Julia Clifford: a brief biography

Julia Clifford: a brief biography

Julia was born on 19th June 1914, the youngest of a large family, to Mainie and Bill Murphy in Lisheen, east Kerry, just west of the river Blackwater which in that area defines the county border with Cork.

Culture has never been a respecter of administrative boundaries, and the “Sliabh Luachra” culture of music making and poetry was strong in much of the surrounding area.

Julia remained close to her oldest sister, Bridgie, throughout her life and the two must have been a force to be reckoned with in later life, still going strong musically into their 80s (Julia) and 90s (Bridgie). In 1984, Julia remarked of Bridgie (then aged 92): “If the two of us were to walk from Lisheen to Knocknagree, about two miles, she’d get there before me, despite the fact that she’s the eldest in the family and I’m the youngest.”

She was also close to her next sibling, Denis, who was a mighty musical talent and character, with whom she made some of her earliest and most influential recordings. All the other brothers and sisters played the fiddle, and all of them emigrated to the US, where Denis also spent a number of years. Nell emigrated to Portland Oregon; Mary, who ran the Maids of Erin band, and Hannie both went to New York and all three sisters remained in the US all their lives. Brothers Tadhy & Dan went to New York and both died there, in their thirties.

Julia didn’t stay too long in Kerry herself – opportunities were very limited through the 1920s and 30s. Initially she moved to Falkirk in Scotland to stay with an aunt whilst trying out training to be a nurse, but this didn’t suit her too well and she was back to Kerry then over to London, Bristol for a few years, where she married a neighbour from Lisheen, John Clifford, also a fine musician.

Julia and John moved back to London by the early 1940s, with their two sons John and Billy being born there.

Music played a significant part in their lives at all stages, providing both an income and a social life. John and Julia both worked in a number of dance band line-ups in London. John decided to change instrument from the diatonic accordion to the piano accordion in this period in order to be able to play the eclectic repertoire required of a dance hall musician – quicksteps being more in demand than polkas in that era. They moved back to Ireland in the 1950s, running the Star of Munster Ceili Band, but the family was back in London by 1959, just in time to play in the burgeoning Irish pub session scene in pubs such as the Favourite and the Oxford Arms in Camden and Con Curtin’s Balloon Tavern in Fulham.

In 1969 the first significant recording of Julia’s music, “The Star Above the Garter” was released, followed in 1977 by LPs on the London-based Topic label’s “Music from Sliabh Luachra” series. In this period, both Julia and John were experiencing chronic health problems; John’s health was so poor that he spent almost a full year in hospital in London. In 1978 John and Julia moved to Thetford, Norfolk, to be closer to their son John and his wife.

John died just a couple of years later, in May 1981, but many of us locally remember him playing, his frail frame dwarfed by the heavy piano accordion which someone had to lift on to him. For Julia, music provided both social and emotional sustenance. A number of younger people, including George & Eileen Monger, Caroline & Michael Kilbane and Nigel Towse, would pick her up and drive her to “engagements”, sessions and concerts.

Nigel took her over to Kerry several times. Irish friends such as John Coakley and Matt Cranitch would call in on her when in the area. In 1984 she went to New York and Boston to see her sister Hannie and her family.

In East Anglia and further afield in the UK, folk clubs and festivals, alternative fairs and free-range ceilidhs all took Julia to their hearts and provided her with much fun and often some handy cash too, though the sessions were just as important to her.

As she said in a 1984 article in The Kerryman newspaper about her life in Norfolk: “The music is very good there … you have to travel, mind you. I might have to go thirty miles, but someone always picks me up.” In a 1987 article in the Sliabh Luachra Journal she wrote: “I’m playing today as well as ever, thanks be to God … the love of the music has never left me and, just like my beloved brother Denis, I intend to play until the moment the Master says: “Julia, your next tune will be in Heaven.”

A longer biography is in preparation.

A summary of her published recordings is here.

Some of her writing – letters, an article in the Sliabh Luachra Journal, and a recipe are here.

Julia died in Thetford on 18th June, 1997. Some obituaries are here.

Photograph albums – click on an icon below, which will take you through to a gallery of photos, each of which can be enlarged to view individually. We have watermarked many of the images, as they do not belong to us, and a few are copyright to professional photographers. If you would like to use any of the images, please get in touch.