Obituary: Jimmy Murphy, travel agent

Pioneering travel agent who brought American tourists to Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Pioneering travel agent who brought American tourists to Scotland. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 24 April, 1932, in Dublin. Died: 20 December, 2014, in USA, aged 82.

Jimmy Murphy, who has died aged 82, was a legend in the travel and tourism industry and is credited with bringing the first customised cultural tours for Americans to Scotland 50 years ago.

Though most of his business career was spent in New York and California, Murphy retained strong links with his native Ireland, where his company still has an office in Dublin.

He made many friends and forged strong business links with people in the travel and tourism industry, from Edinburgh to Jedburgh, Glasgow and Orkney.

He was the co-founder of Brendan Vacations, which ­pioneered customised tours of Ireland and Scotland.

Named after St Brendan, Ireland’s legendary navigator, the company contributed significantly to the branding of Ireland and Scotland as a friendly and cultural travel destination.

Murphy was also co-founder of Ama Waterway, which specialised in river cruising, notably on major European rivers.

Born in Phibsboro in Dublin, the son of James, a driver and motor mechanic in a local garage, and Mary (née Fleming), the young Murphy left school at 14 to work in a retail travel agency for nine years. There he not only learned the nuts and bolts of the travel trade but discovered the importance of working with people and meeting the needs and wishes of the travelling public.

In his spare time he loved to dance and and it was a favourite dancing partner, Sheila Stanley, who was to become his wife.

With marriage, Murphy felt it was time to move on, this time to the United States, where his Aunt Theresa helped the newlyweds make a home in an upstairs apartment on Staten Island. There he joined Aer ­Lingus, where he held various executive sales positions for the next 11 years at a time the airline was building up its North Atlantic service and shaping up to face the biggest revolution the industry would experience.

He also found time to attend night school and gained the high school diploma his early school-leaving in Ireland had denied him.

In the early years of the airline business most Americans did not have a passport and travel outside the US was beyond the means of the average family. That was about to change, however.

Jumbo jets and other wide-bodied aircraft were cutting flying time to Europe and fares were coming down with competition. And a nation of immigrants and their descendants were keen to discover family roots. Ireland was out to capture a slice of this promising market and Murphy was ready for the challenge.

Scotland, with its Celtic connections, was a natural addition to any visit to the British Isles.

Brendan Tours, which later became Brendan Vacations, was soon sending visitors home via Shannon to Dublin, Galway, Cork and Donegal and then via Northern Ireland to Scotland.

They travelled by boat and bus to Edinburgh and Glasgow and up the West Coast and even to Orkney, learning about legends and looking at lochs and castles and taking in spectacular scenery in places like Glencoe.

Murphy knew the value of meeting kith and kin and emphasised to his customers that there was plenty of time for a dram or two.

His successful sales pitch was to offer an in-depth insight into the legends, lifestyles and landmarks which fuse Ireland and Scotland.

His customers were introduced to unique attractions such as the Loch Ness Monster, the Giant’s Causeway, Scotch whisky and Guinness. Murphy promised his travellers “insider moments like finding out about the battle that changed the course of Scottish history. “On the very spot where Robert the Bruce planted his standard in 1314, you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fierce medieval warriors at Bannockburn,” he would say.

But the transition from working for an airline to working for oneself or in a partnership involved risk and Murphy moved cautiously at the outset.

Brendan O’Kelly, vice-president for sales for Aer Lingus at that time, recalls that Murphy held back from telling his family of the move he had made. But grit and dedication saw him through.

His success on the international travel stage was in no small measure due to his outgoing and friendly personality.When word of his death spread in December, tributes poured in from friends and associates in the travel and airline industry.

He was remembered as a man who touched the lives of everyone he met. His popularity was underlined by the fact that he was twice elected president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). He was also a founder member of the United States Tour Operators Association.

Murphy’s son, Gary, recalls with affection working side by side with his father in the family business.

Always a gentleman to his staff, he was a man who is said to have never raised his voice.

His ashes were brought back to Ireland at his own request to be interred in a cemetery close to his beloved Phibsboro in Dublin, where his long and successful journey in life had begun.

Jimmy Murphy is survived by his widow, Sheila, and their children, Sharon Devitt, Susan Murphy, Sean Murphy and Gary Murphy.