‘Bitterness doesn’t help your mind. What I’ve learnt is, you never give up’

Scramogue’s Soldier meets his destiny
As Eugene Murphy takes his seat in Dáil Eireann today, Roscommon’s newest TD reflects on his rollercoaster political journey with Paul Healy

Eugene Murphy was in his early 20s. It was over thirty years ago. In houses around Strokestown, most of his friends were preparing to go out on the town, to the ‘Percy French’, or maybe Blazers or Rockfords.

  Eugene had other plans.

  Eugene looked around the RDS arena. He remembers that Charlie Haughey, then at his charismatic but intimidating peak, was “either on the podium or in the front row.” The occasion was the annual Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis. It’s a long time ago now, but Eugene thinks he was probably the chairman of Ogra Fianna Fáil at the time. Brian Lenihan Senior would be introducing Mr. Haughey, but as the television cameras zoomed in, young Eugene Murphy would be the warm-up for the warm-up act.

  He was meant to be speaking in general terms about Fianna Fáil…from a young activist’s perspective. But as Eugene got into his speech, it began to take on a life of its own. He could feel his heart beating faster as he became more and more animated. He was a particularly passionate speaker in those days. He wasn’t your typical 24-year-old.

  The 6,000-strong crowd began to hang on his every word. Then the young Strokestown man started talking about Sean Doherty.

  “I started defended ‘The Doc’, who had just been ousted from the party,” he reflected this week. “I said that Doherty had taken the brunt of the criticism and that he had been wronged. At the very mention of Sean Doherty’s name, the delegates rose up and applauded.”

  By the end of Murphy’s remarkable cameo at that Ard Fheis – all of it televised – the entire hall was on its feet, the delegates roaring and cheering their approval for this ‘young gun’ from the West.

  Fianna Fáil, respected journalist Anne Caldweller subsequently wrote, would only have to look to Eugene Murphy if they ever needed a new warm-up act to replace Brian Lenihan!

  Meanwhile, the lads from Strokestown were piling into the pubs by the time Charlie Haughey had finished his address. After the various TDs and Senators had congratulated the Boss, the young Eugene Murphy plucked up the courage to go up to Haughey.

  The passionate support for Doherty had hit a nerve.

  “I went up to Haughey to congratulate him…I got a rather stern look from him!”

For as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be a TD. His friends wanted to be footballers, pilots, business people, teachers.

  Eugene wanted to be a TD. He remembers when he was about fourteen years of age, Michael John Cunnane called to the house to update the Register of Electors. According to Michael John, Eugene was able to advise him of the various changes that needed to be made in their area!

  “From a very, very early age I developed a passion for politics, even though my parents weren’t particularly political. My father (the late Joseph Murphy) was asked by Brian Mullooly to do a bit of Cumann work, and he was supportive of Sean Doherty and Terry Leyden. But I honestly felt myself that Fianna Fáil seemed to understand people, that the party went out of its way to look after people who needed help. From a very early age I was fascinated by Sean Doherty and I had an ambition to become a TD myself one day.”

  He reckoned that he if got elected to the Council and “did the groundwork”, his Dáil chance would come. Little did he know the journey he was embarking on…

Leyden, and Doherty particularly, had Fianna Fáil grassroots at fever pitch level in Roscommon in that era. Murphy wasn’t the only one who had a fascination with Doherty.

  “The late Sean Doherty did fascinate me. Myself and John Cummins (now a long-time councillor in Boyle area) were involved in Doherty’s campaigns from a very young age. I could tell you so many stories of Sean’s generosity to families. The national media portrayed him as someone who was full of divilment. He was full of divilment, but he also had great compassion…and the Dublin view of the divilment was that it was sinister, but in Roscommon, we saw it differently.”

  He probably officially ‘got the bug’ in 1977, when Doherty and Leyden were both elected to the Dáil for the first time. Murphy – then aged about 17 – remembers the two new TDs and their party running mate John Ellis (who narrowly lost out) being lifted shoulder-high in front of about a thousand supporters in Roscommon Square.

