More than the men of 1916 William Martin Murphy defined the ethos of the new Ireland

Opinion: Capitalist outlook espoused by 1913 Lockout victor became fundamental to the character of the independent Irish state

Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 12:01

It was William Martin Murphy who emerged as the real victor of the revolutionary Ireland of 100 years ago. Not Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, James Larkin or even Michael Collins. For it was Murphy who defined the ethos of the new Ireland, not the others, although Michael Collins might have done his bit to consolidate the Murphy legacy had he lived.

As with many “capitalist ogres” there was an ordinariness and decency about the man. He was born on January 6th, 1845, in Castletownbere, Co Cork, son of a building contractor. He was educated by the Jesuits in Belvedere College, the alma mater of many another capitalist ogre.

He began his business career in Cork, “a sober young man, a practising Catholic with a social conscience” (according to his biographer, the Jesuit Thomas J Morrissey), and an active member of St Vincent de Paul Society. He married happily and well, which facilitated his business career as his father-in-law was well-connected. He moved to Dublin where he acquired a fine residence in Dartry. He became president of the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society, captain of Milltown Golf Club and a member of one of the fine yacht clubs of Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire).

His interests stretched to Britain, Portugal and South America, but his main business centre remained Dublin. According to his biographer he was then a “rare phenomenon, a successful Irish Catholic businessman”. His interests included trams, department stores, hotels, and, crucially, Independent Newspapers.

He was elected to Westminster in 1885. He took the anti-Parnell side in the Irish Parliamentary Party split of the early 1890s and, as a consequence, lost his Westminster seat in 1892 to a mere victualler, William Field.

He was offered and refused a knighthood, defiant even in the presence of King Edward VII in Dublin in 1907.

He professed to be a just and paternal employer. He urged his fellow employers: “Apart from its justice, the policy of looking after the conditions of your labour, particularly low-paid labour, without waiting to be asked, will be found to pay from a business point of view.”

It was not unusual then or now to refer to human beings as “labour”.

Like many employers then he was dismayed by the rise of trade unions, notably the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), which had been established in 1909 and which organised unskilled workers. He saw no need for trade unions, no need for workers’ solidarity in the face of the negotiating and financial might of “capital”, since the Catholic munificence of employers would itself ensure the welfare of labour.

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