Monsignor John Murphy died at 8.10pm on Saturday night. You have probably never heard of him. He would be pleased about that. Because he did not seek or like the limelight.
He was in his mid 80s. A priest for 57 years. Ordained originally for the Diocese of Salford in the north of England. He served in Burnley and Bolton. He also spent a lot of time at Old Trafford watching Manchester United. He was friends with some of the coaching staff and players.
In the mid-1960s, his father died and he returned to County Antrim on long term compassionate leave to look after his widowed mother. He was an only child.
Like so many temporary arrangements, it turned out to be permanent. He was assigned to the Parish of Hannahstown but based at the small country church of “The Rock” in the hills above West Belfast. As the name suggests, during Penal Times in the eighteenth century, Mass was celebrated on rocks in remote areas. Catholics in Belfast would be alerted to “illegal” Mass by the lighting of a fire in the hills.
In the late 1960s, Hannahstown was a three-priest parish spread over three churches at Hannahstown, the Rock and the “Barn” at Hillhead on the fringes of West Belfast….and West Belfast was spreading out…new churches were built and the new parishes at Lenadoon, Twinbrook and Poleglass were established from Hannahstown in the 1970s.
But things were changing fast in Norn Iron. Internment without Trial was introduced in August 1971 and a prison camp established at Long Kesh near Lisburn. It later became the Maze Prison. In 1976, Father Murphy was appointed Catholic chaplain at Long Kesh/Maze.
You maybe think that there are other better known chaplains. Fr Murphy was THE chaplain. Others were at best “assistants” to him…priests who had no parish responsibility (perhaps schoolteachers) who were recruited to help. As the prison population increased, it was deemed a security risk to have too many prisoners…members of IRA, INLA …either internees or convicted of “terrorism”….murder, bombing, kidnapping….attending just one Sunday Mass.
Fr Murphy served as prison chaplain from 1976 to 2001…twenty-five years …accompanying prisoners on compassionate leave for family occasions such as funerals, carrying out his duties in prison cells, where the walls were smeared with excrement as part of the “Dirty Protest”. Negotiating on behalf of families, including the various Hunger Strikes and being with some of the ten hunger strikers who died. It was also dangerous. His church at the Rock was bombed. His home beside it was also bombed in a seperate incident.
All the time he operated under the radar. Of course his family….he had no siblings. But his cousins knew something of his work and the need for discretion. The less detail they knew, the better for all.
Of course the older cousins knew him as “John” and the younger ones as “Father John”.
Yet at the event in 2009, to commemorate his fiftieth anniversary as a priest, all were surprised at the video which filled in some of the detail.They saw him making presentations to the United Nations, to European Union and Human Rights organisations. Private audience with the Pope. A leading voice in prison chaplaincy at local, national and international level. He talked to people in the Norn Iron Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. But he never spoke to journalists.
Certainly when journalists approached him, they were sent away. The Catholic Church wanted to record it all. He declined. Relatives with a sense of the historic events he had witnessed could not get past his sense of extreme discretion. Few without a sense of “spirituality”, will understand the reason….he was a “Marian”priest with a sense of discretion modelled on the Mother of GOD. SHe witnessed historic events and said nothing.
His great friend Bishop Edward Daly died yesterday. And in Bishop Daly’s book, you will see one of the few references to Father Murphy, the Long Kesh priest. In other books, you will read about “The White Fox” and “Murph”.
Is there a legacy to the chaplaincy at Long Kesh/Maze? AWell certainly at An Féile event three years ago….at ironically St Oliver Plunkett Church (a church dedicated to an Irish bishop hanged, drawn and quartered in London), part of the audience was a row of men who described themselves as “ex prisoners and athiests” who told us that the Catholic Church had done nothing for them. A report I wrote on that lecture by Dr John Brewer is in this Blog’s archive.
That’s how it goes. Yet I think today’s funeral at the Rock presented an alternate version. Ex-prisoners were among the mourners. And a leading member of Sinn Féin, prominent at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strikes sat in a reserved seat across the aisle from the elderly cousins.
The funeral Mass was concelebrated by three Bishops and six other priests. There were about forty priests in the congregation. His chaplaincy during the Troubles necessarily impacted on fellow priests and families all over the North…in Belfast, Derry, South Armagh, West Tyrone etc a lot of parishes were represented in Long Kesh.
There was something moving in seeing four fully robed priests carry the coffin from the church and gently laying him to his rest in the graveyard. Moving to hear his friend Father Gerry McCloskey give the main address. Last night, I struggled to find words that really got the essence of Monsignor John Murphy. But I think Bishop Noel Treanor got it right….”he was demure to the point of anonymity”.
Yes …that’s it.
Like I said his dwindling number of older cousins called him “John”. They knew him as a contemporary and as playmate. and his younger cousins, who first knew him as a priest called him “Father John”.
Rest in Peace “Father John” ….you deserve it.