The Catherine A. Murphy Papers

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We are delighted to welcome you all back to what we hope will be another year of riveting blog posts. So to kick off 2020 let’s learn about…

Catherine A Murphy was an American academic based a Merrimack College in Massachusetts. Prominent among her academic work was the publication of an interview held with the author Mary Lavin at Merrimack College in 1967, which was edited by both Murphy and Lavin over the course of several years. The Catherine A Murphy Papers contain Murphy’s scholarship of Lavin starting with a PhD thesis submitted to Trinity College Dublin in 1967, through to the publication of the 1967 Merrimack interview in the Irish University Review special issue on Mary Lavin in 1979.

An important feature of this collection is the correspondence between Catherine Murphy and Mary Lavin, beginning in 1967, the year of the Merrimack interview, and continuing up until 1980. Murphy has transcribed several of the letters from Lavin; not only is Lavin’s handwriting hard to read, but as is found on her short story drafts in the Mary Lavin Papers at UCD, she also writes in every direction, filling each page. Though undoubtedly for her own convenience, Murphy’s transcription remains useful for researchers using the collection.


Letters between Catherine A. Murphy and Mary Lavin.

The letters often refer to academic matters, but within this there is evidence of a mutual respect both professionally and personally. The collection shows the friendship between the two women, with letters frequently opened with affection and personal concern, and signed off with love. Lavin and Murphy also support each other professionally. For Murphy, this takes the form of Lavin’s advice on publishing her PhD thesis, offering recommendations about which publishers Murphy should approach; indeed letters from publishers to Murphy form part of the correspondence in this collection. Lavin also writes a letter to support Murphy’s candidature for full professorship at Merrimack College. Murphy supports Lavin by writing a letter of recommendation for a Guggenheim Fellowship, a copy of which she retained.

Letter of recommendation

Murphy’s letter of recommendation for the Guggenheim Fellowship.

It is the recording, transcription, editing and eventual publication of the 1967 interview at Merrimack College, conducted by Catherine Murphy and students, that forms the most intriguing aspect of the correspondence in this collection. One of the first letters regarding the interview, a draft of a letter from Murphy to Lavin, not only reveals a hiccup in the process, where Murphy forgot to ask Lavin’s permission to be taped, but also shows a realisation of its potential.

Permission to record

Murphy asking for permission to record Lavin.

But Lavin is generous in her reply; evidence, perhaps, of the friendliness between the women. Rather than expressing displeasure, she outlines a more personal concern; “It worries me a little – I am so wordy and vague,” and offers permission for use of the interview as long as she can see the script.

Lavin's permission

Lavin gives permission to be recorded as long as she can see the script.

This reply, expressing Lavin’s desire to “tighten up” also signals the beginning of the editorial input by Lavin that continues with focus through the years 1968-1970, on which the two women correspond. The revisions continue up until Irish University Review‘s 1979 special issue on Lavin, in which a highly revised version of the original is published. On comparison, it seems a world away from the original 1967 interview, transcribed by a student of Merrimack College.

Original interview

Original 1967 interview.

'IUR' Interview

‘Irish University Review’ interview, 1979.

In a letter to Catherine Murphy from July 1979, just before the interview’s publication, Mary Lavin mentions how she has “agonised” over the interview. It is ironic, perhaps that in the afterword to the Merrimack interview, she outlines how she agonises over her writing: “I myself am greatly inconvenienced by how many times I have to go over a story, but in doing so I get to know my characters inside out.” Lavin’s approach of repeated distillation of her short stories is well known, but it is clear from this collection that she has applied this process of going over the story to the interview as well.

The Catherine Murphy papers trace the Merrimack interview from conception through to publication and provide an opportunity to trace Lavin’s editing process outside the field of fiction. However this must be seen in the wider context of the Catherine Murphy papers; exhibiting literary scholarship, Ireland-America ties, and a long and fruitful working and personal friendship between two women.

  • This blog post was contributed by Anna Hunter. Anna was part of the 2018/19 cohort of MA Archives and Records Management at UCD School of History.
  • This blog was written for the UCD Cultural Heritage collections and the Irish Archives Resource with support from the Heritage Council.


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