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Mick Murphy - the last convict of the road

Peter Woods
17 Dec 2015

Mick Murphy drank cows' blood, rode off a concussion and worked out with rocks. Cyclist recalls one of cycling's greatest legends.

On the third stage of the 1958 Rás Tailteann – Ireland’s famous road race – the stage leader and yellow jersey wearer Mick Murphy had a mechanical. His freewheel went and he came spluttering to a halt. Behind him, the Dublin team, one of the strongest teams in the race, seized the opportunity they’d been hoping for. They massed and passed him. With no sign of the team car, Murphy shouldered his useless bike and began running after them. What followed was to make Mick Murphy – soon to be known as the Iron Man – a legend.

Murphy came kicking and screaming into the world in 1934, born to a farming family in County Kerry in the far west of Ireland. It was an impoverished landscape, in an impoverished country in the midst of the Great Depression, during what was also termed ‘The Economic War’ between Britain and Ireland. He left school at 11 to work variously as a farm labourer, a quarryman and a labourer in the local bogs. By his late teens he was a spailpín, or migrant worker, in neighbouring County Cork.

Mick Murphy portrait

His education had been limited. Taught to read by his mother, the other determining influence in his young life was a neighbour who had an interest in travelling carnivals and had taught the young boy circus tricks. Among those Murphy learnt was fire eating and from time to time, throughout his life, he worked as a street performer to make ends meet. In fact, just prior to the ’58 Rás, he’d sustained himself by performing on corners in Cork City among the female street traders, or shawlies, as they were known. These circus skills also introduced Murphy to ideas about weight lifting and diet – ideas that soon sparked in him a true passion for sport. Not that it took much of a spark. 

I didn’t do much thinking in my racing life. My legs did the thinking for me.

A life of hard labour was one of the few options open to a man of Murphy’s background and he saw sport as a means of escape from the endless drudgery. He took correspondence courses in weight training and sent away for dietary supplements. Lacking a gym, he made his own weights from concrete and sand-filled bags, even developing a contraption for strengthening his neck, and had soon developed phenomenal upper-body strength.

He also read everything he could about sport and before long was taking part in competitions, first in the ring as a prize fighter and then on the roads as a runner, competing in events all over southwest Ireland. Still pursued by poverty and hunger, he often slept in hay sheds or barns and sold the prizes he won to feed himself. But he was gaining a reputation as a runner, and when he turned up to a race in 1957 to discover that the organisers had issued him with a handicap, he finally turned his attention to the sport that would make him famous – cycling. 

Throughout 1957, Murphy competed at grass track meetings on an ordinary bicycle, until he eventually got the money together to buy a racing bike. It was secondhand and in terrible condition – but he began to notch up wins on it and soon had his eye on Ireland’s biggest stage race, the Rás.

In those days, the Rás wasn’t the pan-European pro affair it is today, but a hugely popular competition between Irish county teams. It lit up the rural Irish towns it rushed through in an explosion of colour and excitement, turning its riders into national heroes. In 1958, Murphy was selected for the County Kerry team, which boasted among its ranks the great Gene Mangan, who’d won the yellow jersey three years previously. For many, Mangan was the one to watch. But all that was about to change. 

Murphy’s prep for the race was typical if unusual. First there was his unique diet. High in protein, it largely centred on eggs, meat, cereals, vegetables and goats’ milk, most of which he consumed raw. He also drank the blood of cows, something he claimed to have copied from Masai warriors in east Africa who’d apparently practised the custom for thousands of years. He carried a filed-down penknife with him which he’d use to nick open a cow’s vein, before tapping its blood into his bottle and pinching the wound shut again. He carried out these ‘transfusions’, as he called them, at least three times during the course of the 1958 Rás.

Weeks before the Rás began, he set up home in what he called a ‘lair’ in the woods near Banteer, in the wilds of north Cork. From here, he’d cycle prodigious distances in preparation for the long race stages. He also worked on his weights. ‘I was the strongest I ever was,’ he recalled many years later. ‘I was frightening myself with the weights.’

All of this showed a total devotion to racing that matched his all-out approach to the sport. ‘Cycling’s about attacking,’ he revealed. ‘I didn’t do much thinking in my racing life. My legs did the thinking for me. I had only one style – attack.’ And when the Rás began, that’s exactly what Murphy did. 

The day of the common bike

With Mangan a marked man, Murphy and 18-year-old team-mate Dan Ahern broke away from the pack in the first stage of the race and stayed out in front. Ahern won that stage,but Murphy won the second – the 120-mile run from Wexford to Kilkenny in Ireland’s southeast. Riding at the front almost the whole way, Murphy finished a staggering 58 seconds ahead of the next rider. He was now in yellow, and the papers were starting to take notice of the tough guy with an even tougher riding style.

