork involving rushwork.

A fully-clad Fermanagh mumber in traditional straw dress made by Patrick Murphy

Practitioners of strawcraft, anthropology students, academics and folklorists from renowned museums sought out and somehow found their way to his small farm and the adjoining green barn where, against a backdrop of carefully cleaned and lashed oaten straw, Patrick would in his strong west Fermanagh dialect impart his wealth of history on the traditional skills involved in weaving and plaiting.

His continuance of strawcraft led him to being prominently featured in the renowned publication Traditional Crafts of Ireland.

In more recent times, he was commissioned to create a range of iconic straw masks for both drama and film productions, replicating rarely seen west of Ireland straw masks, which now feature on inviting labels of recently launched brands of whiskey.

Patrick’s folk tradition meant being involved as an active part of the Kinawley mummers up until the mid-1990s, disguised and acting out The Turk or Cromwell characters. He also featured prominently in film documentaries Mummers Masks and Mischief and The Man Behind The Mask, which addressed the very real risk of traditional mumming and strawcraft skills dying out.

Patrick’s time-honoured practice of spending the autumnal time of year in a lush field of swaying oats with neighbour Francie Doherty, along with his trusted reaping hook and scythe, was often captured in local papers.

More importantly, the annual harvesting was soon followed by the ritual of spending hours in his barn cleaning, lashing and safely storing away sheaves of golden, oat straw to leave the mummers with a fresh supply for the upcoming Christmas season.

As part of the mummers' primitive “straw get up”, Patrick favoured what is deemed a distinctive Fermanagh mummers hat, where he imaginatively fashioned an additional straw-plaited tate emanating from the top of the conical shaped mask which then looped down to the rear. He would call the woven looped tate at the rear of the head mask the devil’s tail.

In retirement, Patrick’s morning ritual would be outside in the yard, facing up to the morning sky and reading the day’s weather before going out the road in his trusty green Volkswagen to get his Irish News, which was read across the kitchen table from cover to cover before his lunchtime dinner.

Being beside the Claddagh river, he could correctly name the song of every bird and he often took his green boat out to the mouth of the broad lough.

To the very day, Patrick could predict the return of the swallows and the beloved sound of the cuckoo coming from nearby Derragh bog where he won turf.

Other interests were traditional music, especially the flute playing of renowned local musician John Joe 'The Puck' Maguire.

Seeing his granddaughters being part of the Fermanagh ladies football team delighted him, and scouring the fields each March collecting enough wild shamrock for all his 20 grandchildren told how important his Irish identity was to him.

Until his surgical operations Patrick never spent an hour in hospital and was glad to return to Clonliff for the final days of his life on the earth.

At the Aughakillymaude mummers centre, the shape of Patrick’s huge hands are captured in plaster on a mounted wall exhibit as a fitting tribute to unquestionable years of being undoubtedly the master craftsman of strawcraft - Fermanagh’s Man of Straw.

Patrick Murphy is survived by his loving wife Rhoda, sons Cathal, Barry and Padraic, daughters Geraldine and Rhoda and sister Bridget.

His month's mind Mass will be celebrated at 10.30am tomorrow at St Naile's Church, Kinawley.

Jim Ledwith

Mummers Foundation

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