Joan Murphy – a woman well ahead of her times

An Appreciation

Joan (Josephine) Murphy (March 10th, 1933 – November 28th, 2023) was a singular woman, yet her life is remarkable for its representation of a cohort of smart and capable Irish women of the mid-20th century who were often denied access to a career or higher education. Thankfully for her, and her family, she was fortunate in the only path open to her – marriage to an eligible man.

Born in 1933 in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, she was the second of five children. The Fitzgerald’s was a busy house transecting small Irish town commerce and agricultural life, through extended families in surrounding farms.

For Joan, the inauguration of President Mary Robinson in 1990 was both seminal and confirmatory. President Robinson referred to “Mná na hÉireann” saying: “I want women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, ‘finding a voice where they found a vision’.”

Like so many other Irish women of the time, Joan had been written out of history. Offered a scholarship to University College Cork at 16, it was declined by her father, not at all unusually in those times, on the grounds of futility for a woman to pursue a career. Instead, she joined the Provincial Bank where her weekly wage was less than her lodgings. By 1955, she was in the Provincial head office on College Street, Dublin, with a job title of simply “computer”. In those days, at the end of each working day the income and expenditure books had to balance – no one was allowed home before they did so. As the bank “computer”, Joan spent many happy hours manually balancing the books. As soon as she informed the bank manager of her engagement, he, as per bank policy, immediately organised her exit party.


Her exit was precipitated by meeting and marrying Kevin Murphy who had just arrived in Dungarvan as assistant county medical officer. He joined the bridge club of Joan’s mother and introductions were made and pursued. For the next 30 years, Joan devoted herself to her family. She followed Kevin’s career around Ireland as he rose through the public health ranks in Dungarvan, Donegal and finally Dublin.

However, there was always a tension that her intellectual capacity remained untapped. It was a tension that she did not ever fully resolve. Education was really important to her; Tara Westover’s book Educated resonated strongly. Westover’s lines encapsulated Joan’s fervent commitment to education: “The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

She was a voracious reader of all books and an avid follower of current affairs through The Irish Times and numerous periodicals: initially Time magazine, but that was rejected as too pro-American, and in came Le Point, a French centrist English language weekly. She was very much a liberal-minded woman, well ahead of her times, quietly but strongly supportive of crusading social issues such as access to contraception and divorce. Unusually, she refused an invitation from the local parish priest in Donegal for her two sons to become altar boys. She returned to work in her 50s as a volunteer adviser in the Citizens Advice Bureau in Blackrock. She continued with bridge from Dungarvan and became a good club player. Unusually, she most enjoyed the quieter rewards of defence, coolly computing the calculus of odds as to which player had what cards.

From her early life, Joan suffered from a hereditary deafness condition called otosclerois. This required bilateral hearing aids, a degree of lip reading and close attention to where she placed herself in a room, to minimise background noise. This challenge hid a playful and humorous side – often shown only in private.

Her final year was blighted by dementia.

She was married for 53 years to Kevin and they were a most devoted couple. Their three children – Susan, Philip and Andrew – and eight grandchildren survive them.