In the last few days we have been asked for a little more information on Captain Con Murphy, whose 100th anniversary is today, and after whom Murphy’s Terrace in Millstreet was named. For this purpose, below is a detailed article on his active years, written by his great-grandniece as a special study for her Leaving Certificate a few years ago:
Captain Cornelius Murphy: 1915-1921
First Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army to be executed under Martial Law for possession of firearms.
In 1921 my great-granduncle, Captain Cornelius Murphy was the first to be executed by the British Firing Squad since the executions of the 1916 Easter Rising Leaders. He was also the first volunteer of the Irish Republican Army to be executed under Martial Law for possession of firearms.
His military career began in December 1915, when Con was appointed Officer Commanding of the Rathduane Company in Ballydaly which comprised of forty men. At the time this was under Tomas MacCurtain’s Cork Brigade of Irish Volunteers, in January 1919, this Company became part of Liam Lynch’s No. 2 Brigade. After the Easter Rising, 1916, the controversy surrounding the executions of the Rising Leaders had grown in intensity, and the Royal Irish Constabulary, (backed by the British Army) raided Ireland for signs of potential threat to English security. Con and his brother Denis were arrested in the aftermath of the Rising as part of a nationwide crackdown on prominent Republicans (more than one hundred men were captured in total). The Murphys arrived at Knutsford, Chesire on June 7th 1916. All the detainees were released in August of that year as the jail was shut down.
From 1918 onwards, Con’s role was in collecting taxes, organising Sinn Fein Courts as well as boycotts of the RIC and English goods- as Jonathan Swift coined in the 1720’s “Burn everything British except their coal.” In 1920, Con was elected as a member of the Millstreet Urban District Council. These responsibilities show what a valued member of the rural community Con was- and the British realised this. Capt. Con was put on the British “Murder List” and had a £300 price on his head (the equivalent of a year’s pay for an Auxiliary Officer or two years’ pay for a Black and Tan soldier). While conducting intelligence work in 1920 he was arrested along with his scout and detained in the local Barracks but escaped after he prised open a window shutter. Unfortunately, his next run-in with the British soldiers proved fatal.
On January 3rd, 1921 the squad moved into the Rathduane area; after arranging billets for his troops, Con returned home. The following morning Con, his brother, and father (both named Denis) were clipping a horse in the farm yard when the Auxiliaries raided the Murphy home. They fled the yard however the officers retrieved Con’s discarded coat from a nearby field which contained a loaded revolver and two spare rounds. The three were arrested and endured three days of interrogation and torture while detained in Ballincollig Military Barracks. Con was tried on January 7th, before a Field Court Martial at Cork Barracks. He was charged with having a revolver in his possession and having seven rounds of ammunition -this broke The Martial Law which had been introduced on December 12th 1920. Meda Ryan explains the significance of the law to Irish citizens, “The Martial Law gave a freedom to the military to do as they wished; they could arrest somebody and didn’t have to justify themselves or give the accused a fair trial ” His charge and consequent execution set precedent for further executions of Republicans with the same charge. The novelty of the law as well as its injustice sent the Republican community into a state of shock; this was a time of reprisals, where houses were being burned and those who opposed the Black and Tans suffered severely. Con stated first that he found the firearm but later contradicted himself in court saying the revolver did not belong to him but that he was holding the gun overnight for a man whom he did not recognise, and did not mean any harm by having it in his possession, (this was general practice at the time).
He stated the man asked him for his name and address, and asked him to hold the firearm and ammunition until the following night. Con was not willing to do so but accepted. He said he did not know about the Martial Law or he would not have taken them from the man; there were no public notices posted up within four of five miles of his home place. However, the prosecutor later mentioned that the proclamation had received all the necessary publicity in the various districts. Con then told the court that none of his family knew about the incident. Nevertheless, his brother, Denis Murphy was charged on two counts; firstly for not informing the RIC that his brother had a revolver in his possession and secondly for failing to inform the Competent Military Authority that his brother was in possession of revolver ammunition not under effective military control. Con was then detained in Cork Military Barracks and was briefly transferred to Cork Gaol, before being brought back to Cork Military Barracks for his execution by Firing Squad on February 1st 1921. Denis, who was still detained, was called at dawn to speak to his brother. Con’s parting sentiments were, “Tell the boys they have nothing to worry about. There is no need to move anything. They [the authorities] have been told nothing… It is as well to die now as it is at any other time… Give my love to all” [Denis Murphy’s prison diary.]
Capt. Con’s charge and consequent execution set precedent for further executions of Republicans with the same charge. The novelty of the law as well as its injustice sent the Republican community into a state of shock; this was a time of reprisals, where houses were being burned and those who opposed the Black and Tans suffered severely. Although the harsh sentence bestowed upon Captain Murphy was a symbol of intolerance on the part of the RIC- Proclamation No. 1 states, “..her [Great Britain’s] sole object in declaring MARTIAL LAW is to restore peace to a distracted and unhappy country; her sole enemies are those who have countenanced, inspired and participated in REBELLION, MURDER and OUTRAGE. It is to put an end, once and for all, to this campaign of CRIME that MARTIAL LAW has been declared.”
His execution was considered differently by some in Westminster; British Cabinet member and former Attorney General, Lord Birkenhead led the public outcry which questioned the abandonment of basic legal rights in Ireland. Lord Birkenhead’s impartial stand at the injustice of the execution shows how the British began to reconsider their position on their policing in Ireland. “…The most essential duty, because the ability to enjoy the other rights…can only be guarded by the ability to defend citizenship…Ireland armed will make a better bargain with the Empire than Ireland unarmed. ” [Padraig Pearse, at the establishment of the Irish Volunteers; regarding the right to bear arms].
I think Pearse’s theory was the reason for the initiation of Martial Law; if the Irish were defenceless they would be easier to govern. It also caused anger in Ireland as Pearse called the right to carry arms, “The proudest right”. This was a step too far for Republicans who were fed up with inequitable laws introduced by an Empire.
Con was as much a hero as the last two soldiers to die before Firing Squad- James Connolly and Sean McDiarmuid, however his name and sacrifice have been celebrated in a smaller community. As Lieutenant General Sir H. Lawson said, “It is no exaggeration to say that, as a class, they represented all that as the best in the countryside.”
Most of all, his dedication, life and the manner of his death were proof that the spirit of the 1916 Rising remained unbroken.
- More detailed in on Captain Con Murphy, including the inquest into his death, his earlier life, his final resting place in UCC, and more are available in our article from 2014 “The Execution of Captain Con Murphy“
- For more on the activities of the time, read the Boys of the Millstreet Battalion Area, which was published by the Aubane Historical Society: