Murphy, Seamus (1907–75), sculptor, was born 15 July 1907 at Greenhill, Burnfort, near Mallow, Co. Cork, one of five sons of James Murphy, engine driver, and Margaret Murphy (née Sheehan); four daughters died in infancy. While he was still a young child the family moved to Cork city, where he was educated at St Patrick's national school, St Luke's. His teacher, Daniel Corkery (qv) (1878–1964), recognised his artistic ability and taught him drawing after school. At Corkery's urging, he enrolled in the Crawford School of Art in 1921 to study modelling. In the following year he began a seven-year apprenticeship as an architectural stone-cutter in the yard of John Aloysius O'Connor of Blackpool, Cork, during which he continued to study by night at the Crawford. His memoir of this period, Stone mad (1950), was very successful and is an important social and historical record of a now vanished way of life. His ambition to be a figure sculptor was boosted when he won the Gibson Bequest scholarship in 1931 which allowed him to study in Paris in 1932–3 (the only time he travelled abroad), where he worked under Marcel Grimond and with Andrew O'Connor (qv) at Colarossi's. This was his first opportunity to model from life, which was a hugely important experience for him. He was also encouraged to see how favourably his work compared with others.
On his return to Cork he found a lack of patronage for artistic work and so the carving of headstones and inscriptions was a welcome source of income. Throughout his career he carved many fine headstones such as that of Dan Breen (qv) (Donohill graveyard, Co. Tipperary). There are also a number of examples in St Fin Barre's cemetery, Cork. He corresponded with the English sculptor, typographic designer, and engraver Eric Gill (1882–1940) on monumental lettering. His first bust was of Daniel Corkery (1936), by which time he had opened his own stoneyard and studio at Watercourse Road, Cork, and had exhibited for the first time at the RHA. He went on to make a huge contribution to stone carving in Ireland with works such as ‘After mass’ (1936), a figure of a woman in a West Cork cloak, and ‘Virgin of the twilight’ (1942; Fitzgerald's Park, Cork). Oisín Kelly (qv) was of the opinion that the latter was the most important carving made in Ireland in the twentieth century. Murphy was clear in his attitudes to artistic style. He saw Victorian classicism as ‘clinging to the apron strings of Rome’, and that modernist abstraction was too private a means of expression because for him art always had to have a clear meaning to others and to be connected to the world beyond the artist. He also strongly believed that a high level of craftsmanship must be attained before one was capable of artistic expression. Hence his stylised naturalism, and his concern with the essence of his materials, was a careful formulation which reflected his artistic integrity.
He produced many portrait busts and became the leading sculptor of public figures in Ireland, particularly in the later part of his career. His many sitters included Éamon de Valera (qv), Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh (qv), Erskine Childers (qv), and Seán Ó Riada (qv). He was also responsible for the monuments to Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) and Countess Markievicz (qv) erected in St Stephen's Green, Dublin. He executed a great many religious commissions, notably sculptures and other details for the Church of the Annunciation, Blackpool, Cork (1945), which he also designed for the businessman William Dwyer (qv). Though a deeply religious person who regretted the decline in religious belief in the face of growing material wealth in Ireland, he was critical of the catholic church, feeling its censorial attitudes had stifled the development of many creative people. Indeed, he himself felt he had not been able to realise fully his own potential, and despite wide recognition he always saw his talent as minor.
He was elected an associate member of the RHA in 1944 and a full member ten years later, and in 1964 he became professor of sculpture. In 1969 he was awarded an honorary LLD by the NUI, and in 1973 was appointed to the arts council. He died 2 October 1975 at his home, 6 Wellesley Terrace, Wellington Road, Cork, and was buried at Rathcooney graveyard. He married (1944) Maighread, daughter of the sculptor Joseph Higgins; they had two daughters and one son. In 1982 his daughter Beibhinn Marten organised a major retrospective exhibition of his work at the Crawford Municipal Gallery of Art, Cork, and at the Douglas Hyde gallery, TCD.