Publication20 March 2023
Born County Cork, Ireland, 1826. Died Buffalo, New York, USA, 1868.
Author: David Wilson
Described by one contemporary as a “small man of slight build, sharp features, [and] dark beard,” and by one of his enemies as a charismatic figure “with much mother wit and great sturdiness of character,” Michael Murphy became the head of the Fenian Brotherhood in Canada during the 1860s. Born in Cork in 1826, he came to Toronto as a young boy, worked as a cooper, and eventually operated his own tavern on Market Street West.
His involvement with Fenianism began after a St Patrick’s Day riot in Toronto in 1858, during which an Irish Catholic, Matthew Sheady, was killed. In response, he established the Hibernian Benevolent Society, which was intended to defend Irish Catholics from Orange aggression. Within a year, it became the nucleus of the Fenian Brotherhood in Toronto, and subsequently throughout the United Province of Canada. Not all members of the Hibernian Benevolent Society were Fenians, and many were drawn to it through the social and sporting activities that Murphy helped to organize – annual excursions to Niagara Falls, rowing matches against the English Canadian Shakespeare Club, football and hurling games. The Society also functioned as a mutual aid organization, looking after those of its members who were in need.
From this base, Murphy was able to increase his influence among Toronto’s Irish Catholic community. He was not a man to be crossed. On one occasion, he threatened to break the nose of someone who stated that his tavern was the centre of a secret society. On another, during an election contest in the city, he struck the leader of the Reform Party and editor of the Globe newspaper, George Brown, on the back of his head with a cudgel, and struck him when he was down.
In 1863, Murphy became one of the provisional directors of the newly formed Irish Canadian newspaper, which combined declarations of loyalty to Canada with condemnations of British rule in Ireland. As the newspaper extended its reach, Murphy travelled to Hamilton, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, spreading the revolutionary gospel and encouraging the formation of other Hibernian Societies that could operate as Fenian front organizations.
Despite his professed loyalty to Canada, Murphy initially supported the American Fenians who were advocating an invasion of the country. At a Fenian Convention in Philadelphia in 1865, he declared that 100,000 Irish Canadians were prepared to support an invasion, and that they eagerly “anticipated striking a blow before Christmas.” He made equally extravagant claims at St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Toronto, claiming that 20,000 Irish Canadians would gladly shed their blood in the cause of Irish freedom, doubling the number the following year, and asserting that a million Irish lives would be worth paying as the price of national liberation.
But when the Head Centre of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, John O’Mahony, pulled back from the invasion strategy, precipitating a split within the movement, Murphy pulled back with him. In March 1866, when the Canadian authorities feared that an invasion was scheduled for St Patrick’s Day, Murphy agreed to ensure that everything remained peaceful in the city.
At the end of the month, however, everything changed. O’Mahony, fearing that he was losing support to the pro-invasion wing of the Brotherhood, decided to launch an attack on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, and called for recruits in Toronto. Murphy answered the call, only to be arrested en route along with six other Fenians and held in Cornwall jail. They were all confident that they would be released. Although they had been carrying revolvers, dirks, around $1,000 and a cipher, they had not actually done anything illegal. In Cornwall jail, they could be heard singing songs such as the newly popular “No Irish Need Apply,” and in court Murphy was so talkative that his defence lawyer tried to shut him up. Their confidence was not misplaced; the authorities searched desperately for incriminating evidence, only to be met with a wall of silence. When they tried to get hold of the Hibernian Benevolent Society’s books, they discovered that all the pages had been ripped out. And when they searched Murphy’s tavern, his wife had already ensured that nothing could be found.
After the prosecution successfully requested that the case should be held over until the fall, so that more information against the defendants could be found, Murphy and his fellow prisoners decided to break out of the jail. Tunnelling their way under one of its walls, they made their escape under the cover of a storm, found a boat, and crossed Lake Ontario to the United States and freedom. They were greeted as heroes by enthusiastic Irish American crowds as they travelled by rail to Buffalo, and before long Murphy was a guest of honour at a Fenian Convention in Troy. In Canada, the government was secretly relieved that the men had escaped; there was not enough evidence to secure convictions, and the collapse of the case would have been a significant propaganda coup for the Fenians.
Settling in Buffalo, Murphy opened up a tavern, the Irish Arms. Over the next eighteen months, however, his health began to deteriorate, and he died of tuberculosis in April 1868, four days after the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Like McGee, Murphy was forty-two years old; unlike McGee, he did not have a massive funeral with tens of thousands in attendance. But Murphy was not forgotten, either. His body was brought back to Toronto, where a large crowd met the train that carried his remains, and the streets were lined with Irish Canadian admirers as his coffin was carried to St Michael’s Cathedral.
Eleven years later, when the internationally-renowned Fenian Thomas Francis Bourke came to Toronto, he made a point of visiting Murphy’s grave, and expressed his admiration for that “grand old patriot.” In the public talk that followed, Bourke told his audience that he was “willing to die for such a grand old land as Ireland is,” and that “England would be the better of a deal of blood-letting.” Michael Murphy would doubtless have approved.