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ABSTRACT: Until recently, the limited historiography on William Martin Murphy has focused on his role as the leader of the employers in the 1913 Lockout. It is now possible to view his career from a wider perspective. This article examines the nexus between Murphy's business interests and the power he gradually acquired over nationalist public opinion, notably in the critical years between 1905 and 1919, as a result of his investment in the Irish newspaper industry.

KEYWORDS: William Martin Murphy, public opinion, Irish Independent, Irish newspaper industry.

Andy Bielenberg, Department of History, University College, Cork

Chronicon 2 (1998) 6: 1-35
ISSN 1393-5259


1. One of the strongest features of Morrissey's recently published biography of William Martin Murphy is the assessment of his negative image in the popular memory. Murphy's opposition to Parnell, Larkin, Yeats, and Redmond, left him with an extremely select group of admirers by the time of his death in 1919. His role in the downfall of Parnell had not been forgotten in Dublin (the main centre of the uncrowned king's posthumous support). He was one of the few anti-Parnellites to lose his seat in the 1892 election.1 His heavy-handed victory against Larkin in the Dublin Lockout of 1913 assured his position as the anti-Christ of Irish labour history. Larkin described him as the `most foul and vicious blackguard that ever polluted any country ... a capitalistic vampire'.2

2. To compound his bad name in perpetuity, Murphy angered Yeats by opposing a proposed gallery development in Dublin in 1913 to house Lane's pictures. Yeats used the dispute to vent all his aristocratic destain for Dublin's leading businessman in a number of poems, which had an enduring impact on Murphy's image for subsequent generations. His demonic reputation did not improve with time. By the early 1950s, Strauss described him as `perhaps the most sinister Irish figure of his generation'.3 This reveals the obscure perception of the power of Ireland's first major newspaper magnate some decades after his death.

3. Keogh's work on Murphy's role in the 1913 Lockout, McCartney's exploration of his involvement in the Irish newspaper industry, and the short biography recently published by Morrissey have significantly reduced the obscurity surrounding his life.4 This article focuses more closely on the nexus between wealth and power in Murphy's career, tracing the development of his business ventures, notably his investment in a number of loss making newspaper titles (which he ultimately made profitable). Secondly, the article explores the growing perception within the political establishment in Ireland and Britain that Murphy, through the columns of the Independent, was beginning to have a considerable influence on Irish nationalist public opinion in Ireland during the critical years between 1916 and 1918.


4. At the time of his birth in 1844, Murphy's father ran a small farm and building business in Derrymihan near Castletownbere in West Cork. Two years later the family moved to Bantry, where his father extended the building business and began retailing building materials. With the growth of the building trade in the decade after the Famine--not least in church building--the business did well and the young William Martin was dispatched to Belvedere College to receive further education. He stayed in lodgings on the South Circular Road with members of the Sullivan family, with whom the Murphy's were closely connected. During his time in Belvedere, Murphy made a number of friendships and contacts in Dublin which were to be important in his subsequent life.5

5. His friendship with A. M. Sullivan (who succeeded Gavan Duffy as proprietor of The Nation newspaper) exposed him to journalism and the management of newspapers at an early age. He recalled in later life that while still a schoolboy he spent all his spare hours in the old Nation office in Middle Abbey St. After leaving school he became the pupil of a Dublin architect, J. J. Lyons, who owned and edited the Irish Builder. His father's intention was that he should qualify as an architect in order further to develop the building business in Bantry. Murphy learnt more about sub-editing in the offices of the Irish Builder than about architecture. He also attended lectures at the Catholic University, until his studies were terminated by the death of his father in 1863.6

6. Aged only 19, Murphy returned to Bantry to take over the family business, completing unfinished contracts, and undertaking a variety of new ones.7 The company undertook many of the more challenging building contracts in West Cork and Kerry, including church work and public works. In the decades to come, Murphy and O'Connor of Bantry became one of the most successful enterprises in the region.8 He proved to be more than capable in his new role, which provided him with experience in construction and commerce, in addition a certain degree of social status at a young age, which probably contributed to the development of his self-confidence in business matters.


