Gray, Philip (1821–57), revolutionary, was reputedly born near Westland Row, Dublin, though his father, Thomas Gray, was a farmer and native of Rathcore, Co. Meath. Little else is known of his family background. Friends heard that an uncle was hanged for his role in the 1798 rebellion and this ensured that most of his family (who appear to have been protestant) feared to endorse Irish nationalism. As a young man, Philip worked in Dublin as a mechanic and studied technical drawing, quite possibly at the Mechanics Institute, Middle Abbey St. Inspired by the Nation newspaper, by 1843 he was attending nationalist political meetings regularly, including the monster meeting in Tara, Co. Meath (15 August 1843). By the mid to late 1840s he was working in Drogheda for the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and began to educate himself in political theory and military drill. Following the establishment of the Irish Confederation (January 1847), he joined the Swift Club in Queen St., Dublin, led by the republican enthusiasts John Mitchel (qv) and Thomas Devin Reilly (qv), and soon became its secretary. His brother, John Gray, a butcher, was active in democratic confederate clubs in Navan and Dublin.
After the conviction of Mitchel for treason felony (27 May 1848), Philip Gray appealed in vain to the Confederation leadership to rescue him. Thereafter he turned the Swift Club into the best-armed of the Dublin clubs, drilling its members on a nightly basis and attempting to win recruits from the 31st Regiment, stationed in Dublin. After the suspension of habeas corpus (25 July 1848), his brother was arrested and Philip quit his job and went into hiding. He first visited Meath with P. J. Smyth (qv), and then Tipperary, trying to stir up republican enthusiasm. During August, after befriending John O'Mahony (qv) during the attempted rising in Tipperary, he was appointed to the command of the Waterford rebels, along with John Savage (qv). On 11–12 September 1848 they captured arms and cannon from Curraghmore House, the home of the marquis of Waterford, and attacked police barracks at Ahenny and Portlaw, but failed in their goal to seize Carrick-on-Suir. A warrant was issued for Gray's arrest, forcing him to go into hiding, living for most of the following winter in the open countryside.
During this time he formed a revolutionary secret society, initially with the sole purpose of rescuing prisoners from Clonmel. Over the next six months, with the assistance of John O'Leary (qv) and others, its ranks spread throughout Waterford and the south of Tipperary before extending to north Tipperary, Limerick, Kilkenny, Cork and Dublin. In early 1849, on arriving in Dublin, Gray formed a provisional directory (consisting of three former members of the Swift Club) for the new society. To escape arrest, however, he soon fled to Paris, where he was reunited with O'Mahony, met James Stephens (qv), and supported himself by giving drawing lessons. During his absence James Fintan Lalor (qv) assumed command of his revolutionary organisation by establishing a new directory, and alienated its more militaristic members by planning to use its resources to form a new newspaper. Apparently to solve this dispute, Gray was recalled to Ireland in the early summer of 1849 and was reinstated on the revolutionary directory alongside Lalor, T. C. Luby (qv), Joseph Brenan (qv), and Edward Keatinge. Following an abortive effort to kidnap Queen Victoria during her visit to Ireland (3–12 August), the directory resolved at a Clonmel meeting on 5 September to start an insurrection two weeks later, to begin in Dublin and thereafter spread to Cork, Clare, Limerick, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Waterford. On the designated night (16 September) Gray was stationed at Dungarvan, but as the Dublin rebels (numbering just 150 men) were dispersed by police patrols along the Royal Canal, the signal for rebellion was not given to rebels elsewhere. They rose only in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, in a failed effort to seize a police barracks. Numerous arrests followed, although Gray escaped, partly because the insurgents printed false newspaper reports claiming that he had already fled to New York, via France.
As all hopes of a successful rebellion were now lost, Gray's revolutionary organisation began to dissolve or merge with the Irish Democratic Association, a short-lived (1849–51) revolutionary movement in Dublin. Thereafter he made determined efforts to keep communication networks alive between the various scattered 1848 rebels. During the 1850s he worked as clerk to a merchant in Smithfield, Dublin, but suffered from continual ill health, exacerbated by a serious fall on 17 March 1855. After spending several months recuperating with relatives in Meath, that winter he began working in Dublin for the short-lived Tribune newspaper (1855–6). When this collapsed, he resumed work with his former employer at Smithfield and attended medicine classes at the Museum of Industry, St Stephen's Green, receiving two certificates for his performance during oral examinations. In 1856, during a secret meeting at 16 Lombard St., Dublin, he introduced James Stephens to T. C. Luby and proposed forming a public monument committee as a cloak for launching a new secret republican movement. His health deteriorated, however, and he died 25 January 1857 at his residence, 9 Lombard St. Two days later his brother John, along with Luby and Stephens, brought his remains by train to Enfield station, Co. Meath where a six-mile procession, consisting mostly of poor tenant farmers and peasants, walked to Kilglass cemetery, where Gray was buried alongside his father. Luby delivered a graveside oration. After first discussing a plan (partly through correspondence with O'Mahony in New York) to erect a monument to Gray's memory, Stephens and Luby decided instead to found the Irish Republican Brotherhood (17 March 1858) at the old meeting place of Gray's circle, 16 Lombard St. Early the following year, O'Mahony formed a sister organisation, the Fenian Brotherhood, in New York.
Philip Gray lived and died in obscurity, having left no writings behind him, and was largely an unknown figure to contemporaries, except for fellow rebels. Nevertheless, he could be considered as effectively the founder of Stephens's IRB organisation, which, by focusing on establishing a following among the ‘men of no property’ and remaining politically independent of the propertied classes, helped to realise Gray's dream of sustaining the example of the confederate clubs of 1848. O'Mahony described him as ‘the most untiring and the most indomitable of all the men that ever took the field for Ireland. He could never be made to understand that we were beaten. It was he who worked hardest of all to retrieve the cause . . . He is also the man of whom least has been said’ (Moody, 55).