HIDDEN LIVES OF WILLIAM MARTIN MURPHY
Address by FELIX M. LARKIN at the conference
‘Hidden histories – revisiting the spirit of 1913’
Institute of British-Irish Studies (University College Dublin)
The Little Museum of Dublin, 3 October 2013
I should perhaps begin by stating that, despite my surname, I am not related to ‘Big Jim’ Larkin. I was, however, tempted to entitle this paper ‘Larkin on Murphy’ – but, on mature consideration, I felt that might be too frivolous and would give rise to some misunderstanding about the content of my paper.
On 14 October 1917, William Martin Murphy wrote to his son, Dr Lombard Murphy, as follows:
I have just returned from lunching at Kilteragh [Sir Horace Plunkett’s house at Foxrock, Co. Dublin]. Bernard Shaw and his wife were staying there ... When I was introduced to Shaw, he said you are the man in all Ireland I was most anxious to meet for the last five years. He has pleasant manners and is not at all the kind of man his books and writings would lead you to believe. For the public he poses and advertises himself, but he does not find this necessary in private life. I expect his anticipation of what I was like was equally unlike the reality. I have no doubt that he expected to find in me a man with an aggressive attitude.
There are many reasons why Shaw should have wished to meet William Martin Murphy. Murphy himself thought it was because of his role as the stern and unbending leader of the employers in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. However, he had had a long and varied career, any one aspect of which might have been of interest to Shaw. He was then aged 72 – born in 1845, near Castletownbere, Co. Cork, the son of a building contractor. His record in Irish public life encompassed a wide spectrum of politics and commerce. On the political side, he had been an Irish nationalist MP at Westminster and one of the leaders of the campaign against Parnell after the ‘split’; he later became disillusioned with the Irish party, opposed its leadership from 1896 onwards and eventually gave tentative support to Sinn Fein post-1916; and he was a member of the Irish Convention of 1917-1918. His extensive commercial interests included building and contracting, newspapers, retailing, the Imperial hotel in Dublin, and railways and tramways; and he was the prime mover behind the Industrial Exhibition of 1907, as well as the principal opponent of Larkin and Connolly and their trade union. He gained W.B. Yeats’ disdain for his refusal to support the proposed gallery in Dublin for the Hugh Lane pictures.
His role in 1913 was, therefore, only one part of a multifarious life – certainly the part for which he is mostly remembered, but for him it was probably not the most important part. Since our theme in this conference is hidden histories of the 1913 era, what I would like to do now is briefly to consider two aspects of the life of William Martin Murphy not normally referred to in studies of the Lockout.
The first is his involvement with newspapers. This began as a result of the bitter newspaper war in Dublin unleashed by the Parnell ‘split’ in 1890-91. The divisions in the Irish party precipitated by the ‘split’ were replicated in the newspaper market. It is a complicated story, and I will try to explain it as simply as I can. The Freeman’s Journal had been the leading nationalist daily newspaper in Dublin since the 1860s and would remain so until the early years of the twentieth century. It was the semi-official organ of the Irish party from about 1880 onwards. Its relationship with Parnell had been difficult initially, but Parnell had brought it to heel by launching a weekly newspaper, called United Ireland, in 1881. The threat that United Ireland might be turned into a daily publication to rival the Freeman copper-fastened the latter’s loyalty to Parnell. That loyalty persisted for many months after the ‘split’ – despite the fact that the majority of the party’s MPs had taken the anti-Parnell side and public opinion, at least outside Dublin, was overwhelmingly anti-Parnell.
To counter the Freeman’s influence, the anti-Parnellites started their own daily paper, the National Press. This was established mainly through the efforts of T.M. Healy – but William Martin Murphy was its principal financial backer. Murphy was a close associate of Healy’s, a fellow Corkman. He was one of the so-called ‘Bantry band’ of MPs who had roots in West Cork or were otherwise linked to Healy and his influential uncles, A.M and T.D. Sullivan, owners of the Nation newspaper, another weekly publication – formerly the organ of the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s. Murphy had an association with the Sullivans, stretching back to his schooldays. A.M. Sullivan had persuaded Murphy’s father to send his son to Dublin to attend Belvedere College for his secondary education, and Sullivan had taken the boy under his wing when he arrived in Dublin. Murphy, while still a schoolboy, often visited the Nation’s offices in Middle Abbey Street and helped out with copy-editing, proof-reading and other work – and no doubt picked up there his love of the newspaper industry in which he was to play such an important part.
The Freeman responded to the unwelcome competition from the National Press by switching to the anti-Parnellite side, and soon the Freeman was merged with the National Press – under the Freeman’s more venerable title. The merger was followed by a long and bitter struggle for control of the Freeman between warring anti-Parnell factions, led respectively by Healy and by John Dillon. This struggle rumbled on until 1896, when the matter was resolved largely in Dillon’s favour. The Healyites – thus deprived of a newspaper outlet – then revived the weekly Nation, which had ceased publication some years before. It continued as a daily newspaper from June 1897 until 1901 – funded, like the earlier National Press, by Murphy.
After the Freeman had switched sides in the ‘split’, Parnell found himself without the support of a daily newspaper. Few politicians of his era had a greater appreciation of the power of the press – and accordingly, in the months before his death, he spent much time and effort in arranging for the establishment of another newspaper. This would eventually become the Irish Independent. Originally known as the Irish Daily Independent, it first appeared on 18 December 1891 – two months after Parnell’s death. It survived as the organ of the Parnellite wing of the Irish party until the party’s reunification under John Redmond in 1900, when it was purchased by William Martin Murphy. Murphy then merged the Independent and the Daily Nation, and for the next five years the Independent was run as the personal mouthpiece of T.M. Healy. In 1905, it was transformed by Murphy into the modern Irish Independent.
