Remembering Father John Murphy
The Irish Revolutionary and leader of the Wexford rebels was executed on this day in 1798.
John Murphy was born at Tincurry in the Parish of Ferns, County Wexford in 1753, the youngest son of Thomas and Johanna Murphy.
Murphy was educated at a hedge school and by a local parish priest, Dr Andrew Cassin SJ, who had a significant influence on him.
Murphy grew up speaking Irish, English and later learned Spanish, Latin and Greek. A splendid horseman, he excelled in athletics and handball. He was described as "a good-looking man, stout but rather low-sized and well built".
Studying for the priesthood was then illegal in Ireland, which meant priests were trained abroad, so Murphy sailed for Spain in early 1772 and studied for the priesthood in Seville.
Returning home five years later, Fr. Murphy was made curate in Kilcormuck, better known as Boolavogue, where he had a thatched chapel. Catholic churches were forbidden in some Wexford parishes by local landlords. He lodged with a tenant farmer and travelled around the parish on horseback.
In 1798 the United Irishmen had planned a rebellion to begin in Dublin. The uprising never got off the ground in Dublin and other counties in Leinster like Meath & Kildare the rebellion had little success.
In Wexford Bishop Caulfield was regarded as "a government man" and a collaborator with the British. He ordered all Catholics to surrender their arms and be loyal to George III, "the best of kings."
At first Fr. Murphy urged his people to do so. He and 757 of his parishioners even signed an oath, demanded by their local landlord, that they were not United Irishmen.
The country was then under martial law, which was ruthlessly enforced by the army with the help of two new armed auxiliary forces, militia and yeomen. Both imposed a reign of terror on the people.
On May 26th, twenty-eight local men were taken into Carnew and shot dead by the yeoman. When Fr. Murphy and his people heard this and also learned that the yeomen planned a raid on Boolavogue, they decided to resist.
Armed with one gun and a few pikes, he and about thirty local men intercepted the yeomen, led by a Lieut. Bookey, as they began burning the houses in Boolavogue. When Bookey and another yeoman were killed, the rest fled. The Wexford Rising had begun.
Parties of mounted yeomen responded by killing suspects and burning homes, causing a wave of panic. The countryside was soon filled with masses of people fleeing the terror and heading for high ground for safety in numbers.
On Whit Sunday morning, May 27th, while Fr. Murphy and some local men raided a nearby arms depot and recovered arms and pikes they had previously surrendered, the yeoman burned down the chapel at Boolavogue.
That afternoon, as more men joined them, about 1,000 rebels gathered on Oulart Hill. A few had guns and pikes, but most had only reaping hooks and hay forks. When attacked by a well-armed force of militia and yeoman with cavalry, the rebels defeated them and captured over 100 guns.
The victory was followed by a successful assault on the weak garrison of Enniscorthy, which swelled the Irish rebel forces and their weapon supply. However defeats at New Ross, Arklow, and Newtownbarry meant a loss of men and weapons.
Fr John Murphy had returned to the headquarters of the rebellion at Vinegar Hill before the Battle of Arklow and was attempting to reinforce its defences.
20,000 British troops arrived at Wexford with artillery and defeated the rebels, armed only with pikes at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21st. However, due to a lack of coordination among the British columns, the bulk of the rebel army escaped to fight on.
Eluding the crown forces by passing through the Scullogue Gap, Fr John Murphy and other leaders tried to spread the rebellion across the country by marching into Kilkenny and towards the Midlands.
On June 26th 1798 at the Battle of Kilcumney Hill in County Carlow, their forces were tricked and defeated. Fr Murphy and his bodyguard, James Gallagher, became separated from the leading surviving group.
Fr Murphy decided to head for the safety of a friend's house in Tullow, County Carlow when the path cleared. They were sheltered by friends and strangers. On July 2nd some yeomen captured Murphy and Gallagher in a farmyard.
They were brought to Tullow later that day where they were brought before a military tribunal, charged with committing treason against the British Crown and sentenced to death.
Both men were tortured in an attempt to extract more information from them. Fr Murphy was stripped, flogged, hanged, decapitated, his corpse burnt in a barrel of tar and his head impaled on a spike.
This final gesture was meant to be a warning to all others who fought against the British Crown.
Father Murphy is commemorated in the ballad Boolavogue, written in 1898 to commemorate the rebellion. Father Murphy's remains are buried in the old Catholic graveyard with Fr Ned Redmond in Ferns, Co Wexford.