Father Murphy from old Kilcormack – The lovely PJ McCall melody lives on but is it still possible to get close to the personality of the former curate of Boolavogue some 220 years after his grisly death? David Medcalf visits some of the places associated with the rebel priest to see if he can be enlightened.
Was Father John Murphy truly a rampaging rebel priest or actually an accidental military man? Was he part of a great United Irishmen conspiracy to unseat the British Crown in Ireland? Or was he pushed into revolution against his better judgement by a combination of chaotic events?
The various anniversaries and centenaries have left the countryside of John Murphy’s native County Wexford well scattered with roadside plaques and hilltop monuments commemorating the upheaval of 1798.
Though the principles and plots of the United Irishmen were largely devised in Dublin and Belfast, it was in the south east corner of the island that most blood was spilled.
From our modern standpoint more than two centuries on, it is difficult to be sure exactly what was going on in the heroic man’s mind, though it is reasonable to speculate.
All we can be sure of is that he was brave beyond belief when he perished at the age of 45, his body burned by the Loyalists who captured, court martialled and then executed him at Tullow in County Carlow.
His head was lopped off his body in the town square and then exhibited on a spike until some local lady made a complaint about the gruesome spectacle and it was removed from public display.
The skull may likely be buried nearby while the speculation persists that the charred remains of the rest of his corpse were collected for discreet interment in Ferns where some other members of his family lie.
The old graveyard there is close beside the modern N11 national road in the grounds of the picturesque St. Edan’s Church of Ireland cathedral where the burials of the time make no distinction between the various Christian sects.
I took to the roads to visit Boolavogue and some of the other sites associated with this modest cleric in search of his spirit. John Murphy hailed originally from close to the historic village of Ferns. It was in the townland of Tincurry, adjacent to the River Slaney, that he first saw the light of day, raised on the family farm, one of six children of Thomas Murphy and his wife Johanne (née Whitty).
His father diversified into bacon curing and there was enough money to allow John, his four brothers and their sister acquire an education in a hedge school run by a teacher called Máirtín Gunn.
Young Murphy proved an enthusiastic student of the classics, which made him a suitable candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and in 1779 he presented himself to Bishop Nicholas Sweetman for ordination.