Murphy, John (1772–1847), catholic bishop of Cork and bibliophile, was born 23 May 1772 in Cork city, son of John Murphy, a wealthy merchant in the leather and tanning business, and Joan Murphy (née Brouilly). The Murphys were among the most prominent Cork mercantile families; another branch started the Midleton distillery, James Murphy & Co. At the age of 15 John was sent to Paris to study for the priesthood, but as the revolution broke out two years later, he had to return home, where he remained about a year before proceeding in January 1791 to Lisbon to resume his studies at the Irish College of St Patrick, where Dr. Bartholomew Crotty (qv) was professor. Murphy received minor orders in 1792 and was ordained on 26 November 1796 by special dispensation, since he was one year short of the canonical age. Offered a professorship in Lisbon in 1797, he declined in order to return to Cork to become curate and then priest in the middle parish (SS Peter and Paul). In 1814 he became archdeacon of Cork and the following year was made vicar general before being consecrated bishop of Cork on 23 April 1815. As bishop, he devoted himself principally to educational and charitable interests, supporting the 1831 national education act; establishing schools and seminaries, and overseeing the growth of the Ursuline and Presentation orders of nuns. He used his personal wealth to benefit in particular the Cork Sick Poor Society, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and the Sisters of Mercy. As trustee and founder member of the Cork savings bank he was able to direct aid towards these particular charities. Not greatly political, he nevertheless supported Daniel O'Connell (qv) and put his influence discreetly behind the collection for the O'Connell tribute from 1831.
Renowned for his erudition and cultured interests, he was an early patron of the sculptor John Hogan (qv), whom he employed to decorate the catholic cathedral in Cork (the ‘North Chapel’). On becoming bishop he learned Irish in order to examine the confirmation class, and developed a passion for the language which led him to collect numerous rare manuscripts which he paid writers to transcribe. At least twenty Irish scribes are known to have been under the bishop's patronage; two of them alone transcribed more than 4,500 pages of manuscripts. The collection was left to Maynooth College, where it is still held. His Irish manuscripts were only a small, if the most important, part of his vast library, for which he was famous. A German traveller in Ireland, J. G. Kohl, described a visit to him: ‘His attendants, even his maidservants, sleep in little libraries; the staircases are lined with books along the wall and the corridors have full bookcases. Everywhere books are literally piled up even to the garrets’ (IBL, ii (1910), 18). The bishop intended to bequeath the entire collection to Cork city, but no suitable building was secured and his books were sent to Sothebys after his death in Cork on 1 April 1847. The total realised at auction was £4,886, which was felt to be an insufficient sum for what, at around 75,000 volumes, was called the largest private library ever formed in Ireland. However, the Irish Book Lover notes that his collection was ‘miscellaneous, rather than choice, bought cheap at auctions principally . . . he was a sort of bibliomaniac’ (IBL, iii (1911), 179–80).
The bishop was vigorous, kindly, and popular; the description of him by Thomas Davis (qv) as ‘a glorious hearty Johnsonian bookman’ (Bolster, 232) was echoed by many.