Like her dad, Megan Murphy rode fast and hard down to the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, the narrow single lane road winding atop steep coastal cliffs dropping away to the rugged open Atlantic below.
Megan was chasing the sun, which was steadily getting set to fall into the ocean, just as her dad had, more than 40 years before, and like him, she was exhausted from a long day, indeed many long days, on a bicycle — the exact same bicycle — climbing southern Ireland’s never ending hills, pushing through its temperamental rain and gales.
Like her dad, Megan carried far more baggage with her than the saddle bags hanging from the frame of the sturdy red 10-speed 1973 Peugeot road cycle suggested. Although Megan pedalling on her own, the presence of loved ones far away was as heavy and real as if they were right there in the saddle too, just as they had been for her dad. Megan rolled down to the craggy, windswept westernmost point of Europe knowing, just like her dad did, that when she got there, her life would change.
“It’s the edge of the world. It’s a place to get lost — and found,” Megan told the Pioneer. “When I got there (to the end of the Dingle), I bawled.”
It was a spot Megan, a Peterborough, Ontario actress, filmmaker and radio show host, knew well. After all, Marty Murphy, had taken her, her two sisters and her mom there on a trip when the girls were teenagers. He’d wanted to show them the place where he’d stood as a young man at a confusing crossroads of life, a junction of uncertainty, and seen a way forward.
The first time Marty had been there, in 1973, he was 26 years old, recently rejected from law school. He had broken up with the love of his life, Mary Anne, who he had dated for six years, then rekindled the relationship just before packing his bags and flying from Canada to Ireland, to wheel his way solo around the southern half of his ancestral homeland, on the then brand-new red Peugeot, hoping to make some sense of his life. He did, and more, deciding on the Aran Islands to spend the rest of his life with Mary Anne. It was the Dingle, however, that affected him most, where as Megan said, “he talked about feeling the wind in his hair and the pull of possibility beneath his feet,” and where he felt Mary Anne with him, certain she could feel the same sea breeze in her face that he was.
When Marty went through chemotherapy, and doctors told him to imagine a happy place, he chose the tip of the Dingle. In the end Marty passed away from cancer in 2004. The girls and Mary Anne went back to the Dingle, and dedicated a bench there in his honour. Then Mary Anne passed away from cancer too, eight years later. Megan’s parents had an undeniable presence, Marty the charismatic shanachie (traditional Gaelic storyteller) with wry wit and a dark, Irish sense of humour, and Mary Anne, in Megan’s words, a “fierce woman.” Their absence set Megan adrift, and life seemed to unravel in slow motion. On the outside, everything was bustle and success, but on the inside something was drastically askew.
She broke off her engagement to her fiance, ending a six-year relationship, and the normally talkative, outgoing woman began spending increasingly amounts of time simply lying in bed, sinking deeper into gloom.
“I was so depressed and so low,” said Megan.
In fall 2013 she moved back into her childhood home and began going through her parent’s belonging, finding among them some old journals, long presumed to have been lost in a fire decades prior. Though partially singed from the flames, the journals, written by Marty while on his cycle trip, were otherwise intact, and going through them Megan was struck by how poetic and profound her dad’s long-ago entries were. It was a side of him she had never really known, until then.
When Megan looked in the garage, the red 10-speed Peugeot road cycle Marty had ridden was there, hanging in the rafters. It had always been there, and Megan had seen it many times throughout her childhood and wondered why her dad kept it, even taking it with them when the family moved houses, given that she’d never seen him cycle. But now it made sense. It was that bicycle, from that trip.
The more she delved into her dad’s journals, the more Megan was overcome by how shockingly similar her situation was to her dad’s four decades before.
“We always were kindred spirits. We always ‘got’ each other. I have the whimsy he always seemed to have. We had the same sense of humour, and enjoyed life the same way. We both had the same ability to connect with people,” Megan told the Pioneer. “But I was also starting to see that we were similar in other ways that I hadn’t known. He was in a really dark place, depressed, before he went on his trip. And here I was, also in a really dark place.”
