TV Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

William Martin Murphy—traditionally appears in Irish history as the sinister ‘boss of bosses’ who faced down Jim Larkin and the ITGWU during the 1913 lockout. (RTÉ Stills Library)

William Martin Murphy—traditionally appears in Irish history as the sinister ‘boss of bosses’ who faced down Jim Larkin and the ITGWU during the 1913 lockout. (RTÉ Stills Library)

‘Capitalistic Vulture’?
Hidden History: Figure of Hate
RTÉ1, 13 November 2007
Union Films
by John Gibney

There are a number of ways of looking at William Martin Murphy. Traditionally he appears in Irish history as the sinister ‘boss of bosses’ who faced down Jim Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) during the 1913 lockout. But views can sometimes change with the times, and one can also have a more positive ‘Celtic Tiger’ version of Murphy the entrepreneur, a pioneer who foreshadowed the most recent and successful generation of Irish entrepreneurs. This is evident from the outset of this elegant documentary, as a parade of present-day business luminaries such as Dermot Desmond, Denis O’Brien and Michael O’Leary establish a sense of continuity with a man who was arguably one of their predecessors.
Murphy was part of an unprecedented generation. Born in West Cork in 1844, he became part of the rising Catholic middle class that emerged in the decades after the Famine, and became pre-eminent in a business world traditionally dominated by Protestants. Educated at Belvedere College, Dublin (a perennial staple of the Irish middle class), after his father’s death in 1863 he took over the family business in Bantry, building a field of endeavour whose local success propelled him on to bigger and better things. By 1883 he was based in Dublin, living in salubrious comfort at Dartry Hall in south Dublin. The house would later form an iconic backdrop to the vicious depictions of Murphy that emerged during the lockout: he was depicted in one as a vulture perched on its gates, surveying the human wreckage of the Dublin working class who came, in time, to despise him perhaps above all else.
Murphy’s principal business interests lay in railways and tramways. He had begun in local railways in Cork; as his rail companies expanded across Ireland, his move to

‘Bloody Sunday’, 31 August 1913—Dublin Metropolitan Police and RIC baton-charge workers on Sackville Street, killing two and injuring c. 500. (Cashman Collection)

‘Bloody Sunday’, 31 August 1913—Dublin Metropolitan Police and RIC baton-charge workers on Sackville Street, killing two and injuring c. 500. (Cashman Collection)

Dublin saw him emerge as the dominant figure in the city’s transport infrastructure by the turn of the twentieth century. Even before this he had been contracted to build railways in the Gold Coast in West Africa. Geography was no impediment to his commercial ventures. His companies built tram networks in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, London, Glasgow, and even Buenos Aires. With his keen eye for a business opportunity, he was a pioneer as much as an entrepreneur: his Dublin trams were electrified before those of any British city. The fact that Murphy operated within both the United Kingdom and the British Empire was in keeping with his political orientation. As a Home Ruler, he saw no contradition in adhering to that position whilst benefiting from being part of the Empire. Murphy sat as an MP for Dublin between 1885 and 1892, losing his seat after he opposed Charles Stuart Parnell’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party. While he never won a parliamentary seat again, he remained close to political figures such as the anti-Parnellite Tim Healy, and was part of a visible Cork interest in the Irish Party. Murphy’s other key business interest, newspapers, emerged in part from his political alignments, and a number of ventures in the 1890s culminated in the launch of the Irish Independent in 1905. Again, it was at the forefront of contemporary newspaper technology, and was quite consciously conceived of as a commercial and political rival to the Freeman’s Journal, which it quickly outstripped. Yet despite his firm commitment to Home Rule, a stance from which he never wavered, Murphy’s willingness to do business irrespective of borders saw him labelled as pro-British on occasion. On the other hand, he snubbed King George V by refusing a knighthood in 1906. But the confluence of his commercial and political interests, and the contradictions between them, would emerge most starkly in 1913.

Dartry Hall, Murphy’s home—an iconic backdrop to his depiction as a vulture perched on its gates, surveying the human wreckage of the Dublin working class, in the Irish Worker, 6 September 1913.

Dartry Hall, Murphy’s home—an iconic backdrop to his depiction as a vulture perched on its gates, surveying the human wreckage of the Dublin working class, in the Irish Worker, 6 September 1913.

Murphy strongly and publicly opposed the proposal to build a gallery in Dublin to house the Hugh Lane paintings. When Yeats excoriated what he perceived to be the philistinism of the Irish Catholic middle classes in September 1913, the hands that fumbled in the greasy till clearly belonged to Murphy. Yet it is the lockout of the same year that immortalised him. His long-standing opposition to trade union agitation saw employees in his companies dismissed for membership of Jim Larkin’s ITGWU.

Larkin responded with a strike and Murphy retaliated by locking out union members. As chairman of Dublin’s chamber of commerce, Murphy was the driving force behind the campaign of Dublin’s business class to break the strike, and proved ruthless in his resolve to do so. Here was a pillar of Irish society, Ireland’s leading businessman, a prominent advocate of Home Rule, yet his stance in locking over 20,000 men out of work inflicted misery on Dublin’s working class. The already appalling mortality rates in the city shot up as families were deprived of wages and sustenance. Would this also have been acceptable in a Home Rule Ireland? The fact that the Irish Independent later seemed to demand the execution of James Connolly after the Easter Rising seemed a further testament to its owner’s perceived vindictiveness.
Murphy’s political views were informed by his career. A fierce opponent of British attempts to impose financial restrictions on any Home Rule bill, Murphy, perhaps more than many of his political peers, was in a position to empathise with unionism, in the form of the Protestants who were often his business peers. This became evident in the Irish Convention of 1917, but by then the political generation of which he was a part were on the verge of being eclipsed by the rise of Sinn Féin. He died in 1919, and it is Murphy the businessman who is remembered when he is remembered at all. It is understandable that his reputation might be revisited in an Ireland that has changed radically in ways that he would probably have approved of, but he did not become a figure of hate for nothing. His ambition may have been impressive, and his acumen and courage admirable, but the fact remains that in 1913–14 Murphy proved quite willing to inflict misery and degradation upon his workers to safeguard his profits, and essentially to let Dublin’s children die on a point of business principle. That is no achievement to emulate. This is not to suggest that today’s entrepreneurs would be prepared to adopt policies with such callous consequences. After all, it would be harder in this day and age to get away with it.

John Gibney is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.

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