“Father Murphy (I)”


Father Murphy defeats the Camolin cavalry and the Cork militia. At Tubberneering he turns the army back to Dublin "but our ranks were tattered and sorely scattered." Outnumbered by English, Scots, and Hessians, he would have won with French reinforcement.

Supplemental text

Father Murphy (I)
  Partial text(s)

          *** A ***

From James N. Healy, ed., The Mercier Book of Old Irish Street
Ballads, Volume Two (1969), pp. 66-67. Source not indicated.

Father Murphy (2)

Come, all you warriors and renowned nobles,
  Give ear unto my warlike theme,
And I will sing how Father Murphy
  Lately aroused from his sleepy dream.

Surely Julius Caesar nor Alexander,
  Nor brave King Arthur ever equalled him,
For armies formidable he did conquer,
  Tho' with two gunsmen he did begin.
Carnolin cavalry he did unhorse them,
  Their first lieutenant he cut him down,
With shattered ranks, and with broken columns,
  They retreated hom to Carnolin town.

(6 additional 8-line stanzas)


This song is thought to be the original upon which P.J. McCall based his 'Boolavogue'. While the latter piece was written one hundred years after the event, this song was in circulation within a couple of years of 1798." On the other hand, see the notes to "Sweet County Wexford." The ballad is recorded on two of the CD's issued around the time of the bicentenial of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. See:

Jerry O'Reilly, "Father Murphy" (on "The Croppy's Complaint," Craft Recordings CRCD03 (1998); Terry Moylan notes)

Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "Father Murphy" (on Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "1798 the First Year of Liberty," Hummingbird Records HBCD0014 (1998))

Harte's notes that: Father Murphy was among the Catholic clergy allied with the United Irishmen; "the Catholic church was fiercly opposed to the United Irishmen"; "the 1798 rebellion had its roots with the Presbyterians in the North, and it was they who put forward the basic objectives of 'Parliamentary Reform' and 'Catholic Emancipation'; even in Wexford itself, many of those who were initially involved with the united Irishmen and took part in the planning of the rebellion were Protestants."

For a different ballad on the same subject see broadside

Bodleian, Harding B 19(101), "Father Murphy" or "The Wexford Men of '98" ("You Roman catholics throughout this nation"), W. Birmingham (Dublin), c.1867; also 2806 c.8(51), 2806 b.10(11), Harding B 26(188), "Father Murphy" or "The Wexford Men of '98" - BS

This other broadside is also found in Healy-OISBv2, pp. 64-66, "Father Murphy (1) or the Wexford Men of '98."

For historical background to this piece, see the notes to "Boulavogue."

Murphy's own history is interesting. Born around 1753, the son of a farmer, he had the sort of early education a Catholic could expect (i.e. very little) and had to go to Spain to be ordained. By 1798, he was curate of Boulavogue in Wexford. As far as is known, he was not a member of the United Irishmen.

His actions seem to have been somewhat equivocal. According to Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, pp. 77-78, when the government in 1798 was pressuring people to sign an oath promising not to join the United Irishmen. Murphy and his parishioners signed only under pressure.

But according to Thomas Pakenham, _The Year of Liberty_, pp. 147-148, it appears he initially opposed violent resistance -- he helped draw up a petition of loyalty to George III, and Pakenham and Golway both note that he encouraged his parishioners to lay down their arms.

Robert Kee (_The Most Distressful Country_, being volume I of _The Green Flag_, p. 109), more neutral than either, supports the belief that Murphy's desire for peace was real, on the reasonable grounds that, if anyone had been planning a Wexford rising, it would have been better organized.

Whatever Murphy's true feelings, he didn't hesitate after word came of the massacre at Dunlavin (for which see "Dunlavin Green") and other atrocities. There were also stories -- partly true -- of the success of rebellions in Kildare and elsewhere. On May 26, Father Murphy agreed to lead the Wexford rebels -- who, however, were by now largely disarmed.

That night, though, the "Camolin cavalry" -- a small patrol led by local gentleman John Donovan and a Lt. Bookey -- came upon Murphy's rabble, called upon the Irish to disperse, and -- being outnumbered and in the dark where their firearms weren't that helpful -- were routed with some loss, including their two officers.

This skirmish wasn't really a battle -- the forces involved numbered in the dozens, and neither side was planning a fight -- but it heartened the rebels. And started everybody shooting at everybody else. (Father Murphy's home and chapel were burned in the following days.) The rebels proceeded to raid the empty house of Lord Mountnorris, who was supposed to command in the district. They rounded up some other arms as well, often killing the residents of the homes holding the weapons.

