Their friendship seemed destined from the start — they were both Murphys from New Ross, after all.
They just happened to live thousands of kilometres apart.
Marty Murphy and Fergal Murphy became pen pals in the early 1970s when they were both in elementary school. Marty is from New Ross, N.S., and Fergal grew up in New Ross, Ireland.
"It didn't make any difference at all," Marty told CBC Radio's Information Morning. "Those differences just sort of cemented our relationship all the more. It gave us more to talk about, to compare."
Nearly 50 years later, the two Murphys are still friends.
These days, they talk mostly over Facebook. But in the early years, all their communication was done by snail mail.
They often wrote about their families and shared love of animals. In one letter, Marty enclosed a photo of him and his dog, Pooper.
"We always had dogs in our house so that's something else that Marty and I had in common as well, is our love of animals and the outdoors," recalled Fergal.
The two boys shared facts about their hometowns, and Marty learned that the community in Lunenburg County where he's lived all his life was named after Fergal's hometown in Ireland.
"I realized very soon that our New Ross was quite tiny compared to Fergal's New Ross," said Marty. "He told me about a container port, a shipping port they had in his New Ross but, well, we had log trucks in our New Ross and not near as many people."
Started as a class project
It was Fergal's teacher, Mr. Stacey, who first suggested that his students write letters to the school in New Ross, N.S.
"One of the strangest things that we found as 11-year-old kids was that some of the Nova Scotia New Rossers mentioned that sometimes they went to school in snowshoes," Fergal said.
Over the years, Marty and Fergal stayed in touch, except for a few years after high school.
"There was an interval there of a number of years that I guess once we graduated from high school and went off in different directions, there was a lapse," Marty said.
Then, in the 1990s, Marty ran into a member of the New Ross historical society at the post office who asked if he was still in touch with his pen pal from Ireland.
"I said, would there be any way that you could help us reconnect through Mr. Stacey? And one thing led to another, and the reconnection was made and there was never an interval again where we didn't keep in touch," Marty said.
They've been there for one another during the hard times, too.
In 2017, Marty's eight-month-old granddaughter died, and he and his wife started a campaign in her memory called Ruby's Travelling Rocks. They've sent rocks painted as ladybugs all over the world.
"Fergal, being the type of man to keep up on everything that was going in New Ross and our family, he thought he'd like to have one, so we mailed one," Marty said. "I must say we were very, very touched."
Fergal sent the rock to his colleagues and friends who travelled with it to many places, including Australia and South America.
Their first-ever phone call
Despite years of friendship, Marty and Fergal had never spoken on the phone until Information Morning called them up recently.
Marty said he thought a lot about calling his friend over the years, but worried it might change the bond they'd formed through writing.
"I was kind of afraid it might break something or change something," he said.
"When you stretch something, whatever type of a relationship it is, when you stretch it over such a long period, it can and it has been delicate maybe at times," he said.
LISTEN: Fergal and Marty meet for the first time on the radio
But Fergal said it was amazing to hear his friend's voice after all these years.
"It's quite a thrill," he said.
The closest he's ever come to visiting Nova Scotia was a trip to Quebec in the late 1980s. He was travelling up through Vermont after visiting his brother in Massachusetts.
"Instead of turning right, I turned left and went to Quebec, and to this day, it's a regret of mine."
Fergal is getting ready to retire from his teaching career, and hopes to make a trek across the Atlantic Ocean once COVID-19 travel restrictions ease.
He'll surely be greeted with a warm welcome.
"He's become almost a community member here in our New Ross," Marty said.
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