Eoghan Harris, that powerful enemy of the IRA voices, once told me the story of a stunning act of moral courage by John A. Murphy, a man we loved and admired, who died last week and whom I mourn.
Published: 8 March 2022
The story went back to 1981, when the hysteria around the hunger strikers was reaching its height.
On Monday 13 July, Martin Hurson had been the sixth to die, so on Saturday there had been a ferocious battle in Dublin as gardaí (150 of whom were injured) succeeded in fighting off violent demonstrators who were seeking to burn down the British Embassy as had been done nine years earlier after Bloody Sunday.
Professor Murphy — known to everyone as John A. — was by then becoming notorious for his denunciations of republican political violence, in the Senate, of which he was an independent member, the anti-terrorist Sunday Independent and in public debates and on RTE with Provos and their sympathisers.
But that Sunday, this fervent devotee of Gaelic sports was just hoping for a win against Kerry for his beloved Cork at the GAA’s Senior Football Munster Final in Killarney.
“Frank Murphy,” Eoghan told me, “a power on the Cork County Board, came over the loudspeaker system asking for two minutes’ silence for two ESB workers from Newcestown who had been accidentally electrocuted that morning — and then suddenly slipped in ‘and for the Hunger Strikers’.
“Enraged by this sly effort to hitch a H-Block lift on the backs of two brave ESB workers, John A. shouted, ‘What about all the Protestants that were murdered?’ Some 80,000 people got to their feet, but Murphy did not move. He sat in the stand, sat out the silence and people who saw him saw … a fragile face set in stone. Grace under pressure, of the sort I wish to be spared.”
I have stayed sitting during a standing ovation once or twice but I cannot imagine what it was like to do what he did.
He was an Irish patriot, a proud Corkman, a professor at its university, in huge demand as a superb pub singer with an enormous repertoire in Irish and English, and he sat there in a lonely protest risking his safety, his National University of Ireland Senate seat (which he duly lost the following year) and his popularity among his own people and in Irish-America, where he was a frequent visitor.
Cork beat Kerry, but John A. received even more fake bullets, mock bombs and excrement in his letterbox, and a black eye in a pub for objecting to the selling of the IRA’s An Phoblacht.
Brought up by fervent nationalists in a musical but not intellectual background as a devout Catholic and an unquestioning follower of Eamon de Valera, so dedicated a GAA devotee was that all his life he would bring his father’s All-Ireland medal to every game in which Cork played and stroke it to invoke his father’s spirit.
Yet he would painfully work out his own ideas over many decades as his exceptional intelligence and his training as an historian taught him to challenge beliefs unsupported by evidence.
He would cease to believe in God or nationalism and taught generations of Irish history students that “the nub of our tragedy in this island is that in the past we have persisted, and we still persist, in confusing the tribe with the nation, in confusing Irish with Catholic”.
In the Senate, where he again sat from 1987 and 1983, he attacked bigotry and discrimination in the Republic, argued for extending extradition to cover political crimes, and declared unequivocally that partition was right for Ireland “because we certainly could not handle the consequences of British withdrawal”.
He despised the IRA.
When he heard of the murder of the Ulster Unionist Party’s Edgar Graham, whom he had got to know and like at a British-Irish conference and an event in Cork, he told me he sobbed for a very long time.
His friend Peadar MacManus described how though he feared losing people he cared about, at his favourite forum, the Merriman Summer School, he pronounced that since “northern nationalists were different, had a different historical experience and were a disruptive and de-stabilising force in the South, it would be better if the Republic accepted that its future would be a 26 county state”.
This, unsurprisingly, caused deep offence, particularly among northern nationalists.
In later life John A. summed up his political philosophy as “Disentangle, not destroy, the meshed threads of history — the tribe from the nation, language and culture from nationalism and physical force, the Roman Catholic Church from the nationalist; an independent foreign policy and public control over national resources”.
The head of the University College Cork School of History put it well last week: “John A. performed an inestimable service to Irish history. A courageous professional, he was an important voice of independent reason and historical balance regarding Irish identity and society.
“John A. was never afraid to ask hard and searching questions. He remains an example to us all here. Neither will we forget his humour and ballad singing.”
Nor will I.