7. Murphy's private life and his business interests gradually drew him back to Dublin. In 1870, at the age of 25, he made a good marriage to Mary Lombard, whose father James Lombard had amassed a fortune in the Dublin drapery business9 and subsequently supported many of Murphy's ventures financially.10 Murphy moved permanently to Dublin in 1875.11 He was listed from 1877 as a contractor with offices at 39 Dame St, which remained his Dublin business address for many years to come. From 1878 he was listed with a residential address at 7 Rostrevor Terrace, Rathgar, and from 1883 in a much more up-market residence at Dartry, Upper Rathmines.12 This move reflected the growth of his income and social status during this period, and the growing size of his family.

8. After arriving in Dublin, Murphy became involved in the promotion, finance, construction, management and directing of tramways and railways. He built up a range of other business ventures by the end of the nineteenth century, including investments in the construction industry, hotels, a large Dublin department store and newspaper production. But he saw himself first and foremost as a railway and tramway contractor, becoming one of the most prominent figures in the Irish transport sector.13 His position and experience as a parliamentary representative between 1885 and 1892 put him in a good position to obtain the parliamentary powers necessary to build new railways and tramways. Few could match his knowledge of railway law and the law of contracts.14

9. Murphy was involved in the construction of the following railway lines: Wexford and Rosslare, the Clara and Banagher, West and South Clare, Mitchelstown and Fermoy, Tuam and Claremorris, Skibbereen and Baltimore, and the Bantry Extension. He also built the rail bridge across the Liffey and relatively late in life he organised the construction of railways on the Gold Coast in West Africa from his offices in London.15 He also became the director of a number of lines, being elected to the board of the Waterford and Limerick line in 1885, and when this was amalgamated into the Great Southern and Western Railway in 1901, he was subsequently elected to the Board of Ireland's premier railway company in 1903. From small beginnings in 1880 as a contractor for the Bantry rail extension to Drimoleague, Murphy became one of the most formidable figures in the Irish railway business.16

10. Although Murphy made money in railways, his involvement in tramways was ultimately to be far more significant. Murphy's career in railway promotion began when the main lines had already been built. However, the experience probably contributed to his subsequent success in tramways, a business in which was one of the major entrepreneurs and innovators in the British Isles in the late Victorian era. Murphy built tramways in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, London Southern, Isle of Thanet, Hastings and District, Bournemouth and Poole, Paisley and District and in Buenos Aires, in addition to being one of the pioneers of the use of electricity in Ireland. He is sometimes mistakenly remembered as the father of the Dublin tramways, being a founding director of the Dublin Central Tramway Company, which obtained powers to proceed with the construction of a line in 1876 from College Green to Rathfarnham, with branches to Ranelagh, Rathgar, Rathmines and Clonskeagh. It opened for business in 1879, about seven years after the first Dublin tramway had been opened.17

11. By the beginning of the 1880s most of the major townships in Dublin had been reached by the three tram companies in the city. In January 1881, with Murphy as the leading light and his father-in-law as chairman, the 32 route miles in the city were amalgamated into the Dublin United Tramway Company.18 As in other European cities, the growth of the horse-drawn tram system had a significant impact, facilitating the development of the suburbs by providing efficient access for commuters to and from the city centre. However, the UK was behind the whole world in the matter of electrical traction.19 Murphy was slow to convert from horse traction as the existing system was highly profitable and there was limited competition. However, when the Imperial Tramways of Bristol acquired and unified the Dublin Southern Districts Tramway and the Blackrock and Kingstown Tramway in 1893 and electrified the lines which opened in 1896, the greater speeds, lower running costs and lower fares achieved did not go unnoticed by Murphy. He quickly organised a takeover, establishing the Dublin United Tramways (1896). Despite opposition from the Corporation, this company ultimately succeeded in electrifying most of the Dublin system.20

12. The company became one of the first to introduce electrical traction in the British Isles, using the overhead wire and trolly system, which had been pioneered in the USA. With Murphy as chairman from 1899, most of the Dublin lines were integrated. By 1907, over £2 million had been invested in the system, which covered 55 miles and carried over 58 million passengers per annum.21 It was one of the finest tram systems in Europe. For some years prior to 1913 the company had paid a dividend of 6% on both its £10 preference shares and its ordinary shares.22

