Sean Murphy obituary: British officer whose life bridged Ireland’s divisions
British soldier who felt most at home with Irish men
During his career in the British army Sean Murphy kept up an interest in the Irish language. This gave him the flexibility to learn some Arabic. Photograph courtesy of the Royal British Legion
Born June 6th 1932,
Died November 3rd 2018
Major Sean Murphy, who has died in his adopted home of Waterford, was a leading figure in the Royal British Legion in Ireland. He was proud to be an Irishman and to have served in the British army. He served twice as chairman of the Legion in Ireland. He was also for a time Irish representative on the Army Pensions Board, and a member of the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Board.
His long military career began when he enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in his mid-teens as a Band Boy. Rising through the ranks, he retired as a major in the Ulster Defence Regiment.
He was born in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, in June 1932, and raised in the town’s McDermott Terrace. In his teenage years, there was little work available in north Leitrim. The British army offered, for the time, a good wage. As important, too, it offered the chance to travel. Thus, he went by train to the Inniskillings depot in Omagh to enlist. From then, Omagh was a second home.
He showed a talent for soldiering. Rising through the ranks, he was a sergeant major by the time he left the Royal Irish Regiment, into which Inniskillings had been amalgamated.
During his service, he was stationed for a while in the Gulf area. Proud to be Irish, he kept up an interest in the Irish language. This gave him the flexibility to learn some Arabic. Anxious to further his education, he obtained an arts degree from the Open University later in life.
In the British army, he felt at home among Irish men, and felt the Irish regiments were the finest troops. He never faced any problems in Manorhamilton when he visited, and dismissed most reports of British soldiers on leave facing difficulties as fallacy. He told the BBC: “In my own case everybody would have known in the town where I came from in Leitrim. That I served and my brother served also. One never met with any animosity.
As a soldier, he was resourceful in all ways. As a young soldier, he mislaid some items of kit. It was recommended that he see an older colleague who seemed to be able to find items at short notice. He obtained the items, but kept his eyes open. A few months later, he was acting as orderly. He looked into the trunk of the older soldier, and found a treasure trove of items – including his own. He reclaimed his “mislaid” items, and other pieces of kit. That meant he could help young soldiers who found items of kit had strangely disappeared.
On leaving the regular army, he joined the Ulster Defence Regiment. Initially, he was commissioned as a captain. He completed his service as a major, stationed in Ballymena.
Retiring from military life, he took an entirely new direction. He became bursar at Newtown School in Waterford. There he deployed the administrative skills from soldiering in the stewardship of the school finances; in preserving the fabric of school buildings; and in developing the school estate. He had an attention to detail, a commitment to the ideals of the school and used his communication skills to promote what was distinctive about the school.
He had been attracted to the Masonic Order by what he saw as its ethos of charity work and public service, and came to play a leading role in the society in Waterford.
In retirement, too, he threw himself into work for the British Legion. He became one of the best-known figures in the Republic, and something of a “go to” man for many issues. When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the British Parliament discussed implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in the North, his name raised as knowledgeable representative to be consulted.
His long career of service was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2014. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Long before that, he had been recognised as one who’s life bridged Ireland’s divisions.
He is survived by his wife, Gabby, and sons Diarmuid and Niall. He was predeceased by his first wife Kathleen and his daughter Siobhan.”