Republican News · Thursday 2 July 1998

[An Phoblacht]

A reluctant rebel

By Aengus O Snodaigh

Today, the most famous priest of 1798 is Fr John Murphy. He is immortalised in song by PJ McCall, in the writings of the anti-republican Sir Richard Musgrave in 1801, in the published memoirs of United Irishman Miles Byrne in 1863 and in the many publications of Catholic Church propagandist Father Patrick Kavanagh.

It was Fr Kavanagh's influence which led to one of the biggest myths of the popular history of the 1798 Rising - that the Catholic Church were responsible for and supported the Rising in Wexford. His and his church's aim was to rehabilitate the Catholic Church in the eyes of nationalists in opposition to the growth of the ``godless nobodies'' - the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians).

Father John Murphy was born in Tincurry, County Wexford. He studied in Spain and returned to Ireland to become a curate in Boolavogue, County Wexford in 1785. In 1798 he was described as being ``about 45 years old, light complexioned, bald pated and about five feet nine inches high. He was well made, uniting strength and agility''. Bishop Caulfield said of him that he was ``ever giddy [impressionable], but not noted for immorality''.

The collector of eyewitness accounts of the rising, Brother Luke Cullen, said that in Wexford Father Murphy ``was neither the sole nor the most effective leader; his importance lay more in the fact of his having led the first successful action [Harrow] of the opening night''.

In fact, history shows that Fr Murphy was opposed to a rising prior to May 1798, though he could not have been ignorant of their political and military programme, residing as he did at the house of local United Irish leader Thomas Donovan. He was instrumental in getting people in his parish to hand in whatever weapons they held in a hope that such a gesture would relieve the terror being inflicted on the people of County Wexford by the crown forces.

But the Yeomanry continued their reign of terror. That radicalised Father Murphy to the point where he aligned himself with the highly organised United Irish structure in Wexford, particularly in the Ferns district. Edward Hay (History of the insurrection in the County of Wexford, AD 1798, written in 1803) says that seeing what was happening he advised the people ``that they had better die courageously in the field, than to be butchered in their houses''.

From the night of 26 May 1798 Father John Murphy's destiny was mapped out. The yeomen (the Camilla Cavalry), continuing their terror, moved against the Harrow community and clashed with Fr Murphy and a body of men protecting their homes. Two local yeomen died in the clash that night. As a reprisal the crown forces decided next day to adopt the scorched earth policy, torching a number of houses and the church in Boolavogue, with the rebels responding in kind.

By that afternoon a large body of United Irishmen and many fellow travellers had gathered at Oulart Hill.

The battle on Oulart Hill on Whit Sunday 27 May is regarded as being one of the most influential victories of the risings. Far from being a mass headlong rush of outraged peasants against a corps of North Cork Militia, it has been proven by Brian Cleary (``The Battle of Oulart Hill: context and strategy'' in The Mighty Wave: The 1798 Rebellion in Wexford edited by Dáire Keogh and Nicholas Furlong, Four Courts Press 1996) to have been the result of a well-laid battle plan by local United Irish leaders including Edward Roche, Morgan Byrne, Thomas Donovan and George Sparks.

Despite wavering for a while the militia was nearly wiped out, only five of 110 surviving. Six United Irishmen lost their lives on the field of battle that day.

With the confidence of victory, the thousands who now rallied to the republican standard and with the capture of nearly 100 muskets and other pieces of equipment, it was decided to proceed to Enniscorthy next day.

The attack, led by Edward Roche and Father Murphy, saw the town taken with high casualties on both sides; several hundred United Irishmen and around 100 of the North Cork Militia garrison lost their lives. From their camp on Vinegar Hill the United Irish army, now nearing 10,000, set out for Wexford town which was abandoned to them by fleeing crown forces. It was in Wexford that the army set about re-structuring itself properly. Bagenal Harvey became Commander-in-chief and divisions were sent out to various outposts with specific objectives.

The division under Edward Roche to which Father Murphy belonged set out to capture Gorey and overcame crown forces at Bunclody before proceeding into Gorey unopposed. Here some of the division set off for Arklow, an engagement which the United Irish army lost. It was decided then by Father John Murphy, who was not at Arklow, to return to Vinegar Hill to concentrate the rebel forces, feeling ``that a short, sharp decisive battle would be preferable to weeks of skirmishing in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains''.

Nearly a month of the Wexford Republic ended when on 21 June the massed forces of the United Irish army were defeated by the crown forces under Generals Lake, Dundas, Loftus, Duff, Johnson and Moore.

A large number escaped the encirclement and, seeing the viciousness of the avenging General Lake as he exerted retribution on the people in his mopping up operations, resolved to continue. Turning down a call from their own General Philip Roche for the United Irish to sue for peace terms, Father Murphy, in a change from his pre-rebellion position, declared that he ``could have no reliance on such negotiations'' and that he ``never would advise anyone to surrender and give up their arms.''

Father Murphy and Miles Byrne and the remnants of the United Irish army in Wexford resolved to attempt to link up with other groups in the midlands, in the vain hope that the long-awaited French expedition would arrive or that more agreeable terms would be on offer. They made their way through Carlow, Kilkenny and Laois, clashing with crown forces several times, and with dwindling forces they were forced to retreat once more towards Wexford.

As they moved through fog towards the Scullogue Gap Father Murphy and another man, James Gallagher, lost contact with the main body of the army. When they became separated Miles Byrne and a large number United Irishmen joined Michael Dwyer in the Wicklow mountains where they waged war on the English for another five years. Some others returned to Wexford where they were hunted down by the English for years to come.

As the fog cleared Murphy decided to head for the safety of a relative's house in Tullow, County Carlow, and hopefully from there to eventually return to Wexford. But after a few days living rough they were captured by yeomen at a farmyard on 2 July. They were brought to Tullow where later that day they were sentenced to death. James Gallagher was stripped and flogged in front of Murphy to try to extract their identities from him, before being hanged.

Father John Murphy, though identified as a priest, was not recognised and he was taken to Tullow's Market Square, stripped, flogged, hanged, decapitated and his corpse was burnt in a barrel of tar outside a Catholic family's house. To allow the ``holy smoke'' to permeate their dwelling the yeomen forced the family to open all their windows.

His head was impaled on a spike opposite the Catholic church on the Sessions House. So ended the life of one of the priests who the local bishop, James Caulfield would call ``the faeces of the church''. He went on to say that the rebellion was a ``diabolical conspiracy'' and that ``this accumulation of misfortunes [was] brought on the country by the machinations of crazy, ambitious, revolutionary adventurers, through the credulity of the incautious and ignorant multitude''.

While men like Father Murphy, who died 200 years ago this week, played an important role in the rising and in many subsequent attempts by republicans to wrest Ireland's independence from Britain, the true history shows that far from being with the people in their fight, the Catholic Church has been guilty at the very least of obstructing them and usually being in active collaboration with the imperial forces in Ireland.

Contents Page for this Issue
Reply to: Republican News