Murphy, William Richard English (1890–1975), teacher, soldier, schools’ inspector, general and police commissioner, was born on 26 January 1890 at Danescastle, Carrig on Bannow, Co. Wexford, son of John Joseph Murphy and Sarah Agnes (née English), both of whom were teachers. He had one sibling, Mary Sarah (b. 1891).
Murphy was orphaned at an early age and was initially cared for by his grandparents; when they died, he was raised in Belfast by a distant relation. There he continued his education at St Peters School on the Falls Road, where he also became a pupil teacher. In 1909 he passed the King’s scholarship exam for entry to St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Drumcondra, Dublin. On completion of the two-year course he returned to Belfast for a full time teaching position at St Peters School. He undertook further study at Queens’ University, Belfast (QUB), and in 1913 obtained a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in English, Latin and French. He was studying for a Master of Arts (MA) when, in September 1914, the first world war began.
In early 1915 he joined the British army as an officer cadet through the QUB officer training corps and gained his commission in April 1915. His initial efforts to join units of the 16th (Irish) or 36th (Ulster) Divisions were unsuccessful; he then applied for a posting with the South Staffordshire Regiment as he learnt that the 1st Battalion (7th Division) had a number of officers who were Irish. Murphy first saw action in the closing stages of the battle of Loos in October 1915. However, barring brief spells in the trenches and despite being wounded by shellfire, he did not see serious action until 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme. In the assault Murphy was given the task of leading the battalion’s bombing company to clear the fortified houses in the village of Mametz. Of the battalion’s twenty-one officers who had gone over the top that morning, by the end of the day six were dead and a further five were wounded. Murphy survived uninjured.
Murphy was involved in many more battles on the Western Front in 1916, including High Wood and Delville Wood (a particularly hideous affair) in late August, then later in the year on the Douve River and at Beaumont Hamel. In 1917 he was promoted to captain and was awarded the Military Cross for service at the Somme. During 1917 he was again in action at Bullcourt in April and then at the third battle of Ypres, a bloody fiasco in which the battalion took heavy casualties. Late that year his battalion was posted to Italy in the aftermath of Caporetto (October–November 1917); at the outset of 1918 Murphy served there on the front lines with his battalion. In June he was promoted from major to lieutenant colonel, becoming the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment – it was a singular honour for a young catholic Irishman to be given the command of a battalion of mostly English soldiers.
On 27 October 1918, the British 10th Army took part in the battle of Vittorio Veneto, the final offensive of the war in Italy. This involved a direct assault across the Piave, a wide, fast-flowing river in Venetia, with the Austro-Hungarian army entrenched on the opposite side. Murphy’s battalion was one of those tasked with crossing and taking the far bank by direct assault. Realising that the staff plan he was due to follow was seriously flawed, he liaised with the commanding officer of the lead battalion to tweak the plan so that both battalions would launch their assault at the same time, thus maximising their impact. This tactic paid off and his battalion went on to capture several villages and more than 2,800 officers and men as prisoners of war, plus much of their materiel. In what proved to be his last battle of the war, Murphy was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions. The citation stated that: ‘He handled his battalion with conspicuous gallantry and skill … Throughout the operations he set his men a splendid example of fearlessness and dash, which materially helped to ensure the great success achieved’ (Murphy, Nov./Dec. 2005).
In 1919 Murphy resigned from the British army and returned to Ireland to work as a schools’ inspector, based in the Derry/Donegal area. In the aftermath of the Anglo–Irish Treaty (December 1921) and the outbreak of the Irish civil war in June 1922, he was personally invited by Michael Collins (qv) to take up a position in the new National Army. He was appointed second in command to General Eoin O’Duffy (qv) (general officer in charge of South Western Command), and during September 1922 organised the attacks on anti-Treaty republican positions in and around Bruree and Kilmallock, Co. Limerick.
The National Army had made significant advances in the southwest following seaborne landings in early August at Fenit, Co. Kerry, and several locations in Co. Cork. At the conclusion of the fighting in Limerick, Murphy was dispatched to Tralee as officer commanding Kerry Command, a position he held from late September until early January 1923. Though the fighting and violence in the county had not yet descended to the reprisals and atrocities witnessed in March 1923, it was nonetheless a difficult post. He soon realised that tactics borrowed from his experience with the British army, including broad sweeps with large numbers of troops designed to clear local concentrations of anti-Treaty republicans, were ill-suited to the terrain and conditions. Murphy did the best he could to restore order without resorting to the tactics of his successor, Paddy O’Daly (qv). Just prior to his departure from the post, he spared the lives of four anti-Treaty prisoners sentenced to death. He was reprimanded by general headquarters for his actions but feared that their deaths would only prompt reprisals by anti-Treaty republicans. In one of Murphy’s final reports from Kerry, he declared that the anti-Treaty organisation in the county was ‘well-nigh broken up’, an assessment that proved to be somewhat premature (Hopkinson, 208). Transferred to Dublin to the operations section, he expressed a wish to resign his commission when his orders were not carried out. In an effort to avert controversy he was instead transferred to the dead-end position of overseeing the writing of the National Army’s training manuals.
