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Honouring a campaigning Corofin priest

A CAMPAIGN is underway in Corofin to erect a permanent memorial marking the famous march of the 40 shilling freeholders from the village to Ennis to vote for Daniel O’Connell in the 1828 Clare Election.

The freeholders were led by the parish priest of Corofin, 39-year-old Fr John Murphy, a native of Newmarket-on-Fergus, who became a central figure in the election of Daniel O’Connell as MP for Clare, an event which subsequently led to Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

In Corofin Community Hall recently, a special night was devoted to the memory of Fr John Murphy by Cumann Staire is Dúchais Chora Finne.

The night included a lecture on Fr Murphy, who was parish priest in Corofin from 1818 to 1831, by the association’s chairperson Declan Kelleher and a talk on his biographer, Fr Denis Spellissy, by its president Dr Maccon MacNamara.

“The Clare election of 1828 was in itself a statement of defiance from a downtrodden people, who put their necks on the line in the face of possible reprisals from their landlords and sought the basic civil right of parliamentary representational rights for Catholics,” explained Mr Kelleher.

“For his leading role in this election, Fr Murphy deserves to be remembered in Corofin,” he added.

John Murphy, who was appointed parish priest of Corofin at the age of 29, was born in Newmarket in 1789. His step-nephew Rev Denis Spellissey, who like Fr Murphy is buried in Corofin Church, wrote his biography in 1880.
Having attended the newly-founded Maynooth College, Fr Murphy first became co-administrator of Doora parish. Subsequently, he was sent to administer the parish of Kilnaboy and Rath, as the then parish priest Fr O’Neill was elderly and needed assistance.

Following Fr O’Neill’s death, Fr Murphy was appointed parish priest in 1818. As  there was no Catholic church in Corofin, Fr Murphy, in 1822, set about the provision of a church to serve the needs of the local Catholic community.

Local historian Michael McMahon pointed out that Fr Murphy established a number of schools in the area and his school at Richmond, where Michael Cusack subsequently taught for a short period, became the first government-recognised school in Corofin in 1835. He robustly opposed the proselytising efforts of Dysart landlord Edward Synge.

The Catholic Association was founded in 1823 to achieve civil and equal rights for Catholics. At the time, Catholics could not become parliamentary representatives and were prohibited from taking up many offices. Fr Murphy was fast became a leading light in the association in Clare and was one of the first priests to support the proposal to introduce the famous penny a month Catholic Rent, which gave the poor a real sense of ownership of the campaign.

The year 1828 brought a major political opportunity for the Catholic Association. Vesey Fitzgerald, the then sitting Clare MP, accepted a government position and because of this, had to seek re-election.

After some consideration, it was decided that Daniel O’Connell, the driving force of the association, would stand against Fitzgerald. As O’Connell was a Catholic, the eyes of Ireland, Britain and a significant portion of the world then turned to Clare. This generated huge publicity as should O’Connell win, he would be debarred from sitting in parliament because of his religion.

As a leading Clare player in the Catholic Association, Fr Murphy campaigned vigorously for O’Connell. His speeches were reported widely in both local and national press. As they were regularly delivered in Irish, he frequently wrote out English translations for the reporters.

The Clare Champion, in an article written in 1949, described John Murphy as the foremost priest in the county in the O’Connell election.

His passionate speech on civil and religious rights delivered in Irish to a huge gathering, which included some of the national leaders of the Catholic Association, at Corofin Church two days before the election was described by reporters present as “ a most extraordinary and powerful display of eloquence”.

On the first day of the election, Fr Murphy assembled and led the famous march of the local 40s freeholders from Corofin to Ennis. This event is described in the Tipperary Free Press.

“12 O’clock – Rev Mr Murphy of Corofin came in with Mr Staunton Cahill at the head of at least 500 men decorated with green branches, and walking in ranks. Mr Murphy stood up in his gig and was hailed with the loudest cheering.”

According to historian Ignatius Murphy, “Over the next few days, Fr Murphy was never far away from O’Connell and was acknowledged as one of the major organisers of what turned out to be a huge triumph for Daniel O’Connell and consequently for Catholic Emancipation.”
Soon afterwards, Fr Murphy’s health began to fail. In January 1831, he was greatly upset by the murder of Roxton landlord William Blood of Applevale by a local secret society called the Terry Alts. He had consistently opposed all acts of violence.

Despite seeking recuperation in the spa at Lisdoonvarna, he died there on September 9, 1831 at the young age of 42 years, having been attended in his illness by Dr Michael MacNamara of Corofin.

Historian Ignatius Murphy concluded, “John Murphy was only 42 years old when he died. What his achievements might have been had he lived a normal span, we can only speculate.”

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