William Martin Murphy: patriotic entrepreneur or ‘a soulless, money-grubbing tyrant’?

Published in 1913, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Volume 21

On 7 October 1913, AE (George Russell) warned the employers in an open letter in the Irish Times: ‘You may succeed in your policy’ but ‘the men . . . will loathe you . . . the children will be taught to curse you’. The prediction, writes Thomas J. Morrissey, was fulfilled in the case of William Martin Murphy, who was branded by Jim Larkin in the Irish Worker as ‘a capitalist sweater’, ‘a soulless, money-grubbing tyrant’.

On 7 October 1913, AE (George Russell) warned the employers in an open letter in the Irish Times: ‘You may succeed in your policy’ but ‘the men . . . will loathe you . . . the children will be taught to curse you’. The prediction, writes Thomas J. Morrissey, was fulfilled in the case of William Martin Murphy, who was branded by Jim Larkin in the Irish Worker as ‘a capitalist sweater’, ‘a soulless, money-grubbing tyrant’.

AE’s letter is enshrined in the literature on the strike, but one never hears of Murphy’s letter to the Daily Citizen, in which he responded to the charge that he had produced the state of affairs existing in Dublin. ‘At the Court of Inquiry at Dublin Castle’, he declared, ‘I was cross-examined for hours by Mr Larkin . . . with regard to my whole life, and he didn’t succeed in making a single point against me as an employer. I could not have secured absolute immunity from strikes and the friendship of my employees for 50 years if I was the tyrant you represent . . .’ In a postscript he added: ‘I would ask the public not to credit without verification anything Mr Larkin says about me. It would be impossible to reply to all the calumnies he utters regarding me, and I do not try.’

Retained his headquarters in Dublin
In 1875 Murphy transferred his headquarters from his native Cork to Dublin, where he developed interests in railways and tramways in conjunction with his influential father-in-law, James Fitzgerald Lombard, and in Clery’s department store and the Imperial Hotel. He bought a large house and property at Dartry and participated in local activities. He set up a branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society at Terenure and is said to have been involved in many unostentatious works of charity.

Growing up in Bantry had imbued him with a strong sense of patriotism and an interest in politics. Many of the celebrated ‘Bantry Gang’ in the Irish Parliamentary Party—the Healy brothers and the Sullivans—were his friends. He was elected to parliament for St Patrick’s Division, Dublin, in 1885. His sense of patriotism had a down-to-earth application. Although he built tramways and/or light rail in Britain, Portugal, South America and Africa, he retained his headquarters in Dublin rather than in London, invested his money in Ireland rather than overseas, retained his belief in the country’s possibilities and felt a sense of obligation to provide employment. He also took pride in being what was then a rare phenomenon, a successful Irish Catholic businessman.
During the Parnell split, he sided with the majority of the Irish Party and lost his seat. The Dublin working class remained intensely loyal to Parnell, and Murphy found himself described as an unscrupulous betrayer and destroyer of the ‘martyred Chief’. That hostile image remained part of the workers’ memory before Larkin added his vitriol to it.

Refused knighthood

Postcard of the Irish International Exhibition held in Herbert Park in 1907, which Murphy helped to organise. (Stephanie Rains)

Postcard of the Irish International Exhibition held in Herbert Park in 1907, which Murphy helped to organise. (Stephanie Rains)

By 1901 Murphy had acquired the Independent Newspapers Ltd, with offices in London as well as in Ireland. He revolutionised the Irish Daily Independent, making it the country’s best-selling paper. In 1907 Murphy played a major part in the highly successful Irish International Exhibition. There was an expectation that he would be knighted for his work. He made it clear to the lord lieutenant, the marquis of Aberdeen, that he would not accept the honour. The lord lieutenant did not pass on the message to the king. When the time came for King Edward VII to call for the ceremonial sword, Murphy refused to come forward. Aberdeen was obliged to explain to the king that this part of the proceedings was being omitted. The stubbornness and strength of character that could refuse a lord lieutenant and inconvenience a king made a considerable impression. The Daily Chronicle, in its ‘Office Window’, seeking to grasp Murphy’s elusive personality, observed that when one met him one ‘got the impression of an ascetic, kindly man of the diplomatic class, exceedingly well dressed, quiet spoken with a humorous twinkle in his eye, and no trace of a Dublin accent. His was a case of the iron hand in the velvet glove.’

