Murphy, John ('Jack') (1920–84), trade unionist, republican, and activist for the unemployed, was born near Synge Street in Dublin, third son among four sons and five daughters of Denis Murphy, a carpenter; his mother's forename was probably Mary. His father, a founding member in 1921 of the Irish National Union of Woodworkers (INUW), was active in the republican movement, and a noted athlete in running and walking competitions. Jack attended national school in Rathmines till age 14, then apprenticed as a carpenter, while taking evening classes at Bolton Street technical school. Joining Na Fianna Éireann at age 10, and the IRA at age 16, he was interned during the Emergency at the Curragh for three years (1941–4), but left the IRA by the mid 1950s. While interned, he learned the Irish language and various decorative crafts; after his release he studied at the National College of Art and won prizes for his leatherwork. Returning to the carpenter's trade, he served as an INUW shop steward, noted for his militancy, especially in response to extensive building-industry redundancies in 1953. Amid an even graver building-industry crisis and burgeoning unemployment in 1956, Murphy was among the many skilled Dublin tradesmen unable to find work, and emigrated to England, returning after four months because he found unbearable the separation from his young family. (He and his wife Maureen had one daughter and one son, and resided in Ballyfermot.)
In January 1957 Murphy was among a number of unemployed men, mostly builders, who, after a spontaneous protest meeting outside Werburgh Street labour exchange, organised the Unemployed Protest Committee (UPC) to agitate for emergency government action, calling especially for improved social welfare provision and resumption of intensive state investment in house construction. Five of the twelve key committee members belonged to the communist Irish Workers' League (IWL), which strongly backed the agitation. Chosen UPC chairman, Murphy, who had a prominent lantern jaw and sported a trademark black beret, was conspicuous in the movement's frequent street marches and public meetings, and imposed a notable discipline and orderliness on the protests.
When the second inter-party government collapsed (February 1957), the UPC decided to stand a candidate in the March general election. Advised by veteran socialist republican activist Peadar O'Donnell (qv), who raised the election deposit, the UPC chose Murphy as its candidate rather than Sam Nolan; against the background of the 1956 USSR invasion of Hungary and the on-going IRA border campaign, it was concluded that Nolan's IWL membership might hinder his candidacy, while Murphy's republican background, and lack of any party-political allegiance, might enhance his. Polling 3,036 first-preference votes, Murphy won a Dáil Éireann seat in Dublin South Central (1957–8) standing as 'independent unemployed worker'. Refusing to support the new Fianna Fáil government, in his first dáil speech Murphy declared that his 'presence here is a symbol of broken promises and should be taken as a warning that emigration and unemployment will no longer be suffered in silence' (Dáil deb., 20 March 1957). In response to the so-called 'famine budget' of finance minister James Ryan (qv), which removed food subsidies, Murphy and two other UPC activists staged a heavily publicised, four-day hunger strike in May, supported by massive nightly demonstrations.
The UPC appealed for support to Dublin's catholic archbishop, John Charles McQuaid (qv), who, in a private meeting with Murphy (a practising catholic), warned against association with communists; Murphy, who disagreed with the communists' politics but respected their work for the unemployed, responded that the only requirement for UPC membership was possession of an unemployment signing-on card. Nonetheless, Murphy soon distanced himself from the IWL camp within the UPC; clashing with them over strategy, he chaired his own separate caucus of UPC members. He opposed further street demonstrations, and pleaded for time to adjust to his dáil responsibilities. (The extent of McQuaid's influence over Murphy remains ambiguous, and was the subject of bitter recriminations in later years among UPC veterans. It has been posited that fellow TD Noel Browne (qv) exerted a more telling influence on Murphy's decision to break with the communists (Johnston-Kehoe, 75).) Forming loose parliamentary alliances with other left-wing independent TDs – Browne, Jack McQuillan (qv), and Frank Sherwin (qv) – Murphy utilised dáil question time to press for solutions to the unemployment crisis. Introducing a private member's motion 'that all social welfare benefits should be increased', he challenged fellow TDs to subsist for one week on the household budget of an unemployed man (Dáil deb., 5 March 1958). In another dáil debate he described Éamon de Valera (qv) as 'washed-up', and urged him to make way for a younger generation who looked to the future and were weary of the civil-war divisions that had blighted Ireland's past (Dáil deb., 20 March 1958).
Believing his efforts in the dáil to be ineffectual, distressed by the animosities within the fractured unemployed movement, hounded by constituents seeking favours and monetary hand-outs (which he disdained as 'jobbery'), Murphy increasingly felt dispirited, disillusioned, and beleaguered: 'there must have been twenty ropes around my neck pulling me in different directions' (Hibernia, 14 May 1971). After a second meeting with McQuaid, he resigned his dáil seat (10 May 1958), claiming 'a protest against the appalling indifference of the main political parties to the plight of the unemployed' (Ir. Independent, 12 May 1958). In the ensuing by-election (25 June), the seat was won by Fianna Fáil. Although McQuaid wrote in his notes to the second meeting that he obtained Murphy a job on a church building site, Murphy was out of work for most of the next ten months, receiving only basic unemployment assistance of £2. 1s. per week, as his cards had not been stamped during his dáil tenure. In March 1959 he emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada. Returning to Dublin in the mid 1960s, he lived in Coolock, and worked as a carpenter on building sites in the city. He died 11 July 1984 in Jervis Street hospital, Dublin. The history of Jack Murphy's brief period of celebrity is a poignant testament to the pressures, both political and personal, endured by those who challenged the mainstream civic and religious institutional consensus of mid-twentieth-century Ireland.