The parallel was not lost on Megan, and she knew, almost immediately, what she had to do.
“I knew I had to do save myself. I needed to do something. Finding my dad’s journal felt like he was sending me a message,” she said.
She took the bike to a local shop, had it fixed up (although she kept the original red paint, faded though it was) and began to ride every day (no small feat for somebody who at that point hadn’t been on a bike in 25 years), with the aim of retracing Marty’s journey. Time was short — Megan had only six weeks to train, and complicating matters was her ambition of turning the trip into a documentary — but she managed to pull everything together, and in the summer of 2014 the Peugeot was back on the Emerald Isle for the first time in 41 years.
For the better part of a month Megan pedalled in her dad’s footsteps, stopping in all the places he’d stopped, taking in what he’d taken in, and reading his words over again in places where he had first written them.
“I think grieving is not something our society always does well. Often it’s quick and we try to move on before it becomes uncomfortable to those around us,” she said. “The trip afforded me a chance to sit in that for a while, and commune with that.”
At almost every turn, Megan encountered her parents, feeling them there with her, but meeting parts of them she never had before. In Dublin, where Marty had received telegrams from Mary Anne, Megan reread the telegrams, startled by how mushy and sentimental her normally “fierce” mom could be. In Wateford, Megan sat in a church her dad had sat and just listened to music pouring from the organist’s fingers. As she sat there, she fell into conversation with an old priest, Father Ignatius, who had been at the church his whole life. When Megan described the scene from Marty’s journal, Father Ignatius listened and replied “that was me. I was the organist here in the 1970s.”
Megan went to the Aran Islands, where Marty had decided to marry Mary Anne. She found the exact rock jutting out of the top of the cliff that her dad described in his journals, went up to it, and crawled out on her stomach to peer over the edge.
“I loved getting to know my parents as they were when they were young and not yet tied to any of life’s big worries,” she said. “I felt I had my parents again, and that helped me finally start to let them go.”
And while Marty, a devout Irish Catholic, had carried Mary Anne’s rosary beads with him in 1973, Megan carried Marty’s patron saint medals with her in 2014, getting them and the bike blessed by priests along the way.
For Megan it wasn’t just about seeing what her dad had seen, it was about trying to feel what he had felt.
In his journal, Marty wrote that “the ride down that mountain to Dingle was perhaps the second most thrilling moment I can remember. It was exhilarating: four miles (6.5 kilometres) of winding, asphalt road in about seven minutes.
“I was braking on and off most all the way just to keep control of the machine. To be on the fine edge of disaster yet in control, however precariously, is a sensation that must be experienced to be understood. The magnetic quality of danger perhaps rings one of the more basic of our emotions, but it is nonetheless human.”
It was a sensation Megan first became familiar with on a 12 mile (19 kilometre) descent near Wexford (“I was certainly on the edge of control, and I felt that Dad was there with me. It was terrifying in a wonderful way,” she said), but one she also felt on the Dingle (“Oh my God, that ride down to the tip. I can’t really describe it,” she said).
Reaching the end of the Dingle, Marty had paused for a thoughtful time before going to visit some “fellas” he met earlier that day, for a night of Gaelic music at the local pub. Megan rode to the same point four decades later, and was met by her sisters and family at the bench dedicated to her dad. Tears flowed, and hugs and smiles came freely. The spark she had lost was back. And, just like their dad, Megan and family spent the evening in the same pub, the only one in town, listening to lively Gaelic tunes.
The documentary Megan created from her trip was completed by summer 2016, and will be playing in Invermere next week. If the trailer is anything to go by, Megan is every bit the shanachie her dad was.
“It uses footage from my trip, footage from old home movies, readings from my dad’s journal, and recordings from a cassette tape that my dad made, before he passed away, for my sisters and I, in which we ask him questions about life, so the film is really a mash of textures,” she said.
The film screening will be at Pynelogs on Tuesday, October 17th at 7 p.m. To purchase tickets call the Columbia Valley Arts Council at Pynelogs at 250-342-4423.