John Murphy was born in 1789, son of the blacksmith John Murphy from Wexford, who rented a farm at Knocknagun. They lived in a modest cottage and worked from a stone forge nearby.
His early education would probably have been in a local hedge school, from which he went to the Classical Academy of Stephen O’Halloran in Ennis.
Aged 19, John Murphy moved to the newly founded Maynooth College to study for the priesthood. There is no record of his ordination but it probably took place around 1813.
The early years of the 19th century were challenging for a young priest as most of the penal laws had been repealed except for one great struggle, the granting of catholic emancipation. Life was pretty good for the people as agriculture was booming thanks to the Napoleonic wars. However, all this changed with peace in Europe and the arrival of The Great Famine in the West of Ireland.
The Killaloe diocese was poorly resourced, there was no cathedral in the county with most of the churches being little more than thatched mud cabins with an acute shortage of priests. Therefore, in these circumstances there was tremendous opportunities for young and energetic priests, and within a few years of his ordination John Murphy was appointed parish priest of Corofin.
His first big task was to provide a chapel for his parishioners. The fact that the chapel he built in Corofin is still in use almost 200 years later is sufficient tribute in itself to his work. However, when first opened it was poorly furnished, even the alter was not much more than a few planks put together, while the floor was of clay. Seating was available for only a small part of the congregation.
Before long Fr. Murphy had other problems to deal with. Schools run by Protestant Bible Societies were established throughout the country with proselytisem their aim. Their sponsors hoped that through the type of education they offered they would be able to convert the people to Protestantism. In the area of Dysert-Corofin, Edward Synge, the land agent, was probably the best known proselytiser, and he attempted through pressure on his tenants, to force them to send their children to the schools he controlled.
The result was many clashes with Fr. Murphy who campaigned vigorously to rally support against Synge. Fr. Murphy also replied positively by establishing a school and providing part of the teacher's salaries from his own resources. The remainder of the salaries came from parish collections and pupils fees.
Fr. Murphy became a well known and respected figure in the county, a champion of the oppressed and a strong supporter of full political rights for Catholics.
In 1828, the popular MP for Clare, Vessy Fitzgerald, was appointed to a position in the government. According to the rules, he had to seek re-election next time round. At first it seemed that his return would be a mere formality as he was well liked in the county. However, the Catholic Association led by Daniel O’Connell had adopted a policy of opposing all government candidates and so had to oppose Fitzgerald. O’Connell himself decided to stand. Immediately Clare was the focus of attention because O’Connell’s religion would debar him from sitting in Parliament if elected. What would happen then - emancipation or revolution?
But first there was the election itself. It was held in Ennis and continued for a week, with all voting in public. The priests rallied behind O’Connell while the landlords tried to force their tenants to support Fitzgerald.
The election opened and voters and their followers came into town in their thousands. The TIPPERARY FREE PRESS tells of Fr. Murphy’s arrival......
"Twelve o’clock - Rev Mr. Murphy of Corofin is come with Mr. Staunton Cahill at the head of at least 500 men decorated with green branches, and walking in ranks. Mr. Murphy stood up in his gig and was hailed with the loudest of cheering".
During the next few days Fr. Murphy was never far away from O’Connell and was one of the major organisers of his great triumph. O’Connell’s win was not only a political victory but also a tremendous victory for discipline and self-control. Although there were over 30,000 people from different parts of the county in the town, there was no drunkenness and there were no incidents which could provide propaganda for O’Connell’s enemies. A newspaper reported “There is not a drunken man in the streets, and but for the shouting everything is tranquil”
O’Connell’s victory in Clare forced the Government to grant emancipation in 1829. However, for Fr. Murphy the Clare election was his last and greatest triumph. Soon afterwards his health began to fail and on 9 September 1831 he died in Lisdoonvarna.
Fr. John Murphy was still a young man when he passed. What might his achievements have been if he had lived a longer life we can only wonder.
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