13. Although Murphy provided impressive returns for his shareholders, his labour relations' record was somewhat less impressive. Dublin tram men earned about 25% less than those in Belfast and Glasgow.23 No doubt, this contributed to high profits and ultimately to his confrontation with Larkin. Although Murphy had a reasonably good relationship with his work force and took a benevolent attitude to traditional trade union activity amongst skilled workers, he was completely intolerant of any attempts to organise unskilled workers. He had resisted tramway workers' repeated demands from the 1890s for a nine-hour day.24 Following the establishment of Larkin's Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1908, Murphy resisted the advance of new unionism, in both the Dublin Tramway Company and the Great Southern and Western Railway. The showdown between Murphy and Larkin has received more attention within Irish historiography than any other aspect of his career, revealing the most unsavoury and reactionary aspects of his character. Murphy's views were shared by large sections of Dublin's Protestant and Catholic business elite. Few, however, had the strategic acumen, power and determination to crush mounting trade union opposition to the untrammelled authority which most employers enjoyed over their less skilled employees on the eve of the First World War. There is little doubt that the high profit returns in many of his business ventures depended on the high level of expropriation from unskilled labourers in his employment working long hours for low pay. When Larkin attempted to cripple the tramway system in Dublin in an attempt to force Murphy and other employers to recognise the ITGWU, Murphy rose to the challenge, brutally crushing the strike through a lockout until the workers were crudely starved back to work after 22 weeks. It became one of the longest, bitterest and costliest strikes in British and Irish trade union history.25

14. The 1913 Lockout threw into sharp relief the stark divisions within Irish nationalism between labour and capital, which the IPP had managed to conceal for decades. It revealed Murphy at his most militant, and nakedly demonstrated the power he wielded as one of Dublin's leading employers, as President of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and leader of the Employers Federation. However at this point, Murphy possessed another type of power, since he had become Ireland's leading newspaper proprietor.


15. The genesis of Murphy's investment in newspapers resulted from his support for the anti-Parnellite faction of the IPP following the split.26 Murphy had previously been a great admirer and supporter of Parnell,27 when elected as a member of parliament in 1885 for the ward of St Patrick's in Dublin.28 The IPP candidates for that election were carefully selected by a small group within the party; no doubt Murphy's ability to contribute handsomely to party funds made him an attractive option. His close connections within the Catholic hierarchy may also have influenced his selection. As part of an increasingly formidable and morally conservative west Cork faction within the party, Murphy was among those who brought down Parnell, viewing the split as an `interposition of divine providence'.29

16. His role in the fall of Parnell won him little appreciation in Dublin; in 1892, he was roundly defeated by the pro-Parnellite candidate and never again entered parliament. When he subsequently stood for the Healyite cause, he experienced humiliating election defeats in Kerry South in 1895 and Mayo North in 1900.30 These defeats seem to have done little for Murphy's loyalty to the IPP.

17. His influence in Irish politics subsequently was largely a consequence of his investments in the Irish newspaper industry. The Parnellites initially retained control of United Ireland, the Freeman's Journal and in 1891 they had successfully set up the Irish Daily Independent.31 In the anti-Parnellite camp, Murphy helped finance the establishment of the National Press which first appeared in March 1891. When the Freeman's Journal made a late conversion to the anti-Parnellite cause, the two papers were amalgamated; Murphy and Healy were among those co-opted onto the new board of the Freeman's Journal and National Press' However, in a subsequent power struggle over the management, they were both outflanked and driven from the board.32

18. This considerably soured Murphy's feelings towards the Dillonite faction within the IPP. When Dillon became chairman of the party in 1896 (retaining control of the Freeman) Murphy resolved to oppose him through the acquisition of another paper. He took over the struggling Nation in June 1897, which remained stridently anti-Dillonite, pro-clerical and pro-Healyite. By September 1900, he owned all the debenture capital of the Nation Co. Ltd, thereby also acquiring ownership of the loss making Irish Catholic, which had been founded by T. D. Sullivan at the offices of the Nation in 1888. At this stage, the factional conflict and financial strain between the rival Dublin papers ultimately brought the Redmondite Daily Independent to its knees in 1900. Encouraged by Healy and Redmond, Murphy purchased it from the liquidator in August 1900 for £17,000, amalgamating it with the Nation. When the Daily Independent and Nation was launched on 1st September 1900 it continued to turn in losses, but it became the major rival to the Freeman's Journal.33

