15 Aug 2022

Joe Murphy, Threecastles and Durrow

Famous hotelier and proprietor of the Castle Arms Hotel on the Square in Durrow

Joe Murphy RIP

Joe Murphy RIP

In the ordinary course of events, the death of Joe Murphy at the age of 94 on November 12, 2018 would have closed a chapter in the story of Durrow, the community that he adopted as his own in 1955.

But that would not be Joe’s way. He knew that the mark of a successful entrepreneur is often how well he runs his business - but how he arranges for the business to be passed on to the next generation. Joe wanted to do more than that. He wanted his children to do well in any profession they chose in any part of the world, but his dream was that some of them at least would make Ireland, and even Durrow, their home.

He achieved his dream. And he did it from one of the riskiest enterprises that anyone could undertake in a small Irish village - a hotel. When he took over White’s Hotel, Bar and Grocery in Durrow at the age of 31, it was essentially a general provisions business with a few rooms overhead that were taken mostly by commercial travellers. In less than a decade, Joe had expanded the business to the point where he was confident enough to focus on the bar and hotel business alone, and within another decade he had more than doubled the number of bedrooms and added a banqueting area. By the time he retired in the last years of the 20th. century, the Castle Arms Hotel, under the management of his son Seosamh, had been joined by the Ashbrook Arms, run by another son - and Durrow had even acquired a third hotel with the conversion of the former Presentation Convent into an upmarket resort destination. It was an incredible achievement for a small village.

Joseph Aloysius Murphy’s story began in the town land of Blackcastle near Threecastles, on the 24th June 1924. He was the youngest son in the family of six boys and four girls born to Thomas Murphy and his wife Margaret née Bolger. Thomas was a well-established farmer in the area; the family had originated in Ballinalee near New Ross before moving to the Callan and Kilmanagh areas at the end of the eighteenth century and eventually acquiring the holding at Blackcastle. Other members of the family established themselves in the commercial life of Kilkenny city, High Street at one time boasting two prominent Murphy establishments with Thomas’s brothers John at The Woollen Hall and Patrick operating a grocery business further up the street.

Thomas was also a noted sportsman, being a member of the Kilkenny hurling team in their All-Ireland winning championship season in 1905 and setting the record for the longest single ‘lift and strike’ in hurling at 129 yards in a competition at Croke Park in the following year (not to be confused with the ‘long puck’ competition, where the record is for the least number of pucks to cover a pre-set course; the current record is an average 113 yards per puck).
Margaret Bolger, born in Butte, Montana in 1891, came from an emigrant family that returned to Ireland and was later associated with the hinterland of Kilkenny city. She had been a teacher at one time in the Presentation Convent; her brother, Michael, was a well-regarded teacher at the C.B.S. Secondary School.
Thomas Murphy died in 1925 at the age of 49 and Margaret brought up her young family, including Agnes, who was born after her father’s death, on her own (Margaret herself died in 1966 aged 74 after living for a brief period in Durrow).

Her son Tommy eventually took over the running of the farm after some of his older brothers had emigrated. The eldest, Jim, became a successful property developer near London until his death in 2001; Sean became a manager in MacNamara’s seed stores in Drogheda until his early death in 1954; Michael worked in Dores of Kilkenny city before taking over Tennypark House, which he ran as a successful hostelry for many years before his retirement and death in 1988. Pat married Maire Ward and resided in Rahavaly, Redcross, Co. Wicklow until his death in 2007.

Of the girls, Ita married Michael McGuinness of the well-known Kilkenny City political dynasty and died in 2008; Kitty married Pat Cuddihy and settled in Freshford, where she died in 1997; Máire became a nurse and lived in England until her death in 2009; Agnes (known in the family as ‘Baby’), married Sean Conroy of Mountmellick and settled in Durrow, where she becomes the sole surviving member of the family.

After attending Tulla National School, Joe cycled into Kilkenny CBS for his secondary education and then served an apprenticeship in Stauntons of Freshford before moving to Dublin and eventually emigrating to Australia at the age of 26 on a ship that, as he often recounted, 'left England on 23 December 1950 and arrived in Sydney on 6 February 1951.'

In Sydney he worked three jobs, including temporary dock-hand, sometimes under assumed names to maximize his income. He eventually learned the bar trade in the Leichardt Hotel, where his boss was Longford-born Tom Mollaghan, whose son Patrick now manages logistics for the Australian Rugby team and is a regular visitor to Durrow.

When his brother Sean died Joe returned to Ireland, and his mother made it clear that she thought he should settle down there. She sent him to Durrow to look at a business that had come up for sale, and indicated that she would take it amiss if he came home without doing a deal. And so White’s Hotel changed ownership and Joe presented himself to the public with his Australian tan and his crisp white shop-coat, ready to do business.

