Murphy, Michael (c.1744/5–1798), Roman catholic priest and insurgent leader, was born in Ballinoulart, Co. Wexford. His parents – small farmers who previously lived in Kilnew, Blackwater – were John Murphy of Parkannesley or Ballinoulart, and Julia Murphy (née Neal) (1714–January 1757) of Morriscastle, Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford. There were ten children of the marriage: Nicholas (b. c.1737); Bridget (b. c.1742); Michael; Mary, who wed Myles Smith of Clonevan; three daughters (names unknown) who married respectively a Mr Whelan of Ballymartin, Ardcavan, a Mr Roche, and Thomas Kavanagh of Boolabawn; and three sons (names unknown).
It would appear that Michael Murphy had a late vocation. He was ordained to the diaconate on 15 May 1785 by the coadjutor bishop, James Caulfield (qv), parish priest of New Ross, for the home diocese of Ferns (Co. Wexford and south-west Co. Wicklow). Among those ordained deacon with him was Philip Roche (qv), who later became commander of the Southern Wexford United Irish army after the resignation of Bagenal Harvey (qv). There is no record of their ordination to the priesthood, but that would normally have followed three days later, according to the custom of the period.
Murphy was sent to complete his training in philosophy and theology to the Irish College in Bordeaux, France. At the outbreak of the French revolution there were twenty Irish boarders in the college. Most, with the exception of Murphy, were from Munster dioceses. The Bordeaux Irish College was strongly Tridentine in outlook. The extension of the revolution to Bordeaux involved terrorism and atrocities. Despite (or because of) that, the Irish students divided into three factions: antagonistic, tolerant, and actively supportive of the revolution. Whatever role Michael Murphy took, it was observed after the expulsion from France and return to his home diocese, Ferns, in 1792, that he had strong political views.
His return to Co. Wexford was followed by an ill-fated agrarian demonstration followed by a massacre by crown forces of eighty civilians at the north side of Wexford town. This was followed by the spread of the United Irishmen, who grew rapidly in Co. Wexford from November 1792 onwards. Michael Murphy became an active United Irishman. France and England were at war from February 1793; the strategic importance of Wexford county and Waterford Harbour accordingly grew.
Murphy was sent to the curacy of Ballycanew, south of Gorey. Bishop James Caulfield had succeeded in 1786 the Jacobite Nicholas Sweetman (qv) as bishop of Ferns. That change resulted in an abrupt change of church policy. Caulfield insisted on loyalty and obedience to the reigning monarch, George III in London, ‘the best of kings’, and the laws of his establishment. ‘Obedience and observance of the laws are to be a religious, conscientious, and indispensable duty to every Roman Catholic’, he instructed. Caulfield was fully informed about the spread of ‘French ideas’ and ‘levelling principles’. Although the parish priests and most of the curates adhered to his persistently preached rules, there were about eight or ten who did not. Michael Murphy was one of them, and he was suspended from his pastoral duties by Caulfield in the 1795–6 period. As the outbreak of French-assisted armed conflict became more likely, it appears from Caulfield's report to Archbishop Troy (qv) of Dublin that Fr Michael Murphy was not employed. Caulfield wrote of Murphy that ‘he was never [sic] called to a curacy on account of his incapacity and riotous temper’.
Nevertheless, Murphy continued to act as a pastoral priest in Ballycanew. He lodged in the house of a United Irish officer, James Kenny. As with other priests in his district, he signed a proclamation of loyalty along with his congregation in November 1797 and again in April 1798. His extended family was involved in the United Irish movement. He was connected with leadership figures in the United Irishmen and in the later insurrection of May–July 1798. His nephew was the Monaseed United Irish captain, Nicholas Murphy; two of his brothers-in-law were deeply involved, John Prendergast and Whelan of Ballymartin; his mother was related to one of the insurrection's major figures, Edward Roche (qv) of Garrylough, while a connection, Jeremiah Kavanagh of Ballinoulart, had fought as a commissioned officer under George Washington in the American revolution.
The anticipated hostilities against crown forces commenced on 26 May 1798. Michael Murphy was targeted as a United Irish officer by the yeomen under Hawtry White. They converged on Ballycanew; Murphy was not there but they shot dead his United Irish landlord, James Kenny. Fr Michael assembled his known United Irishmen and many frightened women. He brought them to the prominent hill of Kilthomas, north of Enniscorthy, where they were attacked by yeomanry units from Carnew, Camolin, and Enniscorthy. The result was a massacre. He brought the survivors, including two of his nephews, to Ballyorril Hill, closer to Enniscorthy, where he joined the main body of insurgents preparing to attack Enniscorthy. After the capture of Enniscorthy and the defeat of reinforcements, the Wexford garrison abandoned the town and port. Fr Michael attended the conference of all the insurgent leaders at the Windmill Hill, Wexford, on 1 June. Arrangements for future strategy, civil and military, were agreed. The liberal protestant landlord and barrister Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey (qv) was elected commander-in-chief.
Murphy marched northwards with the insurgents, the leadership comprising Edward Roche, Edward Fitzgerald (qv) (d. 1807), Anthony Perry (qv), John Hay, and Fr John Murphy (qv). He was in command at the disastrous battle of Ballyminaun Hill, close to Gorey town, on 2 June but he took part also in the overwhelming victory of the insurgents at Tubberneering on 4 June. The capture of Gorey followed. The greater part of Co. Wexford was under insurgent control.
Michael Murphy took part in the action against Carnew but was later to have a sharp dispute with John Murphy and those who favoured an advance northward through the insurgent-held Wicklow hills. He favoured a frontal assault on Arklow town and port. It was decided by vote to attack Arklow. In the ensuing delayed battle on 9 June 1798, he was killed leading a charge on a gun position defending the western approach to the town. His mutilated body was later recovered from the ruins by his sister Mary and his nephew Luke. His remains were taken down the coast and are buried in the churchyard of Castle Ellis. A statue of him is in Arklow town centre; a marble plaque was erected near where he was fatally wounded in Arklow, and there is a memorial at Castle Ellis churchyard entrance.
On record are the calamitous defeats in which Michael Murphy was prominently engaged (and, it seems, supported), Ballyminaun Hill and Arklow. One might include Kilthomas but for the confusion and public terror on 26 May. He was long engaged in the United Irish movement before the rising. Although there is no doubting his courage, one might speculate that he was somewhat amazed at his colleague Fr John Murphy, a very late convert to revolution, who had preached the direct opposite to what he, Michael Murphy, promoted – and now, lo, there is John Murphy, the new hero after a couple of days, a man who could not put a foot wrong. It would appear that Fr Michael was ineffective in the battle of Arklow. His impulsive charge on the guns, having picked up a fallen standard, came late in the battle. Nevertheless, he was prominent enough to be identified by Sgt McLaren of the crown forces before he was killed.
Murphy's nephew Myles (1787–1856) was consecrated bishop of Ferns in St Aidan's cathedral, Enniscorthy, on 10 March 1850. He had originally been selected as bishop of Ossory in 1829 but declined the honour.