Rugby international and former chaplain to queen

Gerry Murphy: August 20th, 1926-January 7th, 2014


Canon Gerry Murphy, who died peacefully at his Norfolk home aged 87 earlier this month, was a former chaplain to Queen Elizabeth and an international rugby player who won six international caps for Ireland between 1951 and 1958. An imposing figure in his heyday, six feet tall with a shock of black hair and an infectious grin, who played as fullback, he was no pushover, as many an opponent who tried to get past him on the field discovered.

His prominence at rugby straddled the end of the epoch of Jack Kyle and the beginning of the rise of Tony O’Reilly. He might have expected more caps were it not for the challenge posed by Lansdowne and Munster’s Paddy Berkery and others, along with Murphy’s absences on overseas tours of duty as a clergyman.

He played in the green jersey alongside another soldier-priest, Robin Roe, who later won a Military Cross. Gerry Murphy’s international career outlasted Roe’s by a season and he is thus the most recent ordained priest to represent Ireland in international rugby.

John Gervase Maurice Walker Murphy was born in Bangor, Co Down, in 1926 – his middle names honouring the memory of his father’s army comrade who died in the first World War. His mother Yvone (Wilson) had four children.

His father, Maj Billy Murphy, was a Belfast man with family roots in the South, as his surname suggests. His eldest son Gerry went to Methodist College in Belfast, and played rugby and cricket there. At the age of 17 he joined the Irish Guards and later the Royal Irish Rifles.

In 1947 he enrolled at Trinity College Dublin to study history, later switching to divinity and becoming a clergyman. He felt drawn to the army as he had to the church, he told friends. An early posting was to Lurgan, Co Armagh, and in 1955 he was sent as a padre to Korea, still suffering the aftermath of a brutal war dividing the country.

On his way back to Europe he sent a postcard to Joyce Livermore, an English student he had met at Christian Union meetings in Trinity, suggesting they meet again. They married on September 12th, 1957.

During the 1950s, Gerry Murphy’s international rugby career ran in tandem with this busy period of their lives. He captained the Trinity First XV in 1951-2 and for the next decade he played club rugby with Lurgan and London Irish, where team-mates included Lions captain and scrumhalf Andy Mulligan.

He continued to play cricket and senior rugby with Birkenhead when he was posted to Oswestry on the Welsh border. There his charges were members of a boy’s battalion aged 15 to 17, and he enjoyed this posting very much.

The life of an army chaplain and his wife is an unsettled one. He was posted to Woolwich in 1957, where he practiced kicking goals at nearby Blackheath in the evenings.

Later he was sent to Winchester where unexplained suicide had become a problem, and from 1964 to 1967 he was in Malaya, a very busy posting during the conflict with Indonesia, working alongside troops drawn from Canada, Australia and other countries.

He was in Yemen after that, another post-colonial flashpoint posting. Later, two stints in Germany ministering to British troops and their families was satisfying, and a posting to the Guards’ depot at Purbright, Surrey, took him back to familiar ground, and he and Joy had some stability in which to bring up their increasing family, five daughters in all.

His ministry was an unfussy one. When he was appointed to a parish on the Norfolk Broads he bade holidaymakers there, “Come to church as you are – no need to dress up.” And they came. He had been chosen as the queen’s domestic chaplain in 1979 at Sandringham in Norfolk, the county where Gerry and Joy had a seaside home in anticipation of retirement.

From 1987 to 1996 he retained his royal assignment during a five-year posting to the Falklands, and later at the Tower of London, after which he retired, having reached the rank of army assistant chaplain general. From 1996, until the time of his death, he retained the title of “extra chaplain” to the queen and was called upon to attend functions with her and to preach at St James’ Palace.

Canon Gerry Murphy is survived by his wife, Joy, five daughters and his sisters Sheilah Girgis-Hanna and Maura Maeve Mulholland. His brother Roy died in 2012.