One interesting aspect of the commercial scene in Durrow in these years was the influence of families from outside the immediate area, often from Kilkenny. The Carey family of Ballyragget had taken over the old Durrow Co-operative Stores across the Square; Jack Phelan from Ballaghmore had opened a small hardware operation in Carrigan Street a year or so previously (it later moved to Chapel Street, where it continues); and John Delaney of Tullaroan had moved from his business location in Kilkenny’s Rothe House and purchased a bar and grocery business in Chapel Street (sadly it did not survive his serious illness and death less than a decade later).

Joe Murphy’s impact on Durrow’s social scene was immediate. But the opportunities for a business man in his early thirties to meet a suitable wife in small-town Durrow in the late 1950s were limited. The situation changed however in 1959 with the arrival - in her own blue Anglia! - of a new public health nurse to the district. She was Carmel Ward from Redcross, Co. Wicklow and within 18 months they were man and wife (her sister Maire married Joe's brother Pat).

The progress of the business over the next two decades was steady; the first expansion in 1972 and the second in 1986 made for a compact enterprise that reached out to every sector of the community. The development of Avonmore (now Glanbia) just down the road was a bonus, and Joe was able to rise to the many occasions he was asked to cater for them, in one case supplying over 2000 meals for those attending an open day to inspect a new plant extension in 1972.

Joe dealt with every social need and event - from baptisms to marriages to deaths. He had an undertaking business that fitted in well with his ‘mission’ - he could offer a complete package that included funeral arrangements and hospitality, and behind it all a sense of compassion that forgave debts when the bereaved could not pay the full amount, and a philanthropic nature that supported countless good causes at home and abroad.

In the meantime Joe and Carmel created a warm home in the old Cahill house in Castle Street, where he was always proud to note the connection with the author Deirdre Purcell, whose mother was a Cahill. In fact Joe had a very wide appreciation of Irish culture and a great love for the Irish language. He loved nature too, and his favourite television programmes were of the type pioneered by David Attenborough.

He also loved to return to Blackcastle and the Tulla area, remembering the people he knew as a youth, and pointing out the homes of the families that he knew then - the Daltons, the Minogues and the Hennessys - often remarking the house of a woman named Breege Byrne who lived alone and who asked him to ‘give her a shout’ when he cycled past on his way to work so she would know what time it was - and that is just what he did, calling out a greeting as he flew past.

His dealings with the people of Durrow and the huge hinterland that he served, as well as the thousands who made the Castle Arms a favoured stop on the route from Dublin to Cork, were marked by affability, honesty and a desire to provide a much needed service that in many ways kept the town of Durrow alive. He got his reward with the opening up of Castle Durrow as a wedding venue (he benefitted from the accommodation overflow) and the expansion of Sheppard’s antiques business. In between he advised thousands on matters large and small, giving his opinion on everything from current affairs to finance, but always being available to help in an hour of need. He had a devout approach to his religion and was a regular visitor to Lourdes.

Alongside the hotel business he became what amounted to a gentleman farmer, setting up a small horse breeding operation in the lands he acquired on the edge of the town. He loved to travel in pursuit of that interest, and to move further afield when he could afford time away, often favouring Australia, where he had spent his ‘happy youth’ and where he had been closely involved in organizations like the Irish Club of Sydney, of which he was secretary, and St. Mary’s GAA Club with whom he won a New South Wales League final in 1952 among other victories.

His children reflected the wide variety of interests and talents encouraged by their parents: Tomas, who farms in Durrow and writes on agricultural topics for the Farmers Journal; Caitriona, a computer sales executive who lives in California; Seosamh, originally encouraged to be an accountant, but who could not withstand the lure of the business and a place at the Shannon Hotel Management School, and who succeeded his father at the Castle Arms Hotel; Carmel who is based in Hong Kong with her husband, a Boeing executive; Sean, a chef who owns and runs the Ashbrook Arms in Durrow with his wife Rosita; Orla who lives in Dunmore East with her political journalist husband; Pascal, a financial adviser in New York; and Òisin, an accountant in Dublin. With their spouses and partners, and their twenty-three children in the next generation, they made up a small community of their own that was Joe’s pride and joy.

His final weeks were marked with courage, faith and characteristic good humour. He passed away quietly surrounded by his loving wife Carmel and family in the house across the square that he had rebuilt for his retirement.The esteem in which he was held by all sectors was reflected in the participation by delegations of honour at his funeral representing groups as diverse as both current and past employees of the Castle Arms Hotel, Laois Hunt, Durrow Fianna Fail Cumann, Durrow Gun Club, Laois Fianna Fail, The Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation. As his son Seosamh said at his graveside, Joe Murphy ‘Didn’t leave anything in the dressing room he put it all out on the field.’ Though his party piece was the song ‘Goodbye’ from the musical ‘The White Horse Inn’, he did not in the end want to leave this earth. Even in his ninety-fifth year, he was still enjoying life too much.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.

Denis Bergin

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