Delia Murphy ‘Ballad Queen’ 1902-1971

By Gene Smith

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Delia Murphy’s death. She was known for her musical talent in Ireland and bringing such songs as ‘The Spinning Wheel’ and ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to Irish homes and concert halls. In Australia, she first came to notice as accompanying her husband, Dr Thomas Kiernan, as Ireland’s first ambassador to Australia.

In 2007, the National Library in Ireland and the National Library in Canberra jointly celebrated the diamond anniversary of the Irish Embassy in Australia with an exhibition called If I Were a Blackbird: An exhibition on the lives of Thomas J Kiernan and Delia Murphy. The exhibition celebrated the first Irish Ambassador in Australia, Dr Thomas Kiernan and his wife Delia Murphy and lauded their contribution to the Irish-Australian story. 

The exhibition noted that the Kiernans ‘during their years in Canberra sought to encourage a sense of pride in the Irish-Australian community; they emphasised the Irish role in the development of Australia and, equally, the role of Irish-Australians in the Irish quest for independence’. 

The choice of title for the 2007 exhibition to celebrate 60 years of Irish-Australian diplomacy is interesting. It refers less to the diplomatic progress at an important time in Ireland’s history and more to the singing career of the Ambassador’s wife, Delia Murphy, one of Ireland’s first radio singing stars, an unconventional woman living within the confines of a strict Irish Catholic church and a diplomatic lifestyle. Now in the fifteth annniversary of her death, it is apt to explore the life and music of Delia Murphy, why she must be remembered, and what influence she had in Australia at the embassy and in the Australian music scene. Although Delia is recognised for her singing, her role as First Lady in the Irish Embassy and her promotion of Irish folk music in Australia is less well known. 

Delia Murphy was born in Claremorris in Mayo in 1902, one of six children of a wealthy Irish couple. They lived in the ‘big house’ on the Mount Jennings Estate that her father John Murphy had purchased on his return from making his fortune in America.

Although owning the ‘big house’ could have aligned the family with the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the Murphys had a different outlook. John Murphy welcomed the travelling people on to his land, and that was fortuitous, as Delia maintained she learned many of her songs from them, especially from Tommy Maughan, a travelling lad her own age.

Delia attended the local primary, and then secondary school in Dublin, and finally university in Galway where she graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. While at university she met her future husband,Thomas J Kiernan, a man whose diplomatic career would take them to London, the Vatican, Australia and America. Thomas Kiernan was described as retiring, quiet, ‘…and highly strung’ while Delia was variously described as handsome, bustling and extroverted. At that time, married life for most women meant forgoing their own paths to support their husbands’ careers. Delia’s role, as a diplomat’s wife, opened the world to her, introduced her to people like singer John McCormack and gave her an entry to radio which made her famous. On the other hand, the demands of being a diplomat’s wife and the strictures placed on her in this role hindered the pursuit of a singing career.

Delia had always been interested in music. She sang in choirs and musicals at school and collected songs from many sources. Everywhere she went she collected – from the servants at home, from the travellers in the lane, from fishermen, from the blacksmith. She collected because she loved singing and realised that many songs would be lost unless someone tried to preserve them. Hers was a labour of love rather than a scientific pursuit. She was collecting and performing songs in Ireland long before the organised projects of Alan Lomax and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann (Society of the Musicians of Ireland).

Music had always been a part of Irish life but before radio and recordings, it was a private family or community entertainment. In his memoir, Woodbrook, historian and writer David Thomson noted that the local people in Connaught demonstrated ‘the best of the traditional arts of the world but no one from outside their community took any notice of those.’ When the well-known American collector Alan Lomax arrived in Ireland, there were no traditional musicians playing professionally – ‘he was recording farmers, housewives, fishermen’. For some, such music was only worth leaving in the past, but Lomax helped revive it. Before Lomax, Delia’s singing had brought the music from the private to the public sphere. The songs she had collected were heard at diplomatic parties, concerts and later on the radio.  She was transmitting the music of the people. These were not the polished songs of professional musicians but the treasured memories of the lives of people she knew.

The first diplomatic posting for the Kiernans was to London in 1924, when Thomas was appointed secretary to the High Commissioner. It gave Delia many new responsibilities and a new audience for her singing. It was there that she met the famous Irish tenor, John McCormack, and corrected his interpretation of an Irish song, Una Bhan. There are several versions of the story but it is clear that Delia saw her role as communicating the essence of the song and the people who sang it for her. She reportedly told McCormack that ‘In Co Mayo we’d be thrown out for singing it like that’ and performed it with ‘the traditional nyah’ as it might have been sung thereLomax expressed a similar viewpoint: ‘The performer gives you his strongest and deepest feeling, and, if he [she] is a folk singer, this emotion can reveal the character of the whole community’.

