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
When William was four, his mother died. He was looked after by his grandmother, Mary Murphy, until her death five years later. Thereafter, neighbours and close friends of his father, especially the Sullivan family, cared for the young boy. He received encouragement and support from AM Sullivan, and TD Sullivan, who was a leading figure in the weekly national and literary paper, the Nation.
William was related to the Healy brothers, T M and Maurice, and grew up familiar with the so-called “Bantry Gang”, who were so prominent in the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was to remain attached to Bantry all his life. He regularly visited there and was known familiarly as Willie Murphy. Having attended the local primary school, he was sent to Dublin, where he stayed in lodgings with two of the Sullivan boys and attended Belvedere College.
In Belvedere, William vied for first place in his class. On leaving Belvedere, he attended lectures at the Catholic University and worked in the office of the well-known architect, John J Lyons. He was involved in subediting the Irish Builder, which Lyons owned and edited.
In 1863, at 18, his father died suddenly. William returned to Bantry and took over the business. Within four years he moved the firm to Cork city. He married Mary Julie Lombard, a member of a long-established Cork family. In 1875 he transferred his headquarters to Dublin where, in conjunction with his influential father-in-law, James F Lombard, he developed an interest in tramways and railways, bought Clery’s department store and the Imperial Hotel. In those years he sometimes acted as mediator in industrial disputes and was popular with the workers concerned.
In 1885 he successfully stood for election to parliament in St Patrick’s Division, Dublin. He became an influential figure in the Irish Party and in 1890, he sided with the majority of the party against Parnell. This changed his standing with the strongly Parnellite Dublin working class and cost him his seat at the election two years later.
Several factors contributed to his negative image, notably the pervasive propaganda of the Irish Party machine after he fell out with John Dillon and his opposition to the expense of building a bridge over the River Liffey.
He opposed the spending of money to house the Hugh Lane paintings although he was just one of the many opponents of the venture which included Dublin City Council and the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. So, by 1913, Larkin was far from being the only public critic of Murphy, but he was the most devastating one.
Murphy, meanwhile, had visited the United States and learned about electric tramways. He had bought the Nation newspaper and then the Irish Independent, became prominent in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, and, in 1907, was the chief organiser of the highly successful Irish International Exhibition. In recognition, he was offered a knighthood by King Edward VII, but declined the honour.
In the year of the Lockout, Murphy was 67 years of age and recovering from a serious, protracted illness. He was also chairman of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in that year. He decided he had a duty to put an end to Larkin’s control of the commercial life of the city. He viewed Larkin not only as an Irish example of European syndicalism and industrial anarchy, but also as a bullying dictator with whom one could not negotiate. He determined to oppose “Larkinism” whatever the financial cost. He did so in trepidation. An employer who, as he claimed, had not had a strike during 50 years, “got terrified” anticipating such a situation.