“Then Father Murphy from old Kilcormack
Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry:
‘Arm! Arm!’ he cried, ‘For I’ve come to lead you;
For Ireland’s freedom we’ll fight or die!”
After enduring dreadful torture, Father John Murphy is executed, and his decapitated head displayed on a pike for his part in the 1798 Rebellion.
Father Murphy, like most of the Catholic clergy did not support the original uprising, but following a skirmish where two English yeoman were killed, he realised it was “fight or die”. Over a five week period, he led a scattered, brave and ultimately futile insurrection against an increasingly vicious English response which involved murder and mass rape. The Irish rebels were no saints themselves indulging in sectarian outrages including burning of Protestants to death. Murphy was not directly involved in these atrocities, some of which were reactive and some borne from a deep hatred of English occupation.
The rebel priest was an effective leader of the 5,000 plus rebels winning a number of battles against the English including famously taking Enniscorthy on 28 May. Eluding the crown forces by passing through the Scullogue Gap, Fr. John Murphy and other leaders tried to spread the rebellion across the country by marching into Kilkenny and towards the midlands. On 26 June 1798 at the Battle of Kilcumney Hill in Co Carlow, their forces were tricked and defeated. Fr. Murphy and his bodyguard, James Gallagher, became separated from the main surviving group (fragments of which fought for 6 more years from the Killoughrim woods near Enniscorthy (James Corocoran) and from Wicklow mountains). Fr. Murphy decided to head for the safety of a friend’s house in Tullow, Co Carlow, when the path cleared. After a few days some yeomen captured him and James Gallagher in a farmyard on 2 July 1798. They were brought to Tullow later that day where they were brought before a military tribunal, charged with committing treason against the British crown, and sentenced to death. Both men were tortured in an attempt to extract more information from them. Fr. Murphy was stripped, flogged, hanged, decapitated, his corpse burnt in a barrel of tar and his head impaled on a spike. This final gesture was meant to be a warning to all others who fought against the British crown.