  “The Doherty/Leyden era involved great rivalry, but there was no real deviousness. It was the cut and thrust of politics in action, and it certainly gave me a taste for it.”

Given that Eugene Murphy’s career is widely seen as having had many low points, it is worth noting that he has now won seven elections out of seven. He took his first tentative steps in the shadows of Sean Doherty and others in 1985, running for the Council. In a sign of things to come, there was drama…

  “I won the Selection Convention by a single vote, beating John McGowan. John is a great friend and supporter since, and a great GAA man. A lot of people were annoyed at the time of the convention, but I surprised people by getting elected to the Council.”

  He’s been in the Council ever since. Along the way, he has made a number of ill-fated attempts to secure a Fianna Fáil nomination to run for the Dáil. Unsuccessful bids often unfolded against a backdrop of controversy. The lowest point, he said this week, was the convention held in Kilbride prior to the 2002 General Election.

  Murphy lost out to Greg Kelly by a single vote (Michael Finneran was also selected). At the time, there was a huge rumpus about alleged missing votes. Eugene believed there were dirty tricks used by opponents at the time, and he still believes it now. He is not for one moment pointing the finger at the successful candidates, but he does believe some people were prepared to do whatever it took to deny him a place on the ticket.

  He thought about leaving Fianna Fáil and running as an Independent, but decided to stay.

  “The level of support for me running as an Independent in 2002 was phenomenal. People had a path worn to my door. People ask ‘why did you stay loyal?’ Because, ever since 1985, the grassroots have stayed loyal to me. Loyalty is really important to me…these are salt-of-the-earth, very genuine country people…I would have been doing them an injustice by going Independent.”

  HQ didn’t want Eugene Murphy, and, fourteen years on from 2002, not much had changed.

They met in the Hodson Bay Hotel. Cllr. Eugene Murphy and Fianna Fáil General Secretary Sean Dorgan. It was late in 2015. Mr. Dorgan was courteous, but he had grim news to deliver over the coffee and scones. 

  Presenting Eugene Murphy with internal poll findings, Dorgan ominously indicated that Murphy was “extremely weak” in South Roscommon.

   South Roscommon…where a certain former goalkeeper is based.

  Eugene Murphy’s greatest fear was that FF HQ would avoid having a Selection Convention in Roscommon, that the party would instead impose its own candidate.\

Continued from previous page –> He had bitten his tongue over the months and years, as speculation continued about Dr. Martin Daly, Conor Lenihan, Dr. Keith Swanick and Shane Curran.

  Murphy told Dorgan that he didn’t accept the poll findings. Asked now if Mr. Dorgan requested him to withdraw from convention, the new TD says: “Sean was very pleasant…he didn’t actually ask me to withdraw, but the implication was clear…the implication (from HQ) was that I couldn’t win a seat.”  

  With his back to the wall, Murphy did what he always does. He came out fighting.

  “That was not my happiest day, that day in the Hodson Bay Hotel. But at the end of it, I was more determined than ever that I’d fight this campaign to the very end.”

Murphy was in a friend’s house on Thursday night, 4th of February. Before Christmas, Fianna Fáil had given in to grassroots’ pressure and called a convention. Eugene Murphy had won it, and was now the Fianna Fáil candidate. The General Election had been called, but the speculation about HQ adding Shane Curran on just wouldn’t go away.

  In the days leading up to the 4th of February, a very close friend had warned Cllr. Murphy that the Shane Curran issue was back on the agenda. He will be added this week, the friend warned. 

  Pressed by local and national media, a concerned Murphy stuck to his line…he was the sole candidate, he was pressing ahead with his campaign, he knew nothing of alleged plans to add the charismatic GAA personality.

  At 10.30 pm on that Thursday night, his mobile rang. Sean Dorgan’s name flashed on his phone. Murphy knew instantly that this part of the game was up. 

  Dorgan got to the point. Curran had just been added on. Next, Dorgan wanted to know if Eugene was alright with the news…

  Murphy said he wasn’t, and then hung up.

  The next couple of hours were grim. He was down in the dumps, dejected, hurt. His family and friends were furious at the turn of events.

The following day, the anger manifested itself in threats of “mass resignations” from the party.

