Murphy attends the local Archbishop McHale College and later becomes a metalwork teacher. He begins writing in the late 1950s, saying, “In 1958, my best friend said to me, why don’t we write a play? I didn’t think it was an unusual question, because in 1958 everyone in Ireland was writing a play.” His second play, A Whistle in the Dark, is written in his Tuam kitchen on his free Friday and Saturday nights. It is entered into a competition for amateur plays, which it wins, and is eventually performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London in 1961. It causes considerable controversy both there and in Dublin when it is later given its Irish premiere at the Abbey having initially been rejected by its artistic director.
Though Murphy is religious as a boy, education by the Christian Brothers leaves him largely irreligious. His 1975 play The Sanctuary Lamp is produced in the Abbey Theatre and receives a hostile reception due to its anti-Catholic nature, with theatregoers walking out and much negative criticism in the media.
Considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest living playwright, a title also often given to Brian Friel prior to his death in 2015, Murphy is honoured by the Abbey Theatre in 2001 by a retrospective season of six of his plays. His plays include the historical epic Famine (1968) which deals with the Irish Potato Famine between 1846 and spring 1847, the anti-clerical The Sanctuary Lamp (1975), The Gigli Concert (1983) and for many his masterpiece, the lyrical Bailegangaire and the bar-room comedy Conversations on a Homecoming (both 1985).
Murphy’s work is characterised by a constant experimentation in form and content from the apparently naturalistic A Whistle in the Dark to the surreal The Morning After Optimism and the spectacularly verbal The Gigli Concert. Recurring themes include the search for redemption and hope in a world apparently deserted by God and filled with suffering. Although steeped in the culture and mythology of Ireland, Murphy’s work does not trade on familiar clichés of Irish identity, dealing instead with Dostoyevskian themes of violence, nihilism and despair while never losing sight of the presence of laughter, humour and the possibilities of love and transcendence.