At the end of the civil war, however, the minister for home affairs, Kevin O’Higgins (qv) sought someone reliable to take over the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Murphy was appointed chief commissioner in May 1923 and led the force until it was amalgamated with the Garda Síochána in 1925. At the time of his appointment the DMP were a demoralised force, and Murphy focused on rebuilding its confidence. He was also involved in the establishment of what became the special branch of the Garda Síochána, which evolved from the G division of the DMP and former members of the Criminal Investigation Department that had operated out of Oriel House, Dublin, during the civil war. Murphy had written to O’Higgins in 1924 suggesting the establishment of a ‘Special Branch to deal with Bolshevik, Anarchist and Communist crime masquerading under political disguise’ (Murphy, Nov./Dec. 2005). His proudest moment, however, came in the closing months of his commissionership of the DMP, when he helped Frank Duff (qv), founder of the Legion of Mary, to close down the last brothels in Dublin’s notorious ‘Monto’ red light district.
With the amalgamation of the DMP and the Garda Síochána in 1925, Murphy was appointed a deputy commissioner of police force, then headed by his former commander in the National Army, Eoin O’Duffy. He had a great deal of respect for O’Duffy and they had an excellent relationship overall, but one that was by no means untarnished by petty disputes. He recalled that the general had many virtues but some faults. Murphy was also a personal friend of Kevin O’Higgins and was grief-stricken when he was assassinated in 1927. He had been in charge of O’Higgins’ security arrangements before the amalgamation of the two forces, and had long feared that O’Higgins was particularly likely to be targeted by dissident republicans.
Murphy held many of the key positions within the gardaí but, owing to the bitter legacy of the civil war, he was never appointed to the force’s top position, remaining an assistant commissioner. During the Emergency, however, Éamon de Valera (qv) tasked him with organising an auxiliary force to support the Defence Forces and the gardaí. Such was the scale of the response to this volunteer force, it soon numbered more than 65,000 men. In late 1940 it was split in two, with the Local Defence Force (LDF) placed under the Defence Forces and the Local Security Force (LSF) remaining under Murphy’s command. Always the poor relation of the state’s security services during the Emergency, the LSF was disbanded at the war’s end without ceremony.
After the Emergency, Murphy was put in charge of ‘C’ (crime) branch, where he published his Manual of criminal investigation, which remained in use for many years. He ended his career with the gardaí back in charge of the Dublin metropolitan area. Though known as ‘the General’ throughout his career with the gardaí, when he retired after thirty years of service in 1955, he still held the same rank as the day he joined.
A boxing enthusiast, Murphy was among those who set up the garda boxing club, and served as president of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) in the late 1920s and 1930s. He helped many aspiring boxers in the ranks of the gardaí to pursue their interest in the sport, such as James ‘Lugs’ Branigan (qv), and was (along with his wife, Mary Agnes, and others) instrumental in having the National Stadium built in Dublin. He had first proposed a boxing stadium in 1935, and two years later the IABA agreed to construct a stadium solely for the purposes of boxing. With the cost of construction coming in at the considerable sum of £12,000, Murphy and Mary Agnes played a pivotal role in raising the necessary funds. Completed in 1939, in a major coup for the IABA, the National Stadium hosted that year’s European Championships. Murphy’s contribution to the development of amateur Irish boxing was recognised by the gift of three lifetime seats at the stadium.
Murphy married Mary Agnes (‘Mamie’) Fortune of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, on 16 June 1918, at the Presentation Convent chapel in Youghal, Co. Cork, and they had three children together: Joan, Billy and Jack. They lived at various addresses in the early part of his career with the DMP and the gardaí, including Dublin Castle, and thereafter mostly in the Dublin area. Mary Agnes died in 1958 and he subsequently spent his final years in Ardee, Co. Louth, with his daughter Joan and her family, where he wrote a brief memoir of his life. William R. E. Murphy died on 5 March 1975 at Ardee and was buried with full military honours. He is buried alongside his wife in St Peter’s cemetery, Little Bray, Co. Dublin.