After eleven years in London, the family returned to Ireland in 1935 where Thomas became head of Radio Eireann (RE), the Irish broadcasting corporation. Leslie Thorn from HMV records arrived in Ireland in 1936 and knew of Delia through her connection with John McCormack and singing at diplomatic parties in London. By 1939, she had recorded several singles that can be heard on Youtube:

If I were a Blackbird ,

Three Lovely Lassies

and The Spinning Wheel,

These recordings and her appearances on the radio brought her into the homes of so many who were unable to attend her concerts. Her songs spoke of the pre-industrial era. Colm Kiernan, Delia’s son once commented, ‘It was ballad music intoned in a genuine Mayo accent…It appealed to Irish nationalism. Delia’s music filled the deep and long void left after the Civil War.’

This sentiment was not shared by all. As Liam Clancy noted, many Irish people had wanted to move on from their poverty stricken past and they aspired to a piano in the parlour and light opera and tried to hide the past traditions of the ‘come all ye’. Clancy, nevertheless, attributes the success of the 1960s traditional Irish band The Chieftains to Delia’s pioneering work, ‘I think her main contribution was that she made us feel that we could respectably sing our own songs’. It was clear that Delia’s music was a challenge for many but it was also an important resurrection of the tradition.

Leslie Thorn from HMV noted that although Delia got on well with society types, they ‘were inclined to look down on the sort of songs she sang’.  For Seán Ó Síocháin who sang with Delia in concerts, her music was like the music he had grown up with in Cork: ‘She wanted to recreate the background from which she came…..The themes of her songs struck a chord with the people. She had enormous appeal’. Many others had the same experience. 

When Donagh McDonagh, son of Thomas McDonagh, one of the executed leaders of the 1916 uprising, wanted to start a radio programme to supplement his income, Delia suggested a programme about ballads. At a time when RE was operating on a shoestring, Delia’s wide knowledge, personal song collection and generosity in lending resources and advice proved invaluable. The programme went on to collect songs from the listeners and ran for five years.

Irish writer Benedict Kiely once claimed that ‘in any survey of the revival of folk balladry in contemporary Ireland both that programme and the recordings made about the same time by Delia Murphy deserve a most important place’. Delia’s son Colm noted that although his father as head of RE did not influence the station to play her music, there were thousands of requests for it. During this time Delia toured Ireland for concerts and recorded several more songs for the record label HMV. 

In 1941, the family went to the Vatican where Thomas was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to the Holy See. Delia’s singing career took a back seat again although she sang at many social occasions. The war years in Rome were full of adventure and Delia seems to have charmed the locals and the German forces alike. Stories of her assistance with the escape of allied soldiers abound.

By 1946 the family was on the move to Australia. At the time, Australia, as a member of the Commonwealth, was strongly pro-Britain while Ireland emphasised its neutrality during the Second World War, and asked to be known as ‘Ireland’ which implied sovereignty over the 32 counties, rather than Éire, the Irish language name for Ireland preferred by Australia but also a name that emphasised Partition. A compromise was reached with the government welcoming T J Kiernan as the High Commissioner of Eire but allowing the use of ‘Ireland’ or ‘Minister Plenipotentiary’. It was not until 1950 that the High Commission was declared an embassy.

In 1946, when the Kiernans arrived, there were 45,000 Irish-born in Australia and 20% of the population claimed Irish descent. Archbishop Mannix, the Irish-born Archbishop of Melbourne, was a prominent figure and a rallying point for many Irish-Australian Catholics. He was keen to welcome the Kiernans and organised a meeting in their honour on 21 November 1946 in Melbourne Town Hall amid ‘a riot of birettas and cassocks’.

After the speeches Delia was introduced ‘at the request of his Grace’ and sang several songs, beginning with ‘The Spinning Wheel’. A headline in a newspaper next day noted, ‘Eire Minister’s Wife Steals the Show’. Her role in the establishment of the Irish embassy had begun.

