Roots: The Stout-Hearted Murphys
By Irish America Staff
July / August 1996
One of the most common names in Ireland, the Murphy Clan has distinguished itself in every field. Among them were an Army chaplain, poet, war hero, police commissioner, and mistress.
The name Murphy, the most common and widespread name in Ireland, is a derivation of the Gaelic personal name of Murchadh or Murragh, which gave rise to the different versions MacMurchadh (son of Murchadh) and O’Murchadh (descendant of Murchadh). These forms led, after the dropping of the O or Mac, to the name of Murphy.
O’Murchadh septs existed independently in Wexford, Roscommon and Cork, in which county it is now most common, with the MacMurchadhs of the Sligo and Tyrone area responsible for most of the Murphys in Ulster.
The name was first anglicized to MacMurphy and then to Murphy, and, unlike many Irish families who dropped the O or Mac prefix from their names in the early 19th century only to replace it at the end of the century when the Gaelic Revival heightened awareness of Celtic origins, the Murphys rarely replaced the O or Mac prefix.
The earliest Murphy on record is perhaps the 12th century Domhnall Dall O’Murchadh, who was listed in The Annals of the Four Masters as chief sage of Leinster. One of the most interesting Murphys was Marie Louise Murphy, (1737-1814), the very beautiful daughter of an Irish-born soldier of the French army. She was the mistress of Louis XV and had a son by him. However, she was subsequently banished from the court (to be replaced, by some accounts, by her sister Brigitte) and married to a Major D’Ayat. During the reign of terror which followed the French Revolution, she was imprisoned as a suspected royalist, but was released and displayed her considerable powers of survival by marrying a member of the Convention, the post-revolution French parliament.
Father John Murphy (1753-1798) was the famous priest who led the revolutionary forces in Wexford during the 1798 rebellion. Despite a total lack of experience of military warfare, he led his peasant army with great prowess during the capture of most of County Wexford. Finally defeated by a large military force, he was hanged in Tullow. A statue in his honor stands in Enniscorthy and songs recalling his exploits remain popular to this day. Another Murphy priest, Father Michael Murphy (1767-1798) also played a significant role in the same rebellion and was killed in the rebels’ attack on the town of Arklow.
In the American War of Independence over 500 Murphys are recorded among the various American forces. These included Captain John Murphy of the Massachusetts Navy Privateer “Swallow,” Colonel Archibald Murphy of the North Carolina Militia, Captain Maurice Murphy of Hicks South Carolina Regiment, and Timothy Murphy, the most famous marksman of the Revolution. A member of Morgan’s Rifle Corps, Murphy, the son of Irish immigrants, played a major part in the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga when he picked off two British commanders.
Other Murphy war heroes were Fr. Timothy Murphy, the first Army chaplain to be killed in World War I, and Audie Murphy, who was the most highly decorated United States serviceman of World War II with a total of 28 medals. Born in 1924 to Irish sharecroppers in Greenville, Texas, he enlisted in the Army in 1942, and quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant. Wounded three times, he was repeatedly cited for gallantry in action. He won the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off a German force of half a dozen tanks and over 200 men. Audie died in 1971. He was a passenger in an Aero commander 680E when it crashed in the Appalachian Mountains on Memorial Day weekend. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
Martin Murphy from Wexford was one of the largest land owners in Santa Clara County, California. His son, Martin Jr., was a driving force in the establishment of the University of Santa Clara. The town of Murphys in Calaveras County is named for his brothers, Daniel and John, who discovered a large deposit of ore in the area.
In the art world, famous Murphys included Seamus Murphy (1907-1975), the sculptor who published his life story Stone Mad in 1950, and the Irish poet Richard Murphy (1927-).
Other interesting Murphys include Charles Francis Murphy (1858-1924), who rose from humble New York East Side origins to become leader of Tammany Hall from 1902 to 1924. Murphy was a political mentor to the young Franklin D. Roosevelt and one of the most powerful men in the United States at the time of his death.
Michael Charles Murphy coached U.S. Olympic teams in the 1900s, and introduced the crouching start for athletes which is now used by sprinters everywhere. He was born in Massachusetts of Irish parents.
Isaac Murphy (1802-1882) was a state senator and governor of Arkansas. William Murphy, a medical researcher, won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1934. Also in medicine, John Benjamin Murphy (1857-1907) became one of the leading professors of surgery in Chicago, and invented the famous Murphy Button which simplified abdominal operations.
Henry Cruse Murphy (1810-1882) was a mayor of Brooklyn, a member of Congress and a U.S. Senator. Cruse Murphy was very much involved in the development of the Brooklyn Bridge, both as Senator in drafting the legislation which allowed its construction, and as president of the corporation which constructed it.
Paul Morphy (1837-1844), the uncrowned champion of the chess world, and the greatest American chess player until the advent of Bobby Fisher, was descended from an Irish family that immigrated to Spain and from Spain to New Orleans.
Two of New York’s police commissioners have been Murphys: Thomas Murphy, in 1951, who afterwards served as a federal judge, and Michael J. Murphy, who led the fight against corruption in the 1960s.
Irish America’s Top 100 list includes many Murphys, including Thomas Murphy, the CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, and Tom Murphy, the 55th mayor of the City of Pittsburgh.
In Ireland, prominent Murphys in business have included William Martin Murphy (1844-1919), who was founder of Independent Newspapers, one of Ireland’s major newspaper groups, and also the owner of successful building and transport companies. Murphy was a committed nationalist and refused a knighthood from King George VII of England on this principle. He is perhaps best remembered in a less favorable light as the leader of the employers in the bitter labor disputes of 1913, which culminated in a famous lockout of all striking Dublin workers.
Entrepreneurs in the drinks industry include Patrick C. Murphy, who founded the Domecq Sherry business in 1730, the biggest and most famous of the Spanish Sherry producers, and the four brothers who started the Murphy Brewery in Cork in 1856. Murphy’s stout is still produced in that city and enjoyed all over Ireland. While these Murphys worked hard to develop the pubic’s appreciation of alcohol, their kinsman Francis Murphy (1836-1907) worked equally hard to encourage them to stop. A native of Wexford, Francis settled in Pittsburgh and became a renowned temperance speaker who toured widely in the United States and Britain. During his career he collected the signatures of 12 million people who pledged abstinence from drink. ♦