Joe Murphy’s death on hunger strike is largely overlooked in favour of his comrade, Terence MacSwiney who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison only a few hours before-hand. Relatively little is known about Joe.
Murphy was born in Lynn, Massachusetts in the US. He had 14 siblings, with only 5 surviving. Joseph was one of 3 children born in the US but he did not have US citizenship. The Murphy family returned to their native Cork and settled in Pouladuff Road, in the suburbs. Joe was a keen sportsman and played for the old Plunketts Hurling Club and was also a keen road bowler. He attended Togher National School nearby.
During the Irish War for Independence, Joe joined H Company, 2nd Battalion of the Cork No.1 Brigade of the IRA in Cork city. He would eventually rise to the rank of Commandant. However, Joe would be expelled from the IRA for “bringing the army into disrepute” although it’s not clear what the exact reason for this was. Joe would later be arrested by the British for possession of a bomb to be used in an attack on British forces. It is likely these were trumped-up charges by the British even though Murphy was not a member of the IRA at this time.
Joe was held in Cork Gaol. At this time, political status was removed from the prisoners and a decision was made to hold a mass hunger strike, with over 60 participating, Joe among them. In Brixton Prison, England, Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney would also go on to die on the hunger-strike. The hunger-strike would go on and claim the lives of 3 prisoners – Murphy, MacSwiney and Michael Fitzgerald. Conditions for the strikers in Cork and Brixton rapidly deteriorated. Regular newspaper articles would cover the condtion of the men and world-wide interest focused on them. An editorial in the Cork Examiner gave the following report:
It is astounding that some of them, who are mere boys, have not already succumbed, but in all their pain they were fortified by the faith that their suffering will serve the cause of their country.
Despite this, the morale among the prisoners was high, with a strong sense of solidarity uniting them. On October 8th, they wrote a letter to MacSwiney expressing solidarity with him and encouraging him to hold fast. Joe Murphy was one of the signatories of the letter sent to Brixton.
An appeal was made to British Prime Minister Loyd George to provide clemency for the prisoners by the respected ex-county High Sheriff Phillip Harold Barry. Loyd George gave a curt reply, saying that the prisoners were hastening their demise by refusing food and his government would not accept any responsibility for any harm that befalls them. A similar response was made by the British Government during the 1981 Hunger strike.
A further appeal was made for Joe Murphy to stand formal trial for the possession of a bomb, the charge with which he was imprisoned for. This was denied by the authorities on the basis Murphy was of no proper condition due to his strike.
In a last-ditch attempt to save the lives of the prisoners, an appeal was made to public sympathy. On October 15th, ten days before Joe’s death, an appeal for a mass for the hunger strikers appeared in the Cork Examiner “at the request of Irish Volunteers – All premises are asked to close as to allow employees attend services.”
Further masses were advertised for the day after, Saturday the 16th, and regularly throughout the week.
Meanwhile, Joe’s condition sharply worsened. He had become unable even to drink water. His mother and sisters, so consumed by despair, began to pray for his death in order to ease his pain. On 17 October, Cmdt. Michael Fitzgerald of Fermoy would pass away while on hunger-strike. It was now clear there would be no intervention in saving the lives of these men.
Joe was now approaching death. In an attempt at recognising his valiant performance his past transgressions were forgiven. As a comrade said later:
“He died the happiest of deaths, as a few days before the end, official notice was brought to him (smuggled in to the Prison Hospital) that he was restored to membership of the IRA.”
At this time, world attention was fixed not on the strike in Cork but Lord Mayor MacSwiney’s own demise. Dying only a few hours after the Lord Mayor, Joe Murphy was almost destined to be overlooked. In the presence of friends, family and clergy, Joe Murphy passed away on 25 October at 8:35pm at the age of 24. His American roots were noted across the Atlantic and were reported by American media. Motions of sympathy with the Murphy family were passed by the ITGWU, Cork Sinn Féin and various other republican and community organizations.
Joe’s removal attracted thousands of mourners who gathered outside Cork gaol. His funeral was similar, with the Volunteers providing full military honours, including a guard of honour from St. Finbarrs Church to St.Finbarrs Cemetery. This was amidst a heavy army presence, with 2 armoured cars present. The military ordered no more than 100 mourners to accompany the hearse and coffin inside the gates. The Volunteers and public obliged, although thousands observed from a distance. In recognition of Joe’s roots, an American flag was draped over the coffin for a moment. After the military and crowd left, Joe’s comrades in H Company rendered him a final salute with a six-gun volley over his final resting place in the republican plot in St. Finbarrs Cemetery.
Shortly after Murphy’s death, Arthur Griffith paid tribute to the hunger-strikers and expressed sympathy with their families. He then ordered the end of the strike in Cork Prison.
While Murphy’s death was completely overshadowed by the media coverage of MacSwiney’s, with only a few references to Joe at all in the national press, his importance as a figure whose sacrifice gave the volunteers in Cork an extra incentive to keep the fight in the Rebel County going can not be understated.