Murphy, Denis (1833–96), priest and historian, was born 12 January 1833 at Scarteen, near Newmarket, Co. Cork, the eldest son of Timothy Murphy and his wife Joanna (née O'Connell). He was educated at Mr Curran's school in Kanturk before attending Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare. Entering the Society of Jesus on 26 October 1848, he made his noviceship at Dôle and then returned to Clongowes and taught history and literature (1852–8). He undertook further philosophical and theological studies in Bonn, Paderborn, and St. Beuno's in Wales and, returning to Ireland in 1863, taught rhetoric and logic at Clongowes (1863–7). In 1867 he made his tertianship at Manresa in Spain and later taught at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, and the College of the Sacred Heart, Limerick. In 1874 he was attached to the society's missionary staff. He established a reputation as an excellent conductor of religious retreats and was appointed superior of the missionary staff in 1873. He began teaching French language and literature in 1883 at University College, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, and, in 1888, was appointed to teach moral theology, and later canon law, at Milltown Park. In 1892 he returned to his teaching duties at University College and also served as an examiner in Spanish for the RUI.
Best known for his historical researches and writings, Murphy was a prominent member of several learned societies including the Kildare Archaeological Society, the RSAI, and the RIA (1884), and contributed to their journals. His articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland include ‘Mungret Abbey’ (1894), ‘The castle of Roscommon’ (1891), ‘The ornamentation of the Lough Erne shrine’ (1892), and ‘The Irish Franciscans at Louvain’ (1893). His best known historical work is Cromwell in Ireland (1883), a scholarly and balanced account of the military campaign of 1649–51 written to refute the many myths associated with Oliver Cromwell (qv); new editions were published in 1885 and 1897. Murphy gave credit to Cromwell for his courage and military effectiveness, but condemned his religious bigotry and cruelty, and agreed with the 1st earl of Clarendon's saying ‘that he was a great, bad man’ (Cromwell in Ireland, p. ix). In 1893 Murphy translated into English and published Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh's (qv) manuscript life of Red Hugh O'Donnell (qv) with an extensive historical introduction and parallel bilingual text (The life of Hugh Roe O'Donnell (1893)). The translation, however, was severely criticised by some Irish scholars for its lack of precision. His widely used School history of Ireland (1894) gave a concise bird's eye view of Irish history from the arrival in Ireland in the 3rd century BC of Ceasair, granddaughter of Noah, ‘forty days before the deluge’, up to his own day.
At the request of the Irish bishops, in 1886 Murphy began researching a history of the martyrdom of Irish catholics since the reign of Henry VIII. He carried out extensive researches in the Vatican and other continental archives for over a decade, the result of which was the posthumously published Our martyrs: a record of those who suffered for the catholic faith under the penal laws in Ireland (1896) which he completed only days before his death. His edition of The annals of Clonmacnoise (1896), based on the translation of Conall Mageoghegan (qv), was also published posthumously.
He was elected to the RIA's committee of polite literature and antiquities (1891) and became vice-president of the RSAI (1894) and editor of the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society. He received an honorary doctorate from the RUI in recognition of his historical research. A kindly and cheerful man, he enjoyed playing the bass violin to relax from his scholarly pursuits. He died suddenly 18 May 1896 in his rooms at University College, and was buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin cemetery. There is a substantial collection of his papers in the Jesuit archives in Dublin which includes research notes for Our martyrs and lists of Irish manuscripts in archives in Rome and Spain.