Akron Irish: Murphy’s Law!

By Lisa O’Rourke

Every erstwhile late, bedraggled individual has, at some point, embraced Murphy, the god of personal misfortune. I envision him, circa 1850, hat askew, standing in his potato field with a fist raised heavenward, cursing his bad luck.

I think that this is a common image of Murphy, the mythical unfortunate who bore fate’s cudgel and then lent his name to mishap. Murphy’s Law is a quiet blanket of comfortable discomfort for cynics around the world.

Flat tire on the way to the airport? That’s Murphy’s Law of course, and aren’t you the bigger fool for not planning for it. It has been the operational guidance for all of us SNAFU-type realists forever – or so I thought …

Since my image of Murphy was old-fashioned and screw-ups are ageless, this had to mean that this was an equally old expression. After all, Murphy’s Law is the from the pragmatist’s canon of hard luck, stating succinctly, that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

It sounds like a negative assumption, but maybe it is there to encourage people to strategize for when plans take a turn; leave time for that flat tire or wreck on the freeway. Sure, sometimes things flow like a twelve-year-old on a water slide, but at other times, they work like a government office.

Be prepared, because as it turns out, Murphy’s Law is omnipresent, although not as old as we might assume. Not only is it relatively new as far as phrases in English go, it is not particularly Irish either.

I was a little shocked to have my vision of Murphy turned upside down when I learned the truth about him. Like many idioms, the Murphy legend sprang from war and not potatoes.

It was at the tail end of the WWII, when many of the US’s top engineers were still actively engaged in the process of honing this country’s technical capabilities, trying to harness the boundaries of science in the hope of defending the country and expanding our capabilities. Both world wars pushed all kinds of people to work harder and more creatively. Those engineers, sequestered in deserted posts, were not ready to give up on projects like breaking sound barriers, and building planes and jeeps quite yet.

There was a group of men in California, at the legendary Edward’s Air Force base, who were just those type of engineers. They realized that phenomenon like accidents that happened during the war, may have been connected to the lack of cohesive understanding of the effects of g-force on a person, specifically, how much force a person could tolerate.

This was the beginning of the modern space program; these were the men with the “right stuff.” It was with that group at Edward’s and through the g-force experiments, that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.
But, back to Murphy, he was one of those innovative engineers at Edward’s. Murphy was working on a measurement device that would attach to an experimental speeding sled and calibrate the amount of pressure a person would experience. On the day of a significant experiment, the device was wired incorrectly, and the test failed.

Murphy was disgusted, he had worked hard and quipped on his way out the door, something to the effect of “if a guy could get it wrong, he surely will.” It was quickly repeated by Murphy’s colleagues and used as a reminder to test and prepare ahead of a big day: Murphy’s legend was born.

A little digging will show that this was not the first time that a failure occurred and humanity was given a poke about the necessity of planning and preparation. It was written about and cautioned against before 1947. But Murphy is who it stuck to and it is he who is invoked when the unforeseen makes an ostentatious appearance. Why that is, is anyone’s guess.

That he was associated with the military probably influenced the spread of the expression, since the military does have a consequential effect on everyday lingo. OK, so along with “Fighting Irish,” the Irish have dominion over disaster. The Irish have big shoulders and a good sense of humor, which allow them to deflect national slights like being the mother of misfortune.

Plus, misfortune ties right into another purported Irish pastime, drinking. I did say purported. Never believe that the Irish drink more than any other nationality, they just look like they enjoy it more. Two things, misfortune and celebration, inspire a lot of trips to the pub.

A casual Google of Murphy’s Law would lead a person to believe that misfortune was ahead of celebration if you were to judge by the number of bars named Murphy’s Law. There must be hundreds of bars spread across the US. More research may be required on this point.

There is one of those bars in particular that I have been in, and it is a famous one; Murphy’s Law, in Boston’s Southie. It is said to have been frequented by Southie’s most notorious son, Whitey Bolger.

Old IRA posters and graffitied slogans in the back of the bar lend some authenticity to the claim. It is called one of Southie’s favorite dive bars and that is a fair description, complete with pool table and darts. If you can’t make it to Southie and want a look, it is featured in a climactic scene in the film Gone Baby Gone. The dramatic scene of the bar robbery in that film happens in Murphy’s.

Rudyard Kipling famously extolled the virtue of indifference to luck in the poem IF, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same;” then, to paraphrase, that is part of becoming an adult. And he is right. Luck is a fickle friend, but planning and preparation have their own rewards.  

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*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron with a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. She is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge, and runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her dog, cats and fish. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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