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

Wed, Sep 11, 2013, 00:00

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.

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.

He envisaged as did Larkin, a short, successful struggle. In his endeavour to ensure that, he and the employers decided to lock out all members of Larkin’s union and those who supported them.

The endeavour proved counter-productive. The English unions came to the aid of the Dublin workers, and the struggle became a bitter, drawn-out conflict in which hundreds of families suffered intensely.

Murphy, on his side, was faced with the task of keeping his wavering employers together. He did so with “tenacity of purpose” and a “soul of iron” and resisted all attempts at mediation. He had in mind only one result, the defeat and extinction of Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. He eventually brought the union to its knees but failed to destroy it. His relentless refusal to negotiate earned him, as the poet and editor AE (George Russell) had warned, the bitter hatred of generations of Dublin working families.

In Murphy’s view, Larkin’s dominance was finished and the commercial life of the city could continue peacefully. He reiterated to fellow employers the need to treat their workers justly, and insisted that in future the chamber of commerce would require of its members that they provide fair wages and conditions for their employees.

His image suffered another setback in 1916, when the Irish Independent virtually called for the death penalty for James Connolly. Murphy was blamed. In fact, he was in England at the time, and claimed that he heard of the matter only a number of days later and was distressed at the news.

In the few years left to him after the Rising, he brought the influence of his newspapers to bear against partition and subsequently against conscription. He also played a prominent role in the National Convention Assembly where he endeavoured to persuade Ulster Unionists to work for a more generous Home Rule.

When he died, on June 26th, 1919, conscription had been defeated and partition appeared to have been deferred. Dublin City Council expressed its deepest sympathy and regret at the passing of one “whom we always regarded as one of our ablest and best citizens and whose loss – commercially, intellectually and personal – will long be felt by the community and by our country generally”.

Such a tribute from contemporaries, so greatly at variance with Larkin’s depiction of Murphy, underlines the difficulty of providing a presentation of past people and events that avoids the allure of over-simplification and the temptation to locate all blame in one quarter.


Dr Thomas J Morrissey is a history graduate of UCD and UCC. He is the author of 13 books, mainly historical biography, including works on James Connolly, William O’Brien, and William Martin Murphy