I’m not hugely into sports. I watch the big soccer and rugby games when Ireland plays. I appreciate the skill in a good boxing bout and I sit in awe whenever the Olympics is on and I can watch those jaw-dropping displays the gymnasts put on. Other than that, I’m not that pushed. However, my antennae have picked up on the scandals in Fifa and now also in the International Amateur Athletics Federation – IAAF. Before those, of course, we had the revelations about Lance Armstrong, one-time cycling supremo and now self-confessed drugs cheat.
It’s all enough to give sport a bad name, and it has. The purity of sport is what has been lost in these days of commercialism and scientific advances. But there was a time when those things didn’t matter and when it was the winning that counted and not the rewards to be gleaned from it . . . the time of The Iron Man.
Now, by ‘Iron Man’ I don’t mean those endurance races involving running, swimming and cycling. The man I have in mind would probably have laughed that people would think such things a challenge. Nor do I mean the Marvel Comics superhero. No, this Iron Man didn’t need to strap on a metal suit to achieve his goals. He was flesh and blood, and went by the very non-Marvel Comics name of Mick Murphy.
Mick, The Iron Man or Mile-a-Minute Murphy as he was also known, was an Irish racing cyclist whose sporting prowess makes today’s athletes look like pampered sissies. I first came across his name last year when my friend and former colleague John Regan mentioned it to me accompanied by a list of Murphy’s exploits that made my eyes bulge.
What exploits they were… Before he became a cyclist, Mick was a keen runner, who entered races in his teens, and usually won. So good was he that he had to concede a one-mile handicap in a four-mile race (Mick had to run five miles); he still managed to come second. However, with such a steep handicap, Mick decided to turn his interests elsewhere.
Born in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, in 1933, Mick Murphy’s thoughts often strayed beyond the green fields of his youth. His first taste of the exotic came when he befriended a local circus performer. Captivated by stories of strong men, circus acts and athletic achievements, he used his Confirmation money to order a book on bodybuilding.
He would lift weights fashioned from rocks and drink cow’s blood to boost his stamina (a practice he acquired from some Russian weightlifters). His training also included balancing a ladder on his chin, and he could walk for a mile on his hands – uphill.
However, it is Mick’s exploits in 1958 during Ireland’s eight-day international stage cycle race – the Ras Tailteann – that he cemented his legendary status.
Mick won that race – and he did it in style. On one stage, Mick was in the lead and his bike became badly damaged, The rest of the pack soon passed him by. There was no time to waste, so The Iron Man stole an ordinary bicycle from a nearby farm. It was an old bone-shaker, without gears, but Mick proceeded to chase down the pack so that he could stay in contention for the top prize.
That wasn’t his only setback on the race. After another crash he was left concussed, and ended up riding 10 miles in the wrong direction before turning around. Then there was the small matter of Murphy riding for four days with a broken collarbone that he sustained during one of those crashes.
Once a race stage was complete, Mick would ride up to 50 miles past the finish line to cool down. When he finally won the race, he cycled away, leaving the crowds at the finish line without a hero to celebrate.
Earlier this year, my friend John, interested in writing a book about this extraordinary fellow, tracked Mick down to discover if these outlandish tales were really true. He found him living in Cahersiveen in a derelict ruin which lacked electricity or running water. Here, in an article for the Irish Independent, John describes what he found . . .
Entering his small ramshackle house, I was expecting to find an old eccentric, hiding away from the modern world. Instead, I found a bright, witty man who was full of stories, and was more than willing to share them.
He told me that [after the victory] he went looking for a gym to train in. Failing to find one, he rode out of town until he found a field with a stone wall. There he spent an hour lifting weights, before taking blood from a cow and drinking it.
I had heard the cow’s blood stories before, always assuming them to be myths. But he assured me that he would often go to the butcher, buy a fillet steak, and eat it raw on his way home. On the fourth stage he crashed on his way to Tralee. Even with a broken collarbone, he managed to finish in the Yellow Jersey.
From the finish line, he was brought straight to hospital but Murphy hopped out the window, over the hospital walls and escaped. Instead of going to his hotel bed, he decided to go to a dance, as he didn’t want to stiffen up and so arrived at the start line the next morning ‘fit for the grave’.
For the next 30 years he continued to compete in various sports, winning amateur competitions in boxing, wrestling and even darts. He worked on building sites, and even had a few stints in the circus. After a bad accident on a building site in England, Murphy settled back in Kerry.
In this time of glossy, pampered sports superstars, Mick was a true hero, devoid of money, media attention or, for that matter, performance-enhancing drugs. He did it all for the love of the sport and because he could.
Mick Murphy – cyclist, wrestler, boxer, runner, farmer, circus performer, ventriloquist, fire eater and bricklayer – died on September 12 of this year, aged 82. He was a legend.
He was The Iron Man.