‘They were talking about me as this stupid rider, this stupid Kerryman,’ Murphy recalled. ‘But Tipperary were dismantled. Dublin were dismantled. I rode into the Marble City [Kilkenny] at 30mph.’

Mick Murphy team

And then he rode right out again. Straight into the countryside and beyond for another 40 miles – as a warm-down! When he did finally squeeze the brakes on his bike, it was to tap the vein of a nearby cow and do an improvised weight-training session with some rocks from a nearby stone wall. 

When the race set off the next morning, Murphy was once again way out ahead when his freewheel broke, and he was soon left chasing the pack on foot. As he was running down the road after them, his own bike slung across his shoulder, a farmer came out of a field to see what was going on – a farmer who just happened to have a bike with him. 

‘He was holding this bike in his left hand,’ Murphy recalled. ‘So I let my own bike down gently, sprinted towards him and jumped on his bike – a big, awkward-looking girl’s bike – then I was gone, pedalling furious.’

The race headed down into Cork City where only days before, Murphy had been performing fire-eating tricks in the streets. As he sped through the town, the shawlies he knew there shouted encouragement from the roadside. ‘They shrieked me on,’ he remembered. ‘My head rose to the mountain and I started to climb. And I could still hear the shawlies shrieking. They shrieked me over the mountain.’ 

But the farmer’s bike was slowing him down and when the team car eventually caught up with him, Murphy swapped it for the team’s spare racer. With 40 miles of the stage still to go, he set out to hunt down the pack. One by one, he picked off the stragglers until he’d caught sight of the leading bunch and by the time he crossed the finishing line, he was riding among them. Against unbelievable odds, he’d lost no time on the stage. Murphy was to dub his particular achievement ‘The Day of the Common Bike’. 

The day of the body snatchers

Murphy was to give the following stage of the race its own moniker too – he called it ‘The Day of the Body Snatchers’. This, the fourth stage, was a 115-mile run from Clonakilty in County Cork to Tralee in his native Kerry. Murphy was on home turf but about a third of the way into the stage, disaster struck. He was hurtling downhill at 50mph when he hit a bridge and was thrown out of the saddle. He’d already fallen once in the first stage, but had escaped serious injury. This time, he wasn’t so lucky. Not only was his bike a wreck, but his shoulder was badly damaged and he’d hit his head so hard, that unbeknown to Murphy, he was suffering from concussion. 

Mick Murphy Ras

‘I was glaring into space,’ said Murphy. ‘Mangan stopped in front of me and gave me a slap across the chin. “Get on it,” he said.’ Mangan then gave Murphy his own bike to ride.

Murphy never sat easily in a team and was a man with little interest in tactics. His way of winning a cycle race was simply to get out in front and stay out in front, and in 1958 – despite the shoulder injury, despite the concussion – this is what he did, imposing himself on the Rás. 

Murphy was now riding on pure instinct. He’d grown up in this part of Ireland. He knew the roads, he knew the mountains, and soon he was leading from the front again. ‘I decided I’d attack before Killarney and I jumped clear,’ he recalled. Not that his rivals were prepared to let him get away with it, mounting attack after attack themselves. ‘They caught me,’ said Murphy, ‘and Dublin attacked in waves. They attacked in waves all the way to Tralee and with every attack, I could hear them coming in the slush and the water. But for every attack they made, I made one too.’

The stage ended in a dash of high-speed cat-and-mouse with the Dublin team taking it in turns to go after Murphy. Concussed, bruised, bleeding, and cycling with only one hand on the handlebars because of his damaged shoulder, Murphy rode into Tralee in eighth place. At the finish line, one of the Dublin team turned to him and told him he looked about ready for the body snatchers.

The words were to have a strange effect on Murphy’s muddled mind. After the race, he was taken to the hospital for examination, but before the medical team could take a proper look at him, he lashed out at them. In his concussed confusion, he believed they really were grave robbers out to make money from his corpse. ‘I froze,’ he later recalled. ‘In my mind, I was going to be sold, so I kicked out at them.’ He struggled free and jumped out of a window into the street below. Such was the state of Murphy after the stage that ended in Tralee, that Mangan referred to him from then on as the Iron Man – it was to prove a particularly fitting title. 

‘Lucifer was waiting for me’

The next morning, there were doubts as to whether Murphy would be able to continue – although never in his own mind. So great was his pain, however, that he had to be helped into the yellow jersey by his team-mates. They then tied him into his toe straps, set his hands on the handlebars and pushed him off. ‘I swear,’ Murphy said later, ‘Lucifer was waiting for me.’ Nevertheless he finished in the bunch, vomiting as he crossed the line.