The battle with the North Cork militia at Oulart was equally improbable. Accounts of the conflict from various sources differ so much that I can't even recognize them as the same battle -- Pakenham, e.g., makes it a case of British military ineptitude; Golway and others stress Irish discipline. Pakenham's account, which at least relies upon verifiable military records, seems the least unreliable:

The militia, under Colonel Foote, were almost untrained, and numbered only about 125 men; many had already deserted, and some had even joined the rebels. They were outnumbered roughly ten to one by Murphy's rebels, though Murphy's troops had even less cohesion than the militia.

Foote of course refused to attack uphill against those odds, and the rebels refused to come down. But when Foote's back was literally turned, his second in command Major Lombard ordered a charge. The attacking force was killed to the last man, even after the troops started to surrender and proclaimed themselves Catholic. (Not all atrocities in Ireland were committed by the British!) Foote brought three soldiers back alive from an engagement he hadn't even commanded.

On May 28, the rebels launched a surprisingly disciplined attack on Enniscorthy. The garrison retired to Wexford, but abandoned that town two days later.

Then things started to go bad. The Irish started to dawdle. But, as Kee notes (p. 114), "The lack of almost any coherent strategic plan, or indeed of any true leadership, was to be the rebels' undoing. Their determination and bravery in the field... was to prove remarkable.... But their discipline even in battle was poor. The Reverend James Gordon wrote, 'As they were not, like regular troops, under any real command of officers, but acted spontaneously... they were watched in battle one of another, each fearing to be left behind in case of retreat, which was generally swift and sudden.'"

They finally arrived at New Ross -- a key stop on the road to Waterford -- on June 5. Their leader, Bagenal Harvey, devised a sort of plan of attack, but gave no detailed instructions then or later, exerted no control over the battle, and had no reserve to exploit success. The rebels broke into the town, and seemingly had the battle won -- and promptly collapsed.

The next attack, on Arklow on June 9, was led by Father Murphy himself, and it too was repulsed, with heavy casualties.

After that, it was a matter of survival, and even that didn't take long. The English commander in the region, General Lake, assembled his forces and slaughtered most of the remaining rebels at Vinegar Hill on June 21.

Murphy's initial opposition to rebellion did not help him; he was eventually captured in Tullow, County Carlow and hanged. According to Golway, p. 87, Murphy was tortured before his death, and refused to talk. This sounds suspiciously like the death of Jesus, though, and Golway's strange footnote system does not appear to cite a source for this. For a discussion of the matter, see the entry on "Some Treat of David," which details Murphy's death.

The statement that Murphy could have won with French help is sort of true; when small French forces did come to Ireland, they were able to fight the British garrisons on even terms, which the United Irishmen never did. The French might also have helped by supplying the rebels with a hint of tactical reality. But experience seems to indicate that the Irish would have ignored them.

But while Napoleon talked about invading Ireland, and even started to try to assemble the ships, he never really seemed ready to make the push. Ireland had no resources to pay his army and navy, and in 1798, with the world seemingly at his feet, Napoleon's big need was cash.

In the end, the French fleet and army assembling at Toulon did not go to Ireland; it went to Egypt. Perhaps just as well for them; by 1798, the Nore mutiny was over, and the Battle of Camperdown had shown that the English did have naval superiority. The French made it to Egypt, mostly by confusing Nelson's scouts. They could never have gotten to Ireland that way. A few ships came, too late, but Wexford was never their destination; it was considered peaceful. In any case, a success in Wexford alone would not have freed Ireland. - RBW

Historical references

  • May 26, 1798 - Beginning of the Wexford rebellion
  • May 27, 1798 - The Wexford rebels under Father John Murphy defeat the North Cork militia at Oulart
  • May 28, 1798 - Murphy's rebels capture Enniscorthy
  • May 30, 1798 - Battle of Three Rocks, which led the loyalists to abandon Wexford to the rebels
  • June 4, 1798 - after a dangerous wait, the United army occupies Gorey
  • June 5, 1798 - The Wexford rebels attack the small garrison (about 1400 men, many militia) at New Ross, but are repelled
  • June 21, 1798 - The rebel stronghold a Vinegar Hill is taken, and the Wexford rebellion effectively ended

Cross references


  1. OLochlainn 27, "Father Murphy" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Moylan 64, "Father Murphy" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Healy-OISBv2, pp. 66-67, "Father Murphy (2)" (1 text)
  4. ST OLoc027 (Partial)
  5. Roud #3020
  6. BI, OLoc027


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1939 (OLochlainn)
Found in: Ireland