A Character of a Councilman: Cork City Elected Bernie Murphy in 1985

Cllr. Bernie Murphy, (August 1935 – September 2007) the former sandwich board man who shocked Cork City Council by getting elected in the June 20th 1985 local elections. He made news on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean when he travelled to San Fransisco for new teeth.

I don’t know too many people now who remember the hub bub around the results of the local election of 1985 in Cork City when a sandwich board man, backed by a group of local businessmen, won a seat in the council in June of that year.

I remember following the story on radio and in the newspapers at the time.

It got stranger however, when the by now, Cllr. Bernie Murphy was sent to America to be fitted with a set of teeth – top and bottom.

He hardly needed them as he was described at the time as having ‘rock hard gums.’

Bernie’s story made headlines in all the Irish newspapers at the time. But it wasn’t until he went to America for the teeth that he really hit the headlines and he actually made the front page of one prominent paper over there.

New Teeth and Jobs

A review of state papers after their release in The Irish Times, in 2019 was headlined thus: Councillor went to San Francisco to get new teeth and jobs. The sub head read:

“Colourful Cork councillor Bernie Murphy’s visit, which made front-page headlines in the US, caused great embarrassment to Irish diplomats.”

“Because it was not an official visit, Cork Corporation could not prevent him from going but Murphy told the Cork Examiner: “City Hall told me not to go. But they are only jealous . . . I could not turn down this trip, I would be off my rocker,” IT journalist Alison Healy reported.

Quoting The San Fransisco Examiner columnist, Warren Hinckle, Ms. Healy continued:

“Bernie Murphy, the Cinderella man from Cork, a former sandwich board-walker-turned-politician who can’t read or write and was once so poor he lived like a troll under a bridge, left San Francisco a different man than he came. He had tears in his eyes, teeth in his mouth and cabbage (dollars) in his pocket.”

With his new teeth in his mouth he famously said “I had to come to San Francisco to get teeth. They wouldn’t give them to me at home after I waited six months for them.”

But Cllr. Bernie Murphy’s story travelled further that that – much further.

The Los Angeles Times of October 11th -1987. was also on to the political story of the era also. The following is the accredited story of his election

By Marcus Eliason, The Los Angeles Times, October 11th. -1987.

Cork still isn’t quite sure how Bernie Murphy got himself elected to the City Council. Was it a joke? A protest? An elaborate scheme to clean up at the bookmakers?

Whatever the truth is–and it may never be known–Bernie Murphy, ex-sandwich board man, cadger of drinks and general character about town has been Councilor Murphy for two years now and is thoroughly enjoying himself.

For the Irish in this great old southern city of 140,000, turning adversity into comedy is a refined art. Interspersed with tragic episodes of war, famine and British oppression are legendary characters like “Klondike” Healy, elected to the City Council on a promise to give Cork ladies their own public toilet, and John Reedy, who spent part of his campaign behind bars for being drunk and disorderly and wooed voters with a jazz band at election rallies.

Badly Needed Laugh

Now, with unemployment above 20%, Cork has thrown up Bernie Murphy to provide a badly needed laugh for a city that feels let down by Establishment politics.

Until the local election in June of 1985, Murphy had spent much of his life wrapped between two sandwich boards, traipsing along the River Lee, advertising Cork Cream Sherry or whatever else would net him the price of food and coal.

Although illiterate, the 50-year-old bachelor did have one thing going for him in politics–a high recognition factor. Everyone in Cork knew the short, chunky man with the toothless, engaging grin and fondness for a bit of chitchat with the people he met on his sandwich board rounds.

The 1985 election campaign got under way with Cork in dire straits. Several factories had closed and farmers were having disastrous weather.

Looked Resplendent

Murphy burst onto the campaign scene as an independent draped in new sandwich boards that featured his round face gazing solemnly from inside a glass of stout, surrounded by slogans saying: “Murphy–The People’s Choice. Give Cork Back Its Character.”

Listing his profession as advertising agent, he held election rallies looking resplendent in tie and homburg hat and crooning “The Boys of Kilmichael” and “The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee” to the crowds.

On June 21, 1985, after many recounts, the tally in Cork North Central Ward was announced: Murphy, with 1,292 votes, was in by a nose.

Bookmaker Liam Cashman still complains that Murphy’s win cost him more than £20,000 in Irish pounds.

Gerald Goldberg, a former lord mayor of Cork, insists that it was all a scheme got up by the gambling fraternity “who didn’t care that they were perverting the democratic system.”

Actually, it’s not clear who really was behind Murphy’s candidacy, although there are various theories, none of which has been established as the true one.

Some Cork elders worried about what Murphy’s election would do to Cork’s image, especially since it was marking its 800th birthday with a drive for new investment.

Others say the vote for Murphy reflected despair, especially in Murphy’s run-down ward where unemployment is high.

“It reflected public apathy and a total lack of faith in the political system to solve our problems,” said Mark Hennessy, a Cork journalist.

Today former Mayor Goldberg is philosophical. Asked if he thinks Murphy’s election makes his beloved city look foolish, he replied: “Cork has always looked foolish. It’s an extraordinary city. The Irish character sees everything as a sporting event.”

“My respect for the people of Cork increased 1,000% when they elected Bernie Murphy,” said Des McHale, a Cork University mathematics professor who also happens to be a world authority on Irish jokes.

“I don’t think the Irish get laughed at as idiots. Our idiocy is the most creative in the world.”

After the election, some politicians had nightmarish visions of Murphy reducing City Council meetings to farce or even becoming a power broker, given the fractured makeup of the 31-member body.

Observes Decorum

It hasn’t happened. Murphy chooses to make token appearances, often only to collect his expenses for being a councilman. He meticulously observes decorum, nevertheless, always wearing tie and pinstripe suit. His supporters have installed a shower in his cottage.

Sometimes, Murphy said in an interview, the pressure gets too much.

“The other day they were on at me to vote against the water rates, and there was I with no food in my tummy. I’d not had my tea, so I walked out. Then I had a couple of drinks and felt better.”

He didn’t return to vote.

He feels duty-bound to keep up with current affairs, so on his way to Sunday Mass he stops by the riverside taxicab rank where drivers read to him from the newspapers.

He now earns 140 pounds ($220) a month working every other week for the city as a laborer. He gets no pay for being a member of the council, just his expenses. He has no office at City Hall and no home phone, and on the second anniversary of his election he was at home, sitting in a tattered armchair watching television and frying sausages for lunch.

His term was up in 1990 and he was confident of being reelected – he wasn’t.

“People voted for me because they like me.” he said. “They don’t like the other politicians.”

Leeside Balladeer, Jimmy Crowley wrote and performed a song in honour of Cllr. Bernie Murphy’s life and times ‘Here I Am Says Bernie Murphy’ and you can hear it with a click on the link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd0zaSjmtGQ

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