A ‘Continental socialist plague’

Poster for the Irish Independent on 1 September 1913, the day after ‘Bloody Sunday’. Murphy had acquired the title in 1901 and transformed it into the country’s best-selling paper

Poster for the Irish Independent on 1 September 1913, the day after ‘Bloody Sunday’. Murphy had acquired the title in 1901 and transformed it into the country’s best-selling paper

By 1911 Dublin was experiencing a strike fever. Employers spoke of the influence of a ‘Continental socialist plague’ that was inimical to industry and to religion and was represented in Ireland by Larkin and his union. To counter the ‘plague’, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce set up an all-Ireland employers’ organisation on 27 September. That year, Murphy was elected vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce. During 1911 Larkin made an unsuccessful attempt to organise the Dublin Tramway Company. Murphy was certain that he would try again during his term as president in 1913. He had no desire to fight but saw no alternative. Consequently, as was his way, he planned ahead.

His outward calm, however, concealed considerable anxiety. He was laid low by a long, unexplained but serious illness from the end of February to the beginning of May 1913. He was almost 68 years of age and, as he later emphasised, he had never previously experienced a strike and an employer in that situation, anticipating a strike, ‘got terrified’. Workers were at their strongest before a strike, but once they struck they had fired ‘their last cartridge’ and the tension was lifted from the employer. In Murphy’s case, the anticipation was all the more intimidating in that Larkin was obsessed with organising Murphy’s companies and, as was his practice when faced with opposition, spewed forth a stream of personalised invective designed to intimidate the opponent and to stimulate anger against him.

Six weeks after his return to work, Murphy faced down the Transport Union. On 19 July 1913 he warned his tramway workers that if Larkin called a strike it would be his Waterloo, that the directors of the company had ‘not the smallest objection to men forming a legitimate union’, but that the Dublin Tramway Company was prepared to ‘spend £100,000 or more to put down the terrorism which [was] being imported into the labour conditions of this city’.

On Tuesday 26 August, the first day of the Dublin Horse Show, Larkin carried out his threat to strike. But the congestion caused by some 200 motormen abandoning their trams without warning was cleared by Murphy within a few hours, and thereafter, despite some violence, the trams continued to run. On 2 September, Murphy informed the Dublin Chamber of Commerce that ‘it was time to stop this man, and I think I have stopped him’, but he added forthrightly, to applause, ‘that some employers in Dublin had bred “Larkinism” by the neglect of their men . . .’. That same day, the Irish Independent encouraged the employers to complete the work, declaring starkly that it was better for the city and its citizens that ‘whatever suffering and loss may be involved should be endured for a few weeks at most than that the city should be left helpless in the toils of Larkinism for an indefinite number of years’.

Lockout begins

Murphy depicted as the ‘vulture of Dartry Hall’ by Ernest Kavanagh. (Irish Worker, 6 September 1913)

Murphy depicted as the ‘vulture of Dartry Hall’ by Ernest Kavanagh. (Irish Worker, 6 September 1913)

Two days later, on 4 September, Murphy and the employers opted for such a policy. They decided to shut out their employees from membership of the ITGWU: workers were asked to sign a document requiring them ‘to carry out all the instructions’ given them by or on behalf of their employer, and obliging them ‘to immediately resign’ their membership of the ITGWU (if a member) and to undertake that they would ‘not join, or in any way support this union’. To be obliged to forfeit one’s right to join the union of one’s choice violated a basic principle of trade unionists. It brought British unions to the support of the Dublin workers. The first of their food ships arrived before the end of the month. The short, sharp struggle envisaged by both Larkin and Murphy was no longer likely.

In the prolonged struggle, Murphy and his council stiffened employers against concessions, while the workers were buoyed up by Larkin’s confident and abrasive rhetoric. Despite the hate and hostility generated towards him, Murphy insisted on living his normal life. His severe critic and political opponent T.P. O’Connor MP acknowledged that ‘throughout all this period Mr Murphy conducted himself with characteristic courage; while people were fearing for his life every second of the day, he walked alone and unperturbed through the streets of Dublin with his umbrella under his arm’—until, it should be added, the police, much to his indignation, insisted on escorting him.

