Murphy, John (1753–98), Roman catholic priest and insurgent leader, was born in Tincurry, parish of Ferns, Co. Wexford, son of Thomas Murphy, farmer and bacon curer, and Johanna Murphy (née Whitty), from nearby Tomgarrow. John Murphy was the youngest in the family. He had four other brothers, Moses, Philip, James, and Patrick, and one sister, Katherine. The family was moderately comfortable in the current penal and political circumstances. With no proper school for catholics, he was one of many who went to the so-called ‘hedge school’. The hedge-schoolmaster, paid by the parents, was Martin Gunn, whose forte was languages, a facility shared by John Murphy. John Murphy was said to be the equal of his teacher in Latin and Greek.
After his hedge-schooldays, John Murphy became the farm horseman. At that time the horseman's talent was required in training and breeding horses and the principal tillage work, so that in almost every farm the horseman was farm manager. However, John Murphy's life took a surprising course. His brother James elected to become a priest but poor health compelled him to withdraw. John Murphy, the essential horseman, decided to take his place.
He was trained in church matters by the parish priest of Ferns, a Jesuit, Dr Andrew Cassin. After the suppression of the Society of Jesus, the bishop of Ferns, Nicholas Sweetman (qv), was sympathetic to the Jesuits to such an extent that he made Cassin parish priest of the ancient power-centre, Ferns, as well as making him vicar general in the diocese. In 1780 Cassin had sufficient confidence in Murphy to sponsor him for ordination. He was ordained behind closed doors in the bishop's house in Wexford town in June 1780. Bishop Sweetman sent him to the Dominican house in Seville to undertake the usual studies in philosophy and theology.
One can speculate on the contrast between the ecclesiastical glory of Seville and the poor circumstances he had left. Ferns catholics had only a thatched chapel outside Ferns village, secluded in the townland of Newtown. Murphy spent five years in Seville and returned to Co. Wexford in the summer of 1785 with references from his college superiors which indicated in him workmanlike and industrious qualities rather than academic brilliance.
He was posted to the curacy of Boolavogue in the parish of Monageer, next to his home parish. One year after his return the Jacobite and outstanding bishop, Nicholas Sweetman, died, as did his Jesuit mentor, Dr Andrew Cassin. Immediately church policy changed. The new bishop, an alumnus of the Dominican University of Seville, Dr James Caulfield (qv), drastically altered church policy. From 1786 onwards, catholics were ordered to direct their loyalty to the Hanoverian protestant monarch in London, King George III.
The outbreak of the French revolution in 1789 had a profound effect in Ireland, culminating in the founding and spread of the Society of the United Irishmen. When thwarted by Dublin's ascendancy parliament, they veered toward revolutionary action and the breaking of every link with England. Bishop Caulfield considered French ideas to be a poison, and loyalty to King George an obligation. Despite that, the United Irishmen's growth in his diocese was rapid, and claimed many more adherents after the collapse of grain prices in 1797.
Murphy maintained loyalty to his bishop and his instructions until the outbreak of revolt in 1798. He preached quiescence persistently and in the autumn of 1797 signed an oath of loyalty, along with his congregation, to King George and the constitution. A like pledge was issued and signed by Murphy and his congregation in the thatched chapel of Boolavogue at Easter 1798. Murphy refused the sacraments to all United Irishmen in the parish who refused to abjure their oaths. On 26 May 1798 he insisted on some of his parishioners handing over arms to the authorities in Ferns in return for written guarantees of safety. He trusted the authorities there, headed by magistrates Isaac Cornock and the Rev. Francis Turner. On handing over their weapons, however, the Boolavogue parishioners were herded out of Ferns by the yeomanry and militia, who fired into their running ranks. They were met at Coolatore by Murphy, who finally ‘deemed it better to die like men with arms in their hands than wait to be butchered like dogs in the ditches’ (P. F. Kavanagh, A popular history of the insurrection of 1798 (1918 ed.), 95).
John Murphy's alteration in role was remarkable. He demonstrated qualities of leadership, strategy, and rapid movement in the subsequent revolt, qualities in which he had no previous training. In view of the arrest of many of the United Irishmen leaders on the night of May 25/6, he found himself filling a vacuum and achieved a moral authority particularly over his United Irish parishioners in the field. He was prominent and decisive in the battle of Oulart Hill against the Wexford garrison, the capture of the garrison town of Enniscorthy, and the bloodless capture of Wexford town and port (27–30 May).
Along with some of the senior United Irish leaders such as Edward Roche (qv), Anthony Perry (qv), Edward Fitzgerald (qv) (d. 1807) and Fr Michael Murphy (qv), he headed north towards Wicklow. He was very effective in the victory over encircling and superior crown forces in the battle of Tubberneering and the capture of Gorey on 6 June. Whether through illness or fatigue, he was not engaged in the battle of Arklow (9 June). He took part in one of the last and largest field battles in Ireland, at Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy (21 June), where the United Irish forces were defeated.
Undeterred, he led a division of the survivors through Co. Wexford, Co. Carlow, and Co. Kilkenny where, in an encircling strategy, he led the attack in the capture of Castlecomer. Deciding the cause was lost when, at Slatts Lower, Queen's Co. (Laois), his forces received no help, he ordered the retreat back towards Co. Wexford to reunite with the only other remaining division, which was marching northwards. He became separated from his men, and along with his aide-de-camp, James Gallagher, was captured by the yeomen at Castlemore, Tullow, Co. Carlow. They were both court-martialled and found guilty. Fr John Murphy and James Gallagher were flogged and hanged in the town square of Tullow on 2 July 1798. Their identities and rank were not discovered by the military until later.
Statues and memorials to Murphy are in the market squares of Enniscorthy and Tullow and the square at Ferns, and at Tincurry (Ferns) and Tomnaboley (Boolavogue). A bust is in the 1798 memorial at Waverly cemetery, Sydney, Australia. An original portrait in oils, over a black-and-white contemporary sketch, is in the possession of Mr James Hall, Boolavogue, Co. Wexford.
The ballad ‘Boolavogue’, with words by P. J. McCall (qv) to a traditional air, is a favourite solo, choral, or concert item wherever the Irish congregate, but it is particularly Co. Wexford's perennial anthem. Inasmuch as a ballad can be historically accurate, the first three verses are chronological and reasonably correct, although rhyme takes precedence, as it must. In the fourth verse the lines ‘And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy,/ And burnt his body upon the wrack’ are the poet's way of condensing an eventful and significant day. Its effect, ever since the first centenary of the 1798 insurrection, has been to rouse national spirit.