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
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