On the 100-mile sixth stage – from Castlebar to Sligo in northwest Ireland – Murphy began to regain his form. He escaped the bunch once more, only to crash again. The fall left him with concussion for the second time in as many days. After straightening his handlebars, he climbed back on his bike and set off again – but in the wrong direction. He soon met the chasing pack, but such was his befuddled state he refused to believe them when they told him he was going the wrong way. It was only when he met the next group of riders after them that his mind began to clear, and he turned his bike around. 

Mick Murphy shoulder

By now, he was way off the pace, and before him were the Curlew Mountains. Here, with his head below the bars, he got the hunger knock. Exhausted, cold and hurting, the team car caught up with him. Murphy was with the stragglers and would soon be out of yellow jersey contention.

‘Usually you don’t wait for those guys – you don’t even look at them. They’re weak,’ Murphy recalled of the race’s tail-enders. ‘But maybe I needed friends to help. I’d been a week on my own. So we raced over the mountains together in squally, dangerous weather – it was Russian roulette. As we raced off the mountain, we heard a bloke roar, “Defend the yellow mantle!” We heard it echoing through the mountains, “Defend the jersey!”’

He attacked and he never looked back. He won the Rás by 4.44 seconds.

Murphy caught up with the main bunch as they rode into Sligo at the end of the stage. But in typical fashion, he didn’t get off his bike there but went for a warm-down. ‘I headed out into the country,’ he said, ‘where I swear a little calf came up to me for blood.’

That night, Murphy went up to his room and wrote four words on his hand. They said, ‘Attack in the morning.’ ‘I pulled some wallpaper off the wall and I wrote it again and again where I’d see it, “Attack in the morning!” “Attack in the morning!”’

Murphy had a lead of just 3.54 seconds going into the 140-mile final stage from Sligo to Dublin, but he did what he planned to do that morning. He attacked and he never looked back. He won the Rás by 4.44 seconds. 

A career cut short

Mick Murphy continued to race for two more years, but he was now a marked man. The Dublin team that chased him in 1958 evolved into a fine tactical unit, and they hunted him down, to use his own words, ‘like a pack of wolves’. He won two stages in the 1959 Rás, including a memorable finale in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, and in 1960 he won the King of the Mountains jersey. But 1960 was also the year that poverty and a lack of opportunity finally persuaded Mick Murphy to do what so many of his fellow countrymen had been forced to do before him. He quit the country.

In another era, Murphy would have been a superstar – he had the character, the dedication and the self-belief. In his use of weights and diet, he was way ahead of his time. But in 1960s Ireland, even as a Rás-winning legend, the only way he could afford to eat was to work as a migrant farm worker. That meant a life of unremittingly hard labour. So he caught a boat to England in search of a better life. 

Murphy never cycled again and in many ways, the life he led after racing was just as colourful – it’s just that there was nobody there to witness it. He worked as a bricklayer all over England and Germany. He wrestled. He attempted a career as a professional darts player. He continued to perform on the streets – working as a fire eater in London’s Covent Garden right into the 1990s. A fall from some scaffolding while working on a building site in London finished his career. Now in his early 70s, he returned home.

Mick Murphy

Back in Ireland, Murphy became something of a recluse. But, as anyone who met him would tell you, he was an inveterate storyteller. He relived his days on the bike backwards, as he said, ‘starting at the finish’. His story became larger than he was. He was a man of great intelligence who could have been many things. In the end, he became the thing he wanted most – a legend.

In 2006, he emerged at the Rás for the first time in 46 years. His presence again attracted large crowds to the roadside; people who’d seen him in his prime and others who’d heard about him but doubted his existence. That day, more people surrounded him than watched the race.

Over the years, he’d acquired many nicknames. He was variously known as the Iron Man, as Mile-a-Minute Murphy and the Clay Pigeon – another reference to his toughness. In Rás terms, he was a ‘savage road man’. But Murphy always preferred ‘Convict of the Road’, an arcane term that describes the early riders of the Tour de France; a time when cyclists lived on their wits, stole from the fields and slept rough. Men like Maurice Garin, ‘the White Bulldog’, winner of the first Tour, who was sold as a child by his father to a chimney sweep for a bucket of cheese. And Mick Murphy – legendary hero of the Rás – was the last of this breed. He died on 11th September 2015. 

Listen to Peter Woods’ RTÉ Radio 1 documentary ‘A Convict Of The Road’.

For more pictures of Murphy in his later years, visit kierandmurray.com

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