Introduction to ‘Pat Murphy, Social Republican’, by Philip O’Connor

pamphlet cover
pamphlet cover

[This is the introduction.  The full pamphlet is available from]


by Philip O’Connor

“Connolly’s injunction to make the cause of Ireland the cause of

Labour has never been adopted by the Labour Party. In its modern

form it means taking a proprietorial interest in the State.”

– Pat Murphy, Irish Political Review, 2003

Pat Murphy was born in County Limerick and spent much of his time as a child

there. His family background on both sides was linked to the War of Independence,

and throughout his life he regarded the people of that time with the highest respect

as an “exceptional generation”. Although, apart from about seven years in London,

he spent most of his subsequent life in the north inner city of Dublin, and spoke with

his distinctive Dublin accent, he never forgot his roots, from which he derived his

deep and incisive take on politics.

When he arrived in London at the end of the 1950s, his experiences and

understanding of the world meant that the great metropolis did not turn his head

with its distractions. Due to illness early in life he was almost devoid of formal

education, but he rapidly caught up with the intellectual currents of the time after

enrolling in the Workingmen’s College, a type of “university for the working class” as

he called it. London at the time was a hotbed of left wing politics, in which the

emigrant Irish played a disproportionate role. He became embroiled and, despite

being courted by the British Communist Party, opted instead for the Irish

Communist Organisation (ICO), the leading voice in which was Brendan Clifford. As

he later told Tony Monks, “Clifford would react to your mind, which was what I needed.”

In the communist movement, Pat engaged in depth with the classical theories of

Marx and the Leninists and, together with avid reading of a wide range of literature

and history, developed his own unique views on social and political development. In

1966 he returned to Dublin together with Denis Dennehy and Mick Murray with the

mission to establish a new Communist Party in Ireland.

Dublin in the late 1960s was in the full flush of Fianna Fáil induced boom. Despite

the slum clearance and new housing estates built during the de Valera era, there was

still a chronic housing problem, with much of central Dublin, and of other town and

cities, consisting of derelict tenements and an acute shortage of decent housing. This

contrasted with a massive expansion in office building to serve the boom and the

expansion of government. Developers and property owners dominated local

government and, despite a wave of political activism among the young, the

traditional left and the Labour Party, paralysed in its fatalistic “welfarism”, as Pat

called it, proved incapable of the street activism that was needed. The energy of the

ICO group attracted many intelligent, mainly working class, young people.

Pat and his ICO comrades threw themselves into the housing agitation, and were

soon leading voices in the Housing Action Committees established in Dublin, Cork

and elsewhere. When Denis Dennehy was forcibly removed from the vacant house

he was squatting with his young family in Mountjoy Square, and imprisoned in

Mountjoy Jail in January 1969, he went on hunger strike, bringing thousands onto

the streets of the capital. Political and trade union leaders, from Brendan Corish and

Micky Mullen to Owen Sheehy Skeffington, rallied to Denis and to the housing

cause. One of the most moving interventions was a letter of support received by

Denis’s wife, Mary, from Muriel MacSweeney, widow of the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor

of Cork who had died on hunger strike in British custody in 1920 during the War of


“It is nearly 60 years since my husband was on hunger strike. He often said and wrote

that although we would certainly gain our independence, would we be worthy?

It is an anxious time for you: but you and your husband and some others have at last

resurrected the old glory of Éire which was almost dead since the end of 1922 and

the beginning of 1923. I cannot express to you how very much I am with you and

how grateful I am to you, your husband and the children. I had been living in

despair for years.”

January 1969 was also the 50th anniversary of the opening of the First Dáil and it was

commemorated with a major event in Dublin’s Mansion House, presided over by

President Éamon de Valera. Following a meeting in the home of Michael O’Riordan,

treasurer of the DUHC and later general secretary of the Communist Party of

Ireland, at which it was agreed to prevail upon the veteran Republican and 1916

veteran, Joe Clarke, to disrupt proceedings to highlight the imprisonment of Denis

Dennehy, “disturbances and protests”, as The Irish Times called them, occurred at the

commemoration ceremonies. Amid stormy scenes, Clarke interrupted de Valera’s

address, referring to the broken promises of the programme of the First Dáil and

shouting “This is a mockery!” as he was ejected by ushers. Ironically Clarke had been

  1. [See Manus O’Riordan, ‘Commemorating the First Dáil’, Irish Political Review, February 2008]

an usher himself in the very First Dáil being commemorated! Four people were

arrested at the memorial mass in the Pro-Cathedral after shouting “Release Denis

Dennehy!”, eight members of the DHAC were arrested as they engaged in a sit-down

protest at the Custom House and further members picketed the GPO. A mass

meeting at the GPO subsequently marched on the Mansion House. Simultaneously,

protests in Cork culminated in the occupation of Cork City Hall by housing activists

proclaiming themselves the “Provisional City Council” – chairman Pádraic Ó

Siulleabháin, secretary Conchúir Ó Loinsigh (Conor Lynch).1

The housing agitation, in which Pat Murphy played a leading role in Dublin, was the

greatest social movement the capital had seen since the unemployment marches of

the 1950s, that had culminated in the election to the Dáil of “unemployed candidate”

Jack Murphy of Ballyfermot in 1957. But it had a far greater impact. It put housing at

the top of the political agenda and led to the massive house building programmes of

the 1970s. It also led to the formation of the National Association of Tenants

Organisations and the rent strikes that followed, which in turn generated the

community movement throughout working class Dublin. This was the base that over

a decade later brought Tony Gregory to prominence and culminated in the famous

‘Gregory Deal’ with Charles Haughey of 1983 that was to transform living

conditions in the inner city.

