Murphy, Seán Anthony (1896–1964), diplomat, was born 3 August 1896 at 40 South Parade, Waterford city, eldest son of Patrick A. Murphy, solicitor, and Catherine Murphy (née Doyle), both originally of Kilkenny. He was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, and UCD. He trained as a solicitor and joined the Sinn Féin delegation to the Paris peace conference in 1919, as the delegation's secretary. By the time of his death in 1964 he was the last surviving member of that delegation. Through 1923 Murphy was Irish trade and general agent in France (Ireland and France did not formally exchange diplomatic representatives until 1929). In December 1923 he returned to Dublin as assistant secretary in the Department of External Affairs (though the post was only formally established in 1927). As assistant secretary he was very much in the shadow of the secretary, Joseph Walshe (qv), with whom he did not always see eye to eye. In contrast to Walshe, he worked quietly and unostentatiously behind the scenes, administering, but hardly ever leaving his personal mark on the issues he dealt with. With legal adviser John Hearne (qv), Murphy was something of a foil to the excitable and overzealous Walshe.
In December 1938 Murphy returned to Paris as Irish minister to France. He remained in France throughout the second world war (the Irish legation was based in Paris, Bordeaux, Ascain, and finally in Vichy), being accredited to both the Vichy and post-liberation regimes. During the war he worked hard to counter the pro-Pétain views of Walshe in Dublin. There were many heated exchanges between the two men, but Murphy eventually prevailed. Murphy's relations with the post-liberation provisional government were initially somewhat fraught as Ireland, as a neutral, refused to accept that Murphy had to re-present its credentials to the new government. Though by the autumn of 1944 this difficulty had been cleared up, relations between Ireland and France after the war lacked their pre-war warmth, and might have been improved more quickly if Murphy had been recalled to Dublin sooner.
In April 1950 Murphy was sent to Ottawa as ambassador to Canada. Though hoping to be appointed ambassador to the Holy See for his final posting, he returned to Iveagh House, aged 59, as secretary in 1955, and headed the Department of External Affairs until his retirement in 1957. His period as secretary saw Ireland enter the United Nations and begin what has been called the ‘golden age’ of Irish policy at the UN, but Murphy was past his prime and lacked initiative as secretary. He was of a different generation and outlook to the proponents of a more technocratically-based and economics-driven Irish foreign policy of the period. It was the assistant secretaries T. J. O'Driscoll (qv) and William Warnock (qv), along with a talented band of overseas representatives such as Con Cremin (qv), Frederick Boland (qv), and Hugh McCann (qv), who exemplified the outlook of postwar Irish foreign policy, and were the most important centres of initiative in the department during Murphy's tenure.
Seán Murphy was a diplomat who kept very much behind the scenes. According to Frederick Boland, writing in the Irish Times after his death, Murphy ‘had a tendency towards self-effacement’ which was ‘liable to obscure many of his outstanding qualities’. He was ‘the sort of man in which you could confide . . . he was too high minded, too highly principled, ever to betray a confidence.’ Boland felt that Murphy was ‘a shrewd observer of men and things’ and had ‘an unrivalled knowledge of the diplomatic and constitutional problems which accompanied the birth of the new [Irish] state’. Murphy held the rank of Grand Officer of the Légion d'honneur, awarded to him by the French government. He died 6 December 1964 at his residence 71 Nutley Lane, Dublin, and was buried in Deansgrange cemetery, Dublin.
Seán Murphy married Kathleen Cecile Murphy; they had four daughters, Kay, Nessa, Siovan, and Triona.