Murphy was born to an Anglo-Irish family at Milford House, near the Mayo-Galway border, in 1927. He spent much of his early childhood in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where his father served in the Colonial Service and was active as mayor of Colombo and Governor General of the Bahamas (in succession to the Duke of Windsor). He first received his education at Canterbury School and Wellington College. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, at 17, where he studied English under C.S. Lewis. He was later educated at the Sorbonne and between 1953 and 1954, he ran a school at Crete. In his Archaeology of Love (1955), Murphy reflects on his experiences in England and the Continent.
Return to Ireland
In 1954, he settled at Inishbofin, an island off the coast of Galway. Several years later, in 1959, he purchased and renovated a traditional type of boat, which he used to ferry visitors to the island.. In 1969, he purchased Ardoileán (High Island), a small island in the vicinity of Inishbofin.
Since 1971 Murphy has been a poet-in-residence at nine American universities. Now he divides his time between Dublin and Durban, South Africa, where his daughter and her family reside. In 1993, a unique memoir of his life and times was published by Granta, constructed from astonishingly detailed diaries kept over the course of five decades.
In 1951, he received the Æ Memorial Award for Poetry in Ireland; first prize, Guinness Awards, Cheltenham (1962); British Arts Council Awards (1967 and 1976); Marten Toonder Award (1980); Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1969); and American-Irish Foundation Award (1983).