The restructuring and modernization of the Independent in 1905 precipitated a major change in Irish journalism. The Daily Nation had incurred heavy financial losses – and so too did the Independent after its merger with the Nation. Murphy sought to address this problem, and concluded that a radical transformation was required. As he explained in an article published in 1909:
I had proved by experience ... that newspapers as a side show to politics were never known to result in anything but a loss. In 1904, I was getting tired of running political side shows on such terms and my personal interest in the issues which had given rise to my journalistic essays had considerably abated. I looked about for a buyer for the Independent papers as a going concern and, strange to say, I found a very probable purchaser who employed experts to report on it. The advice these experts gave was to issue the Independent as a halfpenny paper and to conduct the undertaking as a business proposition.
Instead of selling up, Murphy decided to revamp the Independent along the lines which the potential purchaser of the paper had proposed, and to try to make a success of it himself. In effect, Murphy copied in Ireland what Lord Northcliffe had done in London in 1896 when he launched the Daily Mail, the first mass circulation newspaper in these islands. The new Independent, selling for a halfpenny, cost half the price of its competitors – and it had a more popular, less partisan style. The first edition appeared on 2 January 1905. It was an immediate resounding success, and by 1909 Murphy could proclaim that (and I quote) ‘the commercial success of the Independent papers, as a profit earning property, is now absolutely secured’. Annual profits by 1915 amounted to £15,000, with circulation rising from an initial 25,000 to 100,000 in 1915. Profits and circulation continued to grow thereafter, boosted by the closure of the Independent’s main rival, the Freeman’s Journal, in 1924 – and checked only by the establishment of the Irish Press in 1931.
Murphy was thus responsible for a seismic revolution in Irish journalism, and there is a contemporary cartoon celebrating his success in all its manifestations – in newspapers, but also in retail, trams, the Imperial hotel and railways. It claims that the Independent has the ‘largest circulation of any paper the world has ever seen’ – reflecting the fact that, whatever else he was, Murphy was not a modest man. Murphy’s achievement in the world of newspapers – the triumph of the new Irish Independent – enabled him to exercise a very significant behind-the-scenes influence on the wider revolution which would convulse Irish politics in 1916 and the following years. This is the second hidden aspect of his life that I want to discuss this morning.
Long before the 1916 Rising, the Independent under Murphy had been critical of the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster – accusing it repeatedly of jobbery (particularly in local government) and differing with it on, for example, Lloyd George’s 1909 budget and the financial provisions of the third home rule bill. William O’Brien, the dissident Irish party MP, characterised its editorial stance as ‘giving voice to the suppressed wrath of the country’ against the party. T.P. O’Connor, another Irish party MP, wrote that ‘of all the many agencies that finally broke down the Irish party, and led to the regime of Sinn Féin and its accompaniments, the Independent and William [Martin] Murphy behind it must be regarded as perhaps the most potent’. The constant snipping of Murphy and the Independent had a huge impact in undermining the Irish party’s authority even before the outbreak of the Rising. After the Rising, Murphy gave cautious support to Sinn Féin – telling his editor to give Sinn Féin ‘a fair show’ in the Independent, though not to identify the paper too much with Sinn Féin. This was in keeping with the Independent’s broadly non-partisan editorial policy. Murphy lived long enough to see the victory of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election, but died shortly afterwards – on 26 June 1919.
In popular memory, Murphy’s role as a midwife to the new Ireland that emerged after 1916 is compromised by two notorious editorials published in the Independent after the Rising. Like the other mainstream Irish newspapers, the Independent at first condemned the Rising unreservedly. Then, when the number of executions started to mount and there arose a widespread demand for clemency, it dissented from that demand and on two occasions – on 10 and 12 May 1916 – it called unequivocally for the execution of those leaders ‘not yet dealt with’. That was the exact phrase used. The leaders in question, James Connolly and Seán McDermott, were shot early on the morning of 12 May. Why did the Independent publish these bloodthirsty pieces? Many thought Murphy was seeking to avenge Connolly’s role in the 1913 Lockout and completing the task of wiping out his enemies in the labour movement, but it appears that the articles were written without his knowledge. He was in London lobbying the government for compensation for property destroyed in the Rising when the articles appeared, and was not therefore in a position to dictate the newspaper’s editorial line. He afterwards repudiated the articles in private – though never in public, apparently out of loyalty to the Independent’s staff. The most likely explanation for what happened is that the Independent’s staff – and specifically its editor, T.R. Harrington – simply misread the shifting mood in Ireland and were reflecting public opinion that was already out of date. The evidence for this is that Harrington was quoted soon afterwards as saying – somewhat ruefully – that ‘the people cried out for vengeance and when they got it, they howled for clemency’. Whatever the explanation, the charge of having sought the deaths of Connolly and MacDermott haunted William Martin Murphy until his death, and would haunt his newspaper for much longer.
Shakespeare wrote: ‘The evil that men do lives after them, / The good is oft interred with their bones’. So it is with William Martin Murphy: he is remembered chiefly as the implacable foe of the labour movement in 1913, and his reputation is further besmirched by the memory of those editorials in 1916. To get a true picture of the man, however, we need to look beyond these negative perceptions and consider also other, more positive aspects of his career – such as those I have examined in this paper. He was undoubtedly a shaper of modern Ireland, in good ways as well as bad – and I think Patrick Maume is quite correct when he writes in his DIB entry on Murphy that ‘it is hard to like Murphy, but difficult not to respect him’.