In the early 1960s the poet Richard Murphy spent an eventful decade ferrying visitors on his converted traditional Galway hooker type boat, the Ave Maria, between Cleggan and Inishbofin, and to the islands beyond. It provided rich pickings for the poet. He kept a diary of the journeys, the characters who came on board, and the excellent fishing that anglers enjoyed, which he included in his finely observed autobiography The Kick, recently republished to celebrate his 90th birthday.*
It was a healthy, and sociable lifestyle, but out of the blue he was struck down by a mysterious illness. The day following his 39th birthday, August 6 1966, he developed a fever and a sore tongue. He was brought to the Regional Hospital (now University College Hospital ), and, probably because it was feared that his fever was contagious, put into a room on his own.
At this time the poet was really suffering. His tongue was ‘on fire’. It had turned white and was swollen. He could not swallow without pain; his lips and gums were ulcerated, and speaking was painful. To avoid being force fed, be made himself swallow water which was painful and difficult. Some time later the senior professor of the faculty of medicine, known as ‘Batty’ O’Driscoll, came in to examine Murphy. The professor made a thorough examination. Murphy wrote down the answers to his questions. When Murphy kept asking, obviously with some anxiety, what was the matter with him, all the professor said, in a booming voice, was: “Yes, yes...I know...I see...yes, yes.” And walked out of the room.
Looking around him the poet expected to die. The walls were painted battleship-grey, and a black metal crucifix looked down at him. He was afraid to take the sleeping pill the nurse handed him in case he never woke up. He lay there bitterly regretting that he hadn’t finished various poems. He was still awake at around midnight when he heard a woman’s voice moaning loudly, as if in despair, coming from the room next door. The moaning affected him. He imagined that the woman was the patient’s poor wife lamenting the passing of her husband. Eventually deeply moved by the scene he imagined, and in order to shut out her cries, he took the sleeping pill and fell fast asleep.
When the nurse woke him at 6am to take his temperature and pulse, Murphy awoke to ask if the man next door was still alive. The nurse just laughed. “That lad is a doctor, and his girlfriend often visits him at night.”
As painkillers gradually did their work, Murphy was able to shuffle about and observe the hospital at work. He was immediately struck by the nurses. He observed that they worked harder and were kinder than the doctors. One evening about 6pm he was surprised to encounter a nurse kneeling in the corridor. She was holding a tray of medicines in one hand, a hypodermic syringe in the other, and she was saying her prayers. Far down at the end of a long echo chamber of the corridor of the male ward, a nun from the Aran Islands was ‘chanting the rosary in Irish, plaintive sea waves braking through her voice in spasms of sound one might hear on a breezy day from the cliffs of Dun Aengus.’
A house surgeon trying to take a a blood sample from a vein in Murphy’s arm, hit a nerve, blamed the needle for being blunt, and said he would go and fetch a sharper one. Murphy told him to never come back. ‘A nurse from Tipperary, with arms like a wrestler’s, took the sample painlessly.’
Professor O’Driscoll, who according to Murphy hunted with the Galway Blazers wearing a top hat and tailcoat, would enter his room once a day leading a train of junior doctors and nurses. If he saw the poet trying to ask questions, he turned on his heels and led the train of followers out.
On the third morning Murphy held up a notice asking the professor to please tell him what he was suffering from. Professor ‘Batty’ O’Driscoll ‘replied with lilting pomposity superimposed on a Cork accent: “I think you have an infestation.” ’ Gesturing frantically not to leave the room, Murphy wrote: ‘An infestation of WHAT?’
The professor replied: “An infestation of mites,” and walked out.
Yet despite his eccentricities, a few days later the professor announced that Murphy was suffering from Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare and sometimes fatal disease. Only once, 30 years earlier, had the professor treated a case, when a fisherman was brought ashore from a French trawler. Cortisone cured the poet in another week.
Next week: At last Sailing to an Island.
NOTES: *The Kick - A memoir of the poet Richard Murphy, originally published by Granta in 2002, and recently republished by Cork University press, with a introduction by John Banville. On sale €19.95.