Enigma of William Martin Murphy
Jim Larkin’s newspaper portrayed his nemesis as a ‘soulless, money-grubbing tyrant’ but he was far more complex, paternalistic, patriotic and determined, finds Thomas J Morrissey
Walter Osborne portrait of William Martin Murphy (Courtesy Dublin Chamber of Commerce) -(Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES)
By 1913, William Martin Murphy was an international businessman as well as one of the largest employers in Ireland. He had constructed tramways or light railways in Africa, South America and Portugal as well as in Britain.
In Dublin he owned a large retail store and a hotel, an efficient and profitable tramway company, and the largest circulating newspapers, the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald.
These organs, in the years prior to 1913, were critical of Jim Larkin’s socialist rhetoric and his use of the sympathetic strike as a weapon against employers. “Larkinism” was presented as linked to a European socialism and syndicalism that caused commercial chaos and was anti-religion.
Larkin, for his part, having forced major wage concessions and union recognition from many Dublin employers, was determined to force the largest employer into recognising the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union within his enterprises.
To this end, he set about whipping up hostility to Murphy in speeches and in his Irish Worker newspaper. Again and again Murphy was referred to variously as “a blood-sucking vampire”, “the tramway tyrant”, a “capitalist sweater”, and “a creature who never hesitated to use the most foul and unscrupulous methods against any man, woman or child” that stood in his way, “a soulless, money-grubbing tyrant”.
Larkin’s diatribe was absorbed by Dublin’s workers. Larkin, however, had underestimated Murphy. He had not acquainted himself with Murphy’s character and his life-long hostility to being bullied.
A political enemy of Murphy, TP O’Connor, described him as “a thin man, with alert movements”, a tranquil face, and “an entire absence of the angry vituperation in which Irishmen usually expressed their feelings”. He seemed to go through life “with unbroken temper and inflexible equanimity” and “also had the other great quality of inflexible courage”.
Widely read, especially in history, engineering and general affairs, Murphy had a strong social conscience and was active in the St Vincent de Paul Society and in many private acts of assistance to the less well-off. He prided himself on providing employment and on having good relations with his workforce. He cherished his “Irishness”, keeping his headquarters in Dublin, rather than in London, while “carrying the Irish flag far afield in commercial enterprises”.
A columnist in the Daily Chronicle observed that when one met Murphy one “got the impression of an ascetic, kindly man of the diplomatic class, exceedingly well-dressed, quiet spoken with a humorous twinkle in his eye”, a picture far distant from Larkin’s presentation of him in the Irish Worker.
Before dismissing Larkin’s calumniation as groundless caricature, however, one is given pause by further words of the Daily Chronicle’s columnist regarding Murphy: “His was a case of the iron hand in the velvet glove. Behind the blue eyes dwelt a soul of iron.” To which might be added TP O’Connor’s further observation that Murphy had “perfect control over himself “an indomitable will” and “extraordinary tenacity of purpose”.
William Martin Murphy was born near Castletownbere, Co Cork, on January 6th, 1845. He was the only child of Denis Murphy, a building contractor, and his wife Mary Anne Martin. The following year the family and business moved to Bantry.