"I think I want to travel a lot more. It's a very strange feeling being somewhere where no body can contact you cos no one knows where you are and it seems the further you travel or the more you travel the less past you have. It seems to ooze out of you like sweat"
Quote from a letter from Tom that he wrote to me from
Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, Australia.
It is difficult to fathom that Tom Jordan Murphy is a year dead. In fact it is difficult for anyone who was privileged enough to know and love him to reconcile themselves to a world without Tom. Tom was rare and unique. He was undoubtedly slightly otherworldly and most definitely a bag of contradictions. A fabulously gifted actor who was painfully shy, Tom was also a deeply funny and mischievous man. He lived most of his life in Dublin but was actually born in 1968 in Harare, Zimbabwe, where his father worked for a time in construction. Not that many people knew that of Tom. That was another of Tom's little secrets or omissions. I think it never occurred to him that anyone would find the idea that he was born in Africa of any interest so he never said. He was just like that.
I first met Tom on 11 February 1993. I had recently left drama school and I landed a job in Joe Dowling's touring production of Juno and the Paycock. I had three lines. Not exactly the big break I was hoping for but at least it was paid work and I also got to understudy the part of Johnny Boyle which was being played by an actor I had never heard of at the time called Tom Murphy. The reading I heard that first day of rehearsals from Tom was extraordinary; dark and intense, filled with pain and fear. And there was also something else there too, something unique and indefinable. That certain Tom thing.
From the very start Tom and I were drawn to each other. Tom was almost the direct opposite of me. He was short and I a respectable 6ft and side-by-side I think we looked quite comical. Trying to find words to describe Tom to people who have never met him is a very difficult task. Pixie would be a good place to start or, as Garry Hynes said in her eulogy for him, he was "the consummate skanger angel". But more than that he was a caring, good human being, generous, sweet and infuriating in equal measure, and entirely singular.
My apartment is littered with tokens and presents that Tom gave me – books, pictures, trinkets and a divine handmade wooden kaleidoscope that he got me for no other reason than that I had once said I loved them and which cost him a small fortune.
Tom was, at heart, a very solitary person but he was not averse to going out. On the contrary he thoroughly enjoyed a drink and was permanently wedded to cigarettes. Before his illness we used to meet up quite regularly. Never a planned thing. I'd simply run into him on Parliament Street perhaps and that would be that. A night out with him was guaranteed to end in much laughter, intense chats, an argument or two and a mildly bruised liver. But more than anything else Tom lived to act.
Perhaps Tom's greatest strength as an actor was his almost wilful disregard for any notion of a career path. The idea that Tom Murphy had any cunning game plan is laughably wrong. He just went from one job to the next, choosing parts because they were of interest to him and not because they were right for his advancement or his career.
And yet, almost despite himself, Tom's successes as an actor were huge. A Tony award by the time he was 30, acclaim on both stage and screen, work in Dublin, London and New York, and still he did his best to distance himself from it. Perhaps his greatest stunt of self-sabotage was the hilarious name-change debacle after he won his Tony award in 1998. At that point Tom was the toast of New York after his stunning performance in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. So, in typical Tom fashion, he decided to change his name, to Jordan Murphy first, and then soon after to Tom Jordan Murphy and then back to plain Tom again and then, ever after, a combination of all the above. Not the most sensible of career moves but a very Tom thing to do and it did provide his friends and himself with many laughs afterwards. People were genuinely perplexed as to why he did it but I think it was because he was just like that. He was just wilfully being Tom and travelling through life on his own terms.
Tom's shyness was legendary. When Adam & Paul premiered at the Berlin Film Festival Tom came along but insisted that he would not be doing any press or questions and answers sessions after. Indeed, as soon as the lights came up after the screening, Tom was gone. Off to have fun in the Berlin night. After the release of the film, Tom frequently accused me of ruining his life. It was a trial for this shy man to be accosted in the street on a regular basis by gangs of schoolboys shouting, "I'm not wiping myself with a Tayto bag." Underneath it all though I know he was proud of it.
After Tom died last year I heard many people saying that he had never really achieved what he could have in his career but I disagree with this. Tom achieved more in his short life than most actors would in their long careers but Tom did it in his own quiet, understated, shy way. He did it and he moved on and he never bragged. Perhaps what these people meant was that with his passing we have all been robbed of the work that was to come. Of all the joy his talent would have brought and of the fun his friends would have had at his unique and half-demented career choices.
Meeting Tom Murphy was a blessing for me and that day in February 1993 was one of the most significant days of my life. I had met a person who would turn out to be my closest friend and a constant source of support and inspiration. I have so many fond memories of our time together but working with him on Adam & Paul was one of the best experiences in my life. I am certain that Tom's performance in that film is one of the greatest ever seen by an Irish actor on screen.
Edmund White once said that when somebody dies, it's like a library burning down. With Tom's passing it did feel that intense. I'd experienced the death of loved ones before but with Tom's death there was something else. He was the family that I had constructed myself, that I had chosen, and I believed that we were going to be friends for a long time to come. He should have had a whole lifetime ahead of him.
Tom was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in June 2007 and before anyone even realised how serious it was he was gone. On 6 October he died surrounded by his wonderful, loving family and a couple of friends.
If his leaving was so very painful and nonsensical it was also a very Tom exit. Not explained and utterly personal. I guess he was just continuing his journey. So I've decided to be away for his anniversary this year. The day would be too difficult if I was at home I think. So I've decided to pick the most exotic and way-out place possible. A place I know would make him smile at the thought of me being there.
So I'm going to be in Damascus in Syria, and at 1.30pm on 6 October I'll sit down in a cafe, have a coffee, possibly smoke a narghile pipe and say to myself, "This is for you, Tom."