Among Richard Murphy’s interesting guests on his converted Galway hooker, the Ave Maria, in the early 1960s, was the actor Robert Shaw.
Often cast as the villain, or a stern military type - remember him in From Russia With Love as the cunning SPECTRE assassin who very nearly gets his prey? but Robert Shaw is probably better known as the shark-hunter Quint in Jaws.
In the summer of 1961, long before Jaws was made,* he arrived at Cleggan harbour with a beautiful young actress, Mary Ure. They were waiting for Murphy to pick them up for a leisurely day’s cruise along the Connemara coast. It was a perfect day. The sun blazed down as they sailed around Inishboffin. Shaw chatted to Murphy in the cockpit, while Mary lay on the foredeck with her bare legs over the side dipping in the sea. Shaw would occasionally turn to Mary, with whom he was obviously in love, and urge her to be careful. “ I don’t want the two of you to fall into the sea.” In the evening the three of them sat in the Pier Bar, with Shaw reading Murphy’s poetry out loud.
A German tourist, with short, silver-grey hair, booked a day’s fishing, and with four other anglers the Ave Maria headed for the wild shoals of Inishark. Having once held the rank of captain in the German navy, he regarded Murphy as a captain, and similar in rank to himself, and thus the only person worth talking to during the entire day out. If Murphy moved among the other anglers to advise on tactics, the captain would follow and interrupt the conversation. Later the German admitted he commanded a U-boat. “How interesting,” said Murphy. “You probably know the sea off the west coast of Ireland better than I do.”
The captain ignored the remark.
Although it was limited to the summer months, Murphy’s business thrived. Fishing was amazingly good off the Connemara islands. Murphy could guarantee that those who paid for fishing would catch a fish. Only on two days in seven years was nothing caught. His best customers, who gave little trouble and large tips, were English. Dubliners and Northern Irish were the next best customers, just as appreciative but inclined to tip less. The French, Spanish, Dutch and Germans were few, but more demanding, and harder to please. Often whole families came, children and dogs. When they were tired of fishing, Murphy would land them on Inishboffin, and tell them to follow the road for a time. They would invariably return to the boat, having wandered about the island, ‘transformed by the experience.’
Americans seldom had time on their rapid itineraries to spend a day on a Galway hooker, or calling on Inishboffin which appeared to have only tentative claims on the 20th century. But one who did pause on his travels was a chemistry professor from St Paul, Minnesota. He booked a day’s fishing for himself, and a passage to Inishboffin for his wife.
He was a short, stout, bald, and a rather solemn gentleman, who had little to say. That was probably because his wife talked non stop. When the Ave Maria reached the island, it was a choppy crossing, the wife was so exhilarated that she changed her mind, and decided to stay on board for the day. The professor murmured his glum disapproval. But she insisted. Her clothes were more suitable for a shopping mall than a boat in a rough sea.
Drifting with the tide over a deep rocky shoal between Inishboffin and Inishark the pollock were easy to catch. The professor was having a great day and kept reeling in the fish. The professor’s wife, however, was sitting on the cabin head, facing broadside waves that were causing the boat to roll, discomforting for everyone.
Suddenly she stood up and vomited into the sea. Murphy caught a glimpse of a ‘brilliant set of gold-mounted false teeth, sinking in zigzag curves out of sight to a depth of eight fathoms’. The poor woman, totally distraught, with a hand covering her mouth, turned to her husband, and cried: “Oh darling, what shall I do? I’ve lost my teeth! I’ve lost my teeth! Oh what shall I do?”
The professor replied with Minnesotan logic: “You better keep your mouth shut, honey!”
Next week: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath bring their unhappiness to Cleggan.
NOTES: *Some film gossip: Mary Ure had played the leading woman’s role in John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, which was a sensation in 1956. Theatre suddenly lost its innocence, and became a mirror to the harsh reality of the world outside. Mary Ure married Osborne. She and Shaw began an affair years later. She divorced Osborne, and married Shaw, who adopted their baby Colin. She was pregnant with Colin when they sailed on the Ave Maria. They had three more children including the actor Ian Shaw. Mary sadly died in 1975 aged 42 years.
The film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, was made in 1975.
I am taking this week’s Diary from The Kick - A Memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University Press to mark the poet’s 90th birthday this month.
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