19. Murphy's relationship with Redmond seems initially to have been reasonably cordial. He wrote to Redmond at the end of 1900 that `the paper should be conducted on more moderate and prudent lines attacking nobody, avoiding personalities and taking no notice of the Freeman.' To begin with, he envisaged few changes, wishing to `... disturb as little as possible the staff of the paper. A few men to be brought in from the Nation but only with a view to strengthening the library and reporting department. A larger proportion of Linotype men may have to be brought in ...'34 However, this conciliatory phase evaporated in the months following the takeover.35 This conflict was to continue for the rest of their lives, and it was to have a profound impact on Redmond's subsequent political career and indeed that of the IPP.36 Murphy gradually tired of running loss-making political `side shows'. This led him to consider selling off the newspaper in 1904. When a potential buyer had the idea to convert it into a half-penny morning paper along the lines of the Daily Mail in Britain, Murphy's flagging interest was revitalised. He had a number of meetings with Sir Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) who gave him the benefit of his advice on the matter.37 Murphy had the whole paper overhauled and reorganised and he relaunched it in a new and highly successful format, originally pioneered by the Harmsworths in London. This second major innovation in his business career enabled him ultimately to make a profit from newspapers for the first time. As in the tramways, he adopted innovations which had been successfully pioneered elsewhere.

20. At the end of 1904 he appointed T. R. Harrington (who had been the chief reporter in the Nation, as the chief editor of the Independent.38 New premises were acquired at 111 Middle Abbey St, and in less than three months these were converted for newspaper production. Murphy spared no expense in acquiring the latest printing technology including Linotypes for typesetting and Goss printers. The paper's format and high level of circulation made it more attractive for advertising, so its advertising sales department was highly successful. It was marketed more aggressively outside Dublin compared to its rival nationals, the Irish Times and the Freeman's Journal, which only arrived in Waterford in the late afternoon, whilst the new Independent arrived at 11 am. Three papers were produced; the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald and the Sunday Independent, with the former two achieving a higher circulation than any Irish metropolitan newspaper in the past.39

21. Murphy intended to make the paper politically neutral until it commanded a higher circulation.40 The transformation and relaunching of the Independent was nothing short of a major revolution in the Irish newspaper industry. The more racy format with contributions from well known writers and politicians, good sports features and higher quality advertising and photographs, very quickly won it a higher circulation than the rival Freeman. Readership rose from about 40,000 copies daily within three weeks of the launch to about 100,000 copies by 1915. This was a dramatic rise on the 8,000 copies which the old Irish Daily Independent had sold.41

22. Through the Independent Murphy gradually began to have a greater influence on public opinion. T. P. O'Connor went so far as to suggest that `Of all the many agencies which finally broke down the Irish Party and led to the regime of Sinn Féin, the Independent, and Murphy behind it, must be regarded as perhaps the most potent'. Healy shared this view, which was also widely held among provincial newspaper editors in 1919.42

23. Murphy's influence on Irish politics was most pervasive between 1914 and 1919. According to Morrissey, his interventions in the editorial of the paper were `spasmodic' prior to 1914, becoming more frequent thereafter, until by early 1917 he was writing editorials in favour of full dominion home rule and against partition. But it is clear that he had an on-going influence on the editorial on issues he felt strongly about.43

24. Although he was a trenchant advocate of Ireland's retaining a role in the Empire (even supporting recruitment during the early years of the war) he was the bitterest critic of the financial dimensions to the 1914 Home Rule Bill, precisely because it envisaged that Britain would retain control of Irish taxation, customs and excise and monetary policy. Murphy believed that Ireland needed its trading links with Britain but it also needed full fiscal autonomy (like Canada, South Africa and Australia); he was scathing of Redmond's policy to concede this vital issue to the Liberal government in return for their support for the Home Rule Bill of 1914.44

25. His intention to create greater public awareness of the financial provisions of the 1914 Government of Ireland Act are evident from his correspondence with the Independent editor, Harrington, in which he gave instructions with regard to the editorial line of the paper.45 The British administration had long ignored Murphy as far as possible, but his growing influence through the columns of his paper undermined this strategy. Birrell, in the Commission on the 1916 Rising, acknowledged that `the daily naggings in the Dublin Irish Independent' was one of the major problems confronting the British regime in Ireland.46

