When John James Murphy left his home near Rosslare Harbour in 1844, he had no idea that his rags to riches story would one day see the town of Murphy, in Argentina, be named in his honour. Declan McGarvey reports.


Pampa, Argentina, South America, Landscape, Steppe, clouds. Pampa, Argentina, South America, Landscape, Steppe, clouds

Letters home by Wexford man John James Murphy spoke of war and drought, and of vast fortunes to be made on Argentina’s grasslands:

“In this country we live like
 fighting cocks…

John James Murphy writing to his brother, Martin, in 1864.

In 1844, Irishman John James Murphy boarded a ship at Wexford Quay and sailed for Liverpool, where he bought a second passage for the voyage to Buenos Aires. If folklore is believed, the Wexford labourer arrived at the Argentine capital with a single, lonely pound in his pocket, before finding a job digging ditches.

The rest is on record, inked in vivid letters sent home by John James Murphy. In a rags-to-riches tale, Murphy acquired a fortune so vast that on death he bequeathed his heirs 40,000 hectares of some of the world’s most fertile grasslands. His remains are buried at an ornate cemetery in Buenos Aires, adjacent to the grave of an Argentine so famous she inspired a West End musical.

Dear Father and ever affectionate Mother,
…We have got our births in the vessel on Monday and expect to sleep in her until we sail…

John James Murphy to Nicholas Murphy, in 1844 (sent from Liverpool)

John James Murphy’s (pictured right) epic journey to South America began at his homestead in Kilrane, County Wexford, close to Rosslare Harbour.
Born in 1822 into a Catholic family, Murphy was an unmarried, non-inheriting son of tenant farmers, and sooner or later would have to leave the family home. Religious orders or the British army beckoned, but the young Irishman possessed a stubborn streak.
He sailed south: to distant, Spanish-speaking Argentina, a country at the bottom of the world, beyond which lies only the ice of Antarctica.
In the 1840s, Argentina was a youthful country emerging from a bloody civil war that had followed centuries of colonial rule by Spain. The young nation’s hopes for prosperity hung on the favoured status of Buenos Aires as a deep-water port and on the lush but undeveloped grasslands, called the pampas, which lay west of the capital city.
The order came for a wool industry to be established on the fertile grasses.
European sheep were imported to be cross-bred with native stock, and the call was made for labour. Crucially for the Irish tenant farmer, it arrived with guarantees of land.

“There is not a finer country in the world for a poor man to come, especially with a family”

Father Fahy, Irish priest in Argentina between 1843 and 1871.

Murphy was never the poorest man to depart Ireland. He was able to pay the passage south and was a literate man, as his vivid letters home to Wexford evidence.
His crossing from Liverpool to Buenos Aires lasted three months. On arrival, he left the Spanish streets of Buenos Aires and headed for the city’s hinterland, the pampas, where a farmer could find work. There, Murphy began digging ditches. His wage was five to seven shillings a day, plus plentiful supply of beef and mutton.
Yet Murphy eyed a greater prize.  

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own