Romping home! Dirty Dick Murphy winning the Salthill Fiesta, Galway, in June 1977 (photograph Connacht Tribune)
In the All-Ireland Name Stakes we’ve always known that Murphy is the front runner. In fact it’s the most popular surname, significantly outnumbering the next in line: Kelly. This was the case in 1890 – when the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Robert Matheson, compiled the first comprehensive analysis of names for the whole of Ireland. Then, there were 62,600 Murphys and 55,900 Kellys in a population of 4.7 million. More recently the phone network company Eircom published A Survey of Irish Surnames 1992-97 compiled by Sean J Murphy from telephone directory records in the Republic and Northern Ireland (making it comparable to the 1890 study): this showed 70,900 Murphys and 59,800 Kellys in a total population of 5.3 million.
Runner-up! A Kelly, perhaps… from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
So Murphy wins – by a margin. Let’s have look at the name: Ó Murchadha (or in modern Irish Ó Murchú) means ‘sea warrior’ (Irish Medieval History gives Murchú as ‘hound of the sea’). Most of the Murphys are evidently here in County Cork, with Counties Wexford and Kilkenny next up. There are O’Murphys – mainly confined to Ulster, where the family were part of the tribe claiming descent from Eoghan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was responsible for kidnapping St Patrick and bringing him to Ireland. Otherwise the Murphys usually trace their ancestry back to Diarmait Mac Murchadha – King of Uí Cheinnsealaig and King of Laigin (Leinster) who lived in the twelfth century and was himself descended from the High King Brian Boru through his father’s grandmother.
Key players in Murphy geneaology and Irish history: Brian Boru, Diarmait Mac Murchadha and Henry II
Diarmait Mac Murchadha was deprived of his titles by the then High King of Ireland, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, and asked the English King, Henry II, to help him retrieve them. In return, Mac Murchada pledged an oath of allegiance to Henry, who sent troops in support. As a further thanks for his reinstatement, Mac Murchada’s daughter Aoife was married to Richard de Clare, the second Earl of Pembroke, popularly known as ‘Strongbow‘. The result of all this was that the Normans came to Ireland – and stayed – and it’s all thanks to the Murphys!
We mustn’t forget Murphy’s Irish Stout! (advertisement by BBH London)
Now let’s look at some famous Murphys. Father John Murphy – an Irish freedom fighter – is immortalised in the ballad Boolavogue. Fr John was born in 1753 and studied for the priesthood in Seville as this was the time of the Penal Laws when Catholics were persecuted in Ireland. He returned to his homeland in 1785 and there he was only known as ‘Mister Murphy’: Irish priests were not styled as ‘Father’ until the 1860s. John Murphy led a group of rebels against English forces in the 1798 uprising. He was captured, tortured and brutally executed at Tullow, Co Carlow. Here is a rendering of the beautiful elegy Boolavogue composed by Patrick Joseph McCall in 1898, the centenary of the Rebellion, played on the pipes by Davy Spillane, with Aly Bain on fiddle:
Boolavogue is a town in Co Wexford where the rebels secured their first victory before they were captured. Here are the words to the ballad:
At Boolavogue, as the sun was setting
O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier,
A rebel hand set the heather blazing
And brought the neighbours from far and near.
Then Father Murphy, from old Kilcormack,
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry;
“Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you,
For Ireland’s freedom we fight or die.”
He led us on against the coming soldiers,
And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight;
‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
Showed Booky’s Regiment how men could fight.
Look out for hirelings, King George of England,
Search ev’ry kingdom where breathes a slave,
For Father Murphy of the County Wexford
Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave.
We took Camolin and Enniscorthy,
And Wexford storming drove out our foes;
‘Twas at Sliabh Coillte our pikes were reeking
With the crimson stream of the beaten Yeos.
At Tubberneering and Ballyellis
Full many a Hessian lay in his gore;
Ah, Father Murphy, had aid come over
The green flag floated from shore to shore!
At Vinegar Hill, o’er the pleasant Slaney,
Our heroes vainly stood back to back,
And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burned his body upon the rack.
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open heaven to all your men;
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
In another fight for the Green again.
Two of my Murphy heroes are musicians: Denis Murphy (1912 – 1974) was a great fiddle player from the Sliabh Luachra area of Cork and Kerry. There were so many Murphy families in that area that Denis’s father Bill was always known as ‘Bill the Waiver’ because his people had been weavers of flax in olden times. I have Denis in my collection of Irish music cd’s but was never able to hear him playing live. I did meet my other hero, however, on my first visit to Ireland back in 1975. That’s Paddy Murphy (1913 – 1992), the renowned concertina player from Co Clare. I was privileged to be taken out to a private session in a remote townland somewhere north of Kilmihil. There, in a bar which seemed like someone’s front parlour, I heard Paddy play and talk of his family history and his very individual virtuoso style of playing an instrument which I have been trying to master for the last 50 years!
Noted traditional musicians: Denis Murphy (left) from the Sliabh Luachra and Paddy Murphy (right) from County Clare
Next is someone we have met before, in our posts on Saint Gobnait and The Tailor and Ansty: that’s the sculptor Seamus Murphy (1907 – 1975). This Murphy, from Burnfort near Mallow, Co Cork, became Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He is also known for his book, Stone Mad, which was published in 1950.
Seamus Murphy in his studio: pictures top and lower left are from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
The last Murphy that I want to mention (and there could be so many) is, perhaps, an unexpected one – she is Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who lived from 1737 to 1814. Although she was born and died in France she was of Irish extraction: her grandfather Daniel, a former army officer, had left his home in Cork for Rouen, where he worked as a master shoe-maker. When just in her teens, the physical features of young Mlle O’Murphy were spotted by Giacomo Casanova, who recommended her to King Louis XV. As a result she became the King’s Petite maîtresse – little mistress (or, rather, one of them) and bore him a daughter. However, the King’s favourite, Madame de Pompadour, decided that Marie-Louise’s presence in the royal household was too challenging and she was sent off to the country to marry a nobleman – and also received a handsome dowry for life. Marie-Louise O’Murphy (who was given the name of Marie-Louise Morphy de Boisfailly – possibly to raise her status in Versailles) is familiar to us as the artist’s model for François Boucher’s Resting Girl, painted in 1751. The canvas is now in the Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne.
A colourful note on which to end our survey on the Murphys of Ireland (and beyond), perhaps. We apologise to all the thousands of Murphys who we have not mentioned, but we’d like to hear from any of them…