26. In the wake of the 1916 Rising, both the British establishment and the leadership of the IPP attempted to cultivate his support in a more systematic fashion. Northcliffe sent Cecil (his brother) to Ireland in late May 1916, to find out if a possible meeting with Lloyd George and Northcliffe could be arranged. Cecil Harmsworth reported back to his brother that, `It appears to be a grievance with [Murphy] and with the Nationalist Irish businessmen that they have been totally ignored by the government ... [he is] very sore about this ... Mr M. must be humoured and be made by Ll. G. and others to feel he carries weight with them ... he will probably be found quite willing to meet Sir E. Carson for whom he has a high regard'. Harmsworth noted that the Independent's circulation by May 1916 had risen to 120,000 a day; the growing influence of the paper in his view made it imperative for the government to take greater cognizance of Murphy's outlook. He added:

It is a curious situation. Here is a Nationalist H. R. newspaper with an infinitely larger circulation than the official organ, crabbing habitually about the existing HR Bill and criticizing freely the orthodox Nationalist leaders. It is owned by a man who is really much more friendly with Sir E. Carson than to the Nationalist leaders with whom indeed he is on the worst of terms! ... Ll. G. will find him a hard nut to crack but will no doubt enjoy the sport all the more on that account. M. has the great business man's contempt for the lack of business-like qualities of his Celtic fellow-countrymen. At times you would think you were discussing the Irish problem with a Black Northerner.47

27. Murphy clearly played down his nationalist outlook in his communications with members of the British establishment, while simultaneously exaggerating his commitment to the imperial cause. However, it also seems equally clear that Northcliffe and Lloyd George wished to achieve some degree of understanding with Murphy at this point, though this was evidently not an easy task. Cecil wrote to his brother, Northcliffe, that, `[Murphy] will prove somewhat difficile in negotiations. There is a good deal of the conservatism of age about him and I am not sure that his long neglect by those responsible for the Government of Ireland does not rankle a bit. However Ll. G. will know how best to smooth him down. As you know he does not look for the usual sort of "recognition" and his attitude is rather that of a great Irish power that has been studiously ignored'.48

28. Murphy began to enjoy a little more attention from the British establishment thereafter. He was summoned to London to visit the prime minister and took the opportunity to write to Lloyd George outlining his views:

My Dear premier, I sincerely congratulate the British Empire on having a man at the head of the state in this crisis ... who will get things done ... I think that an atmosphere now exists favourable to a bold, far reaching and as far as human foresight can provide, final settlement of the Irish question. To gain this end, a Home Rule measure largely based on the Colonial plan is essential.

He suggested, firstly, that Ireland should be given `the same fiscal and trade freedom as the Colonies possess, but withhold from them any power over armed forces'. Secondly, he suggested that provision should be made `for an equitable contribution from Ireland towards Imperial Expenditure'. Thirdly, `Give the Protestant community half the representation in the National House of Commons ... They are undoubtedly, as a whole, the most progressive people and best industrial element in the country'. He also suggested they should get more of a share in local government. Fourth, he suggested that, `In exchange for Colonial Home Rule, Ireland should accept compulsory service.'49

29. At this stage, he also had the ear of a number of high officials in Dublin Castle. The Chief Secretary discussed the issue of introducing a minimum wage in Ireland and was well pleased when Murphy advised him to `exercise benevolent despotism' in this matter; he promised to pass this advice on to the prime minister. The Chief Secretary was also anxious that Murphy should take up the work of Director of National Service in Ireland because of his support for conscription. Murphy turned this offer down, ostensibly on the grounds that at the age of 73 he was too old.50 However, in June 1917, when the Chief Secretary invited him to become a member of the Irish Convention in the hope that the Independent would become a little less hostile to the British administration and the IPP, in this instance he accepted.51