Delia’s musical diplomacy continued to break down barriers. She travelled around the country with her husband, attending official functions, and visiting the Irish diaspora and Catholic groups. The report in the Cairns Post on her attendance at the meeting of the Catholic Daughters of Australia demonstrated her openness and generosity and the importance of the occasion for those present (5 April 1947). In the report she was referred to as Dame Delia Kiernan, an honour conferred by The Vatican before the Kiernans left Rome.

Delia sang at embassy parties, performing Irish songs and joining with other diplomats to sing songs of their lands. Her open, relaxed approach broke down the starched protocols of such events and many strove to attend. All sides of Australian politics came.  An invitation to a barbecue noted, ‘Dress utterly informal. Toasting fork optional’.

Her joy in singing and her generosity saw her involved in charity concerts such as those to raise funds for Patricia Howard who was heading to an operatic career in London. A review of her concert on 2 April 1947 provides some fascinating insights into her repertoire and singing style and the challenge it provided for an Australian audience as reported in the Advocate, Melbourne 2 April 1947. 

These ballads and the manner of their singing…..have grown up from the people, they are sung for the people and they need for their full enjoyment to be taken up by the people and heartily sung in chorus with the singer. Unfortunately the Australian audience though it obviously enjoyed the performance and could hardly resist the urge to tap its feet could not break out of the solemn concert tradition and let itself go.

The ballads with their narrative style allow a free and easy interpretation and the singer has just the right personality for this informal recital.

The audience was obviously unaccustomed to Irish traditional music. Interestingly at an earlier concert for Patricia Howard another reviewer for the Advocate saw the audience respond ‘with an enthusiasm which was amply demonstrated by the thunderous applause that greeted her at the conclusion of each item’. The same reviewer reported that Delia believed that Australian folk music could learn much from the study of Irish folk music.

In Australia at this time,  there were many traditional singers and performers around the country but until people like John Meredith started his collection of traditional songs in the 1950s and groups like the Sydney Bush Music Club started to perform these songs publicly, there was no ‘folk scene’.

When Delia arrived in Australia, popular music on the radio featured American pop songs, skiffle music and country music. Did she have any role in underlining the importance of folk music?  Malcolm J. Turnbull on Warren Fahey’s website lists many early folk performers, and ‘Delia Murphy (an Irish diplomat’s wife)’ is mentioned in passing. Her presence in the folk scene was informal – singing when requested or assisting with charity events. That she was well known in Irish circles was clear from the many requests for her songs at Irish gatherings. Her diplomatic duties precluded her professional singing career, yet she obviously made an impression. 

Her time in Australia was short. In 1951 the desire to pursue her professional singing career drew her back to Ireland for four years for a series of concerts. Her husband remained as Irish Ambassador in Australia until 1955 when he was sent as Ireland’s Ambassador to Bonn. Delia accompanied him there and later to Canada and then Washington when he was appointed as Ambassador.

The success of the Irish Embassy in Australia can be attributed to both Kiernans. Establishing an Irish diplomatic presence was met with apathy from some and antagonism from others in the Australian government. Although the Labor Party was keen to establish relations with Ireland, the Liberal Country Party Coalition questioned the cost of establishing an embassy and the need for representation by such a small country. This was the first of many difficulties faced by the Kiernans. Accommodation was another. Without an official residence, they and their children lived in a hotel for two years and then in a house lent to them by the Chilean Ambassador. Aside from the problems for the family, the lack of an official residence made it difficult for Thomas to carry out his official duties, required Tom and Delia to travel away from home more often, and gave a poor impression of the importance of the Irish mission.

Despite the difficulties, they made a success of the enterprise – Thomas with his lectures and writings about the Irish-Australian connection and Delia with her singing, her interest in people and her sense of fun. In addition the Kiernans overcame the not insignificant problem of establishing a recognisable embassy without a permanent residence.  Dr Thomas Kiernan and his wife Delia Murphy brought their many and varied gifts to the task. Her role here in Australia in the diplomatic world and in the folk music scene must also be recorded. 

Delia Murphy is buried in Deansgrange cemetery, Dublin. There is a memorial to her at Roundfort, Co. Mayo.

The Irish broadcaster, writer, and producer, Aidan O’Hara’s 1997 book, I’ll live ’til I die – the story of Delia Murphy, was a principal source for this feature.

photo courtesy Gerry Costello

Gene Smith, a retired teacher, grew up in Ireland listening to her grandfather singing songs of Delia Murphy, Percy French and Samuel Lover among many others. It left a lasting impression on her and inspired some very enjoyable research in her retirement.