Murphy, the Rising and a troubled legacy

Kim Bielenberg talks to the great-grandson of legendary 'Irish Independent' founder William Martin Murphy

William Martin Murphy: lampooned in 1908 cartoon.

In popular folklore, William Martin Murphy was remembered as the cruel and heartless figure who led the bosses against the workers in the Lockout of 1913 and later called for the execution of the rebel leaders in 1916.

The founding proprietor of the Irish Independent was lambasted by William Butler Yeats in the poem September 13 with the famous lines about him "fumbling in the greasy till" and adding "prayer to shivering prayer".

As the historian and journalist Pádraig Yeates has observed, a statue of Murphy's great adversary in the Lockout, Jim Larkin, stands in O'Connell Street. But there are no statues of Martin Murphy, the leading businessmen of that era - the man who built the Dublin tramways, owned railways, hotels and Clerys department store, and founded the Irish Independent.

In fact, as his great-grandson Gerry Murphy points out, until recently, his grave in Glasnevin Cemetery did not even have a headstone. Few figures from that era have such a negative reputation, but is it entirely deserved?

Gerry, who worked in Independent Newspapers as an advertising executive until his retirement in 2009, is keen for his achievements to be recognised as well as his faults.

"From what I can gather about him, he was a loyal friend and a ruthless enemy," he says.

His hard-line stance against the workers during the Lockout copper-fastened this image of ruthlessness. The former Member of Parliament was also renowned for his in-fighting in the Irish Parliamentary Party as an opponent of Charles Stewart Parnell, who became embroiled in divorce proceedings after his affair with Kitty O'Shea.

Born near Castletownbere, Co Cork, Murphy was a member of a group known as the "Bantry band", and another local politician, Tim Healy, was his loyal friend and ally.

Murphy may be demonised in the historical memory, but according to his biographer, Thomas Morrissey, early in his career he had a reputation as a "fair, if demanding, employer". He was a devout Catholic and active member of St Vincent de Paul, who was said to carry "a copy of the Companies Act in one hand and the Imitation of Christ in the other".

According to historian Yeates, paying decent wages was one of the means by which he sought to keep trade unions out of his operations.

His main concern about unions was not the effect on pay, but the threat to his absolute authority.

After the Rising, Martin Murphy was pilloried when the paper appeared to call for the execution of James Connolly in an editorial.

In a leader column that at times contradicted itself, editor Timothy Harrington warned that the response of the government "must not be so severe as to create a revulsion of feeling that would make martyrs of all or any of those who have been sentenced".

But in a remark that seemed to be directed at Connolly, the editorial advised: "Let the worst of the ringleaders be singled out and dealt with as they deserve."

Healy, Martin Murphy's friend, insisted that the businessman had no knowledge of the editorials prior to publication, and did not approve of them.

The Rising not only changed the political landscape. It also had a deep impact on Murphy's businesses.

On the orders of Connolly, the Irish Independent offices were taken over by the Volunteers on the Thursday of the Rising. This was for strategic reasons - Connolly feared that British troops were advancing along Abbey Street from Liffey Street.

Initially, in the wake of the Rising, Murphy felt bitter towards the rebels, largely as a result of the burning of the properties.

Working with other traders and business interests, Martin Murphy was anxious to seek compensation for the huge damage inflicted in the city centre, and acted quickly.

Biographer Morrissey tells how the newspaper owner's committee immediately claimed damages, not just from insurance companies, but also the Local Government Board.

The businessman then left for London to press their case for compensation, and it was while he was away that the notorious editorials appeared.

Martin Murphy clearly blamed the British administration in Dublin Castle for allowing the Rising to take place and allowing the Volunteers to practise military drills in public. While he hardly endorsed the Rising, he was also angered by the gloating over the executions and the imprisonments by the establishment in Britain, according to his great-grandson Gerry.

"He did not get hot and bothered until the Conservatives started laughing and joking about it, as if it was great fun. That made him angry," says Gerry.

Martin Murphy told Tim Healy: "Every drop of Catholic blood in my veins surged up."

While the paper clearly opposed the Rising, it was also sharply critical of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the main vehicle of constitutional nationalism.

Murphy believed in Home Rule with full fiscal autonomy and was staunchly opposed to Partition.

His great-grandson says that in his family, the businessman was remembered as a strict Victorian father.

A man of frugal habits, he lived in Dartry Hall on the banks of the Dodder in South Dublin. He had 10 children and four of them pre-deceased him.

After Martin Murphy's death in 1919, Dr William Lombard Murphy, a surgeon who served with distinction in the Great War, took over as chairman of Independent Newspapers. He was remembered as a paternalistic employer, who believed in looking after the interests of staff.

The newspaper business passed through members of the Murphy family until it was bought by Tony O'Reilly in 1973.