30. The Convention provided Murphy with a platform to air his views further with regard to financial autonomy and Dominion Home Rule. Against those Unionists at the Convention who argued that Ireland was incapable of standing on its own feet financially, Murphy retorted that with the dramatic growth of war taxation in Ireland and no corresponding increase in expenditure by 1916-17, Ireland was paying over eleven million pounds more into the British Treasury than was being spent there, thus demonstrating in simple terms that Ireland was well able to stand on it's own feet financially. He argued that the power of taxation, including Customs and Excise, was the very essence of Self-Government: `... any Parliament without these powers is not worth having'. While Murphy was adamantly against partition, he argued that Ireland's best interest lay firmly within the Empire: `My Home Rule policy does not contemplate a surrender of the heritage of the Empire which our countrymen have helped to build up'. Attempting to demonstrate his empathy with Unionist business interests, he pointed out that `I have never found the existing form of Government in Ireland to hamper or restrict my business interests. I have been able to carry on successfully various enterprises in Ireland and beyond it'. Murphy continued,

... there was one experience, however, which I had under the Union and, as a consequence of it, which I never want to see repeated, and that was the experience of having my business premises burned down by the fire of British troops suppressing a Rebellion in the streets of Dublin. Such an experience would be impossible if Ireland had the status of a Self-Governing Colony, and if our Rulers have the sense to grant it, Easter Week of 1916 will have seen the last of the many Rebellions in Ireland.52

31. However, by the time Murphy's paper was delivered to the Convention in late August 1917, popular nationalist sentiments were moving quickly away from any commitment to the Imperial cause. Redmond and the IPP were increasingly out of touch with prevailing nationalist opinion at this point. Murphy's position on the Irish financial relationship with Britain had long been more advanced than that of the leader of the IPP. When key nationalists at the Convention (including Devlin and Bishop O'Donnell) abandoned Redmond position and threw their support behind Murphy in January 1918, Redmond physically collapsed and he died a few months later. The Convention at this stage was beginning to founder. It had proved impossible to reach any compromise on fiscal autonomy or partition.

32. By the end of the Convention, moderate nationalists supported Murphy's contention that control of Customs and Excise was the most essential right that a country with any pretence to self-government should possess.53 Through his newspaper and his representation at the Convention, Murphy's views on fiscal autonomy found a receptive audience. In other respects the paper's stance also became more radically nationalist as the war progressed; at the outbreak it supported conscription. It was the first newspaper to publish full reports of the Rising, at first condemning the rebels, but when the leaders had been shot, it quickly became more sympathetic.54 During 1918, the paper played a significant role in the widespread nationalist opposition to the Military Service Bill introduced to the Commons by Lloyd George on the 10 April 1918. It seems evident that Murphy's support for compulsory military service up to and during the Convention had been reversed by the final stages of the war.55


33. Murphy's political outlook combined a curious range of positions across the nationalist spectrum. Like Redmond, he favoured the retention of Ireland's connections with the British empire, but in contrast to the leader of the Irish party he was an early advocate of full fiscal autonomy. He understood more about economics and financial matters than any parliamentary representative of the Irish party as a result of a highly successful career as a businessman. A neglected aspect of Murphy's career is the impact he had in establishing full fiscal autonomy as a key demand for Irish nationalists at the Treaty negotiations.

34. Murphy was an exemplary businessman of his era who was just as comfortable doing business in Glasgow or London as in Dublin or Bantry. In 1863, his father left a respectable business and effects to the value £4,000.56 Murphy died in 1919 leaving £250,000 in his will.57 He left a range of businesses with a substantial asset value, including Dublin's tramway system (in which over £2,000,000 had been invested), hotels in Dublin and Glengariffe, Cleary's Department store, a range of railway shares and various properties including a builders yard in Bantry (which is still in business). He had also invested heavily in the Dublin newspaper industry, ultimately making handsome profits, and it was in this industry that his impact was most enduring since it ran far beyond the confines of business.

35. The transformation of the Irish Independent between 1900 and 1916 raised circulation to 120,000 by the latter year,58 making it the most influential newspaper in Ireland in the years that followed. Morrisey's new book on Murphy has at last provided us with a more comprehensive outline of his career. The additional evidence provided by this article suggests that the influence of the Irish Independent and its proprietor on nationalist public opinion between the 1916 Rising and the 1918 General Election requires detailed research and analysis. The relationship between the proprietor and editor, the editorial line of the paper and some assessment of its influence on (and reaction to) nationalist public opinion, deserve much closer attention from historians than they have received to date.

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