Thursday, December 29, 2016

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John Murphy

Anthony McIntyre remembers Monsignor John Murphy who died in August.

Monsignor John Murphy, or Father Spud as he was more informally known among the protesting blanket prisoners to whom he ministered, lived a long life, averaging around 60 years longer than the hunger strikers he knew personally and frequently visited during his time as deputy prison chaplain in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. The longevity of his life is welcome but it does flag up the brevity of the lives of those lost in the jail during the hunger strike: all but one of the Ten Men Dead were in their twenties. 

I never regarded Fr Spud as being of a particularly sympathetic disposition towards the prisoners, finding him somewhat aloof, relaxing only when an exchange would open up around questions of moral philosophy or spirituality in which he was very well versed. The official chaplaincy of which he was a part tended to restrict itself to the religious welfare of those behind bars. Neither he nor Tom Toner, both of whom I liked personally, were held in the esteem that Denis Faul was. John Murphy in later years would expend enormous energy in pressing the prison authorities for things like Irish language bibles but as former blanketman Raymond McCartney said, “he stayed out of the internal jail politics.” His role was always pastoral.

Perhaps it was John Murphy’s public silence on the IRA campaign that made it easier for a high profile representation by Sinn Fein ex-prisoners at his funeral. Denis Faul, on the other hand, drew only three former blanketmen to his graveside, none of them supporters of Sinn Fein. Yet Faul had highlighted the brutality of the prison regime in a way that the prison chaplaincy wholly failed to.

In a piece written by one of those who attended the funeral, Jim Gibney, the claim was made that “in the depths of the most difficult life-and-death struggle for political status, Fr Murphy was trusted by the protesting prisoners.” That is grossly inaccurate. The chaplaincy was most definitely not trusted, in large part because as Micky Culbert, another former blanketman, said “we could be very difficult people to deal with, at a difficult time.” Which when decoded, to some extent means we could not trust him to be malleable to the point that we could manipulate him to deliver the ends we wanted. 

Other former blanketmen such as Sam Miller, Alex McCrory and Gerard Hodgins have given a much less wholesome view of the chaplaincy than featured in the Gibney piece written for the Bobby Sands Trust. Following the 2012 death of John Murphy's superior, Tom Toner, these erstwhile denizens of the H Blocks took to social media to express their critical view.

When John Murphy died I offered the following long held view to Mick Hall @ Organized Rage:

I liked him – he was a metaphysician, very versed in theology, philosophy and metaphysics. I remember a very long philosophical discussion with him in 1979 about the soul and materialism. He told me about his cat and he said the morning he gets up and the cat says to him “hello John” he will call it Adam! Making the point about the reality of evolution. Others will have a different view of him, seeing him as someone merely concerned with their spiritual welfare rather than their physical wellbeing. 

John Murphy was an astute and adroit priest. Much to his credit, he spent enormous amounts of time in filthy prison cells engaging prisoners and, as pointed out by Raymond McCartney, "Fr John visited us every day when we were on hunger strike. It was a rare day he didn’t call in to see us.” He brought the word of god but no tobacco. "Clearly a saintly man devoted to his religious beliefs", for those who preferred to smoke the bible rather than read it, that was more of a vice than a virtue.


Niall said...

A balanced view AM....some aspects I never would never have thought of until reading this

Frankie Lanigan said...

Always had time for Fr Murphy in the blocks,a great speaker

Eddie Mc Garrigle said...

Spud used to visit me on a Sunday in the prison hospital, a very conservative priest we usually kept things light. One time he told me if his wish to get a statue of Our Lady into the jail but had no luck to date as it was classed as potential weapon he claimed.  So off I go out to the Governor the next morning requesting that I have a statue. No bother said the Governor.  I wrote to whatever addresses that could be found in a copy of Ireland Own such as the Francisco Monastery in Rossnowlagh where  Fr Bernard replied not only sending me a statue but also a string of letters covering his life, he was 84yrs old then and led a very interesting life. I also wrote to many other places asking for a statute to be sent in c/o Fr Murphy.  As the weeks passed the statues began arriving at Spuds office, he was delighted. A kindly enough man may he rest in peace.
 So Mackers if you're interested in the first statue to arise in the blocks give me a shout 😂