In October the employers forfeited much public support when they defied the report from the Tribunal of Inquiry, which stated that in requiring their employees to sign the anti-union document they were acting ‘contrary to individual liberty’. Although the workers agreed to drop the sympathetic strike, the employers refused to recognise the Transport Union. On 10 October Archbishop Walsh, just returned from weeks on the Continent, during which he had kept himself informed by having copies of the Irish Worker forwarded to him, commented in a letter to Lord Aberdeen:

‘. . . the Labour leader has an extraordinarily strong case . . . I must say that, on the merits of the case generally my sympathies are altogether with them, and I trust that the outcome of the present case will be a radical change for the better in the position of the unemployed in Dublin.’

Victory for Murphy and the employers

A Kavanagh cartoon entitled ‘Birrell’s Bloody Bullies’—‘Lest ye forget! Murphy ordered civilian passengers out of his cars to facilitate [Chief Secretary] Birrell’s hired assassins and the police in their ignoble attempt to disarm Irishmen. These sweepings of Scotch slums shot down unarmed men, women and children.’ This refers to the incident on Bachelor’s Walk on 26 July 1914, the day of the Howth gunrunning, when the King’s Own Scottish Borderers opened fire on a hostile crowd, killing three people (a fourth died later) and wounding 38. (Irish Worker, July 1914)

A Kavanagh cartoon entitled ‘Birrell’s Bloody Bullies’—‘Lest ye forget! Murphy ordered civilian passengers out of his cars to facilitate [Chief Secretary] Birrell’s hired assassins and the police in their ignoble attempt to disarm Irishmen. These sweepings of Scotch slums shot down unarmed men, women and children.’ This refers to the incident on Bachelor’s Walk on 26 July 1914, the day of the Howth gunrunning, when the King’s Own Scottish Borderers opened fire on a hostile crowd, killing three people (a fourth died later) and wounding 38. (Irish Worker, July 1914)

Then two issues swayed popular opinion once more: the decision to send the children of strikers to England to be properly fed and looked after, and James Connolly’s closure of Dublin port in his capacity as leader in Larkin’s absence. The first, in the light of the extensive practice of proselytism in the Dublin area, gave rise to anxiety for the children’s religious beliefs. The press, especially Murphy’s papers, whipped up fear of a secularist, anarchist plot. The ‘deportation’ of children caused division among the strikers themselves and alienated many former supporters. Connolly’s closure of the port in November violated an agreement, signed only the previous May, between the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company and the Transport Union, and hardened the resolve of the employers to persist to the bitter end.

Meantime, various groups, such as the committee run by the lady mayoress, Mrs Sherlock, sought to come to the assistance of strikers and their families. The provision of meals and clothes was organised through the St Vincent de Paul Society; convent schools and others provided hot meals for the children, but Christmas 1913 proved a particularly cold and hungry time. By mid-January the union found it impossible to prevent many workers from drifting back to work on whatever terms they were offered. By the end of January 1914 it was all over.

At the annual general meeting of the Chamber of Commerce on 30 January 1914, the outgoing president, William Martin Murphy, commented that the whole struggle would have been short-lived were it not for ‘certain leaders of the English Labour party’, who kept it going for five months ‘by doles of money and food’. He concluded by reminding his colleagues that the victory they had won ‘should not absolve employers from the obligation of seeing that their work people receive a wage which will enable them to live in frugal comfort . . .’. HI

Thomas J. Morrissey is the author of William Martin Murphy, one of the Historical Association of Ireland’s Life and Times New Series (UCD Press, 2011).

Read More : William Martin Murphy – Early Life

Read More : Epilogue

Further reading
D. Keogh, The rise of the Irish working class (Belfast, 1982).
E. Larkin, James Larkin, 1876–1947 (London, 1989).
D. Nevin, James Connolly (Dublin, 2005).
P. Yeates, Lockout: Dublin 1913 (Dublin, 2000).

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