  “I picked myself up” Eugene Murphy said this week, “and I spent three days getting back to key supporters. There were threats of resignations and pledges that people wouldn’t vote…but we rallied and we said ‘let’s work twice as hard now to get elected.’

 On the day of the count – 27th of February last – he stayed at home “in my old clothes.” It was the most ordinary of days. He did a few odd jobs. He went to his brother’s farm. He felt relaxed, even with so much at stake.

  The text messages were positive from early morning, but it was still nerve-wracking. He says John Cummins and Terry Leyden called the seat for him very early, but he didn’t want to believe it, couldn’t afford to believe it, not until it came to pass.

  It was a long day, not that ordinary really. When he went 800 or so votes behind the Fine Gael candidate, Maura Hopkins, he began to panic. The signs were still good, but it was no fun being that far behind, even with favourable Shane Curran and Claire Kerrane transfers predicted.

  Eventually, late on Saturday night in the count centre, Cllr. John Cummins – having ‘tallied the tallies’ – came over to Murphy and said: “You’re home and dry.”

  Shane Curran came up to him, wished him well and said “It’s your day.”

  “I admired him for that,” Deputy Murphy says.

  On Sunday morning, there was a friendly phone conversation with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. And in the days since his election, Murphy has been congratulated on a couple of occasions by a suitably impressed (and surprised) Sean Dorgan…

 The celebrations are still going on. The Murphy entourage partied in the Abbey Hotel into the early hours. Hugs and tears.

  A cavalcade was arranged on the Sunday in Strokestown. The new TD was coming home, to Strokestown and Scramogue. Hundreds of people turned out. When he met his great mentor, Brian Mullooly, words weren’t necessary.

  “He did say he was delighted for me, but the clasp of his hand said it all…it was a firm grip that lasted for a period of time.”

  Long-time supporter Tommy Hoare, just out of hospital, embraced the new TD and both men became emotional.

  Eugene saw Luke Flynn, in his 101st year, standing outside his daughter’s house. Luke had tears of joy in his eyes. Eugene stopped to acknowledge a very close family friend.

  The cards, emails and texts (“about 1,000 texts, and I answered them all personally over four days”) keep coming. He has been deeply moved by the warmth of the support, from young and old.

Only once did he really contemplate giving up. One night last year, he was at home in his kitchen. It was almost 1 am. He was worn out. He felt there would be no convention. He could feel the heat of HQ on his back. He was exhausted. He wondered should he just give up.

  “I questioned my journey that night,” he says, “but I decided to keep going.” 

  His journey continues today. He needs to be at the Dáil by 9.30 this morning, Thursday, March 10. He will be accompanied by his proud mother, Margaret, who celebrated her 80th birthday last Tuesday. He will also be joined by his wife, Linda, and their children, Nadine and Rian. They have only got three passes, but are hoping to ‘borrow’ one from another TD!

  He is very grateful to the Fianna Fáil councillors, all of them, but singles out Rachel Doherty who, Murphy says, promoted him as a unity candidate at the height of the chaotic Fianna Fáil selection saga. He is grateful to his campaign team. Most of all, he is grateful to the people who elected him. He knows the work begins now.

  When he was a teenager, he was drawn to Fianna Fáil’s way of dealing with people’s needs.

            A lot has happened since. Now he’s 57 years old. He believes Fianna Fáil has been given another chance. “The message from the electorate to Fianna Fáil is: we in rural Ireland are prepared to put our faith in you again.” He is determined that rescuing rural Ireland will be his party’s priority.

  Today, Strokestown’s first ever TD follows in the footsteps of political giants. Somewhere in his mind there will be thoughts of a 14-year-old politically ambitious boy, and of a 24-year-old upstart who brought an Ard Fheis crowd to its feet.

  “Today will be very emotional” he says of his first day as a TD sitting in Dáil Eireann. 

  “I’ve been knocked down and pushed and shoved more than anyone. But I don’t do bitterness. Bitterness doesn’t help your mind. It’s been a long journey. A rollercoaster, with ups and downs. What I’ve learnt is, you never give up. You never give up.”