But, in the meantime, Northern Ireland had exploded with the pogroms against

Catholic areas of Belfast while the northern police – RUC and B-Specials – at best

stood idly by. Pat and other ICO comrades rushed to help in the defence of the

barricades, and in the arming of the Self-Defence Committees. And it was in the heat

of conflict that the realities of the situation came starkly to the fore. It was Pat who

first began to question the inherited assumptions about the Irish nation and the Irish

national revolution. In its essence, it was a matter of coming to terms with the fact –

as Pat Murphy put it in a confrontation with his union leader, Micky Mullen of the

I.T.G.W.U. – that there were:

“two different peoples in this island, namely the Ulster Protestant community

and the Catholic Nationalist community, and that each community has a

democratic right to choose which State it wishes to belong to… If Mr. Mullen

still doubts the existence of two nations in Ireland, perhaps he would care to

test out the reality of his one-nation mythology against the aspirations and

opinions of the Protestant working-class in Sandy Row and the Shankill

Road. I can assure him, if he ever tries to, he will get dramatic confirmation

of the existence of two nations in this island.” (Two Nations? Letters, The Irish

Times, 26th October 1972)

The ICO – or the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) as it became –

published a wide variety of material backing up its argument, most famously,

perhaps, The Economics of Partition (1971). But it was Pat’s insights into the realities

of the conflict on the ground that was the starting point. Any working out of the

conflict would have to accept these basic facts. In subsequent years he spent much

energy trying to convince people on the nationalist side that politics – or war –

conceived on the basis that the North could be destroyed and the majority

population there brought to integrate docilely into a united Ireland was based on an

illusion, an illusion the cost of which was bloody violence in which it was the

working class that suffered most. But the New Ireland Forum inaugurated by

Charlie Haughey in the 1980s and the subsequent stirrings of the Peace Process in the

early 1990s showed that a recognition of the existence of two nations was beginning

to win widespread if tacit acceptance, not least in the Republican community, and

was forming the basis for the steps towards a settlement of the conflict. Pat was,

again, one of the first to recognise the significance of these developments, and to see

a new coherence emerge in the politics of the southern State.

Pat’s break with BICO in the mid-1970s centred around disagreement on trade

unionism. But his activism in the trade union movement – including achieving an

important High Court ruling that led to the expansion of trade union members’

rights – was also gradually to lead him to a new understanding of the essentially

national role of the trade union movement in the Republic. His later work in fighting

unemployment and building employment and enterprise options on the ground is

all related in this pamphlet: his role as a founding member in 1986 and subsequent

full time worker with the Larkin Centre for the Unemployed, his ten years as a

member of the National Executive Committee of the Irish National Organisation of

the Unemployed (INOU) – which brought him into direct involvement with the

Social Partnership process – his work in helping to found co-operatives, assisting

people on the dole establish themselves in self-employment, his role on the Social

Economy Group of the Dublin Employment Pact and his role as a founder and board

member of fifteen years standing in the social enterprise, Sunflower Recycling,

which currently employs over 40 people,.

From various routes that again began to converge, Pat re-connected in the late 1990s

with his former colleagues from his BICO days, and played a central role in the

Dublin Irish Political Review Group when it began meeting from 2002. In many ways

the quote at the start of this Introduction sums up the philosophy of Pat Murphy.

Pat saw the Irish state that developed when taken in hand by Haughey in the 1980s-

90s as the culmination of the formation of an Irish national bourgeoisie and its

coming of age. He also saw the state as a developing process, and the traditions of

Irish Republicanism arising from the War of Independence, of Irish socialism and

labour as key components in it, exercising a certain hegemony over the shape the

state took. This led him to a profound understanding of the vital importance of social

partnership in shaping a social and European form of state, and in socialising the

state. He enthusiastically supported the Irish trade union movement in its

consciousness of its “patriotic role” in the process. As he wrote a number of years

ago: “Connolly’s injunction to make the cause of Ireland the cause of Labour has never been

adopted by the Labour Party. In its modern form it means taking a proprietorial interest in

the State.”

Pat always took an interest in the role of various forces in society, famously

identifying the three real political forces of consequence in the Republic as Fianna

Fáil, the trade unions and The Irish Times! And he had several brushes with the latter.

In his dispute with his union leader, Mickey Mullen, in 1972 over the “two nations”

theory, he regretted that Mullen had used the columns of that paper to attack him,

countering: “I regret that he has taken to using the bourgeois press to attack us when he has

had ample opportunity to confront us in Liberty Hall but has always refrained from doing so.

Since he has chosen this media we are obliged to answer him through this media.”

But he later developed an appreciation for the editor of that time, Douglas Gageby,

a former Intelligence Officer with the Irish Army in the war, who for a decade or so

in the 1960s brought the paper for the first time to a consciousness of serving the

state in which it operated. In January 1969 Gageby had ensured that The Irish Times

gave prominent coverage to the commemorations of the First Dáil, and the

significance of the radical reform measures being introduced by the then Fianna Fáil

government in its spirit. And it was in this context that in a special editorial on 22nd

January 1969 commenting on the First Dáil he referred to the imprisonment of Denis

Dennehy and the housing agitation, urging the Government to “regard as top priority

the removal as fast as possible of the major grievances of the marchers – and by resolving the

problem rather than resorting to repressive measures”.

The Gageby era was short-lived, and Gageby’s years as editor numbered after his

own managing director, Major Tom McDowell, denounced him secretly to the British

Ambassador as “something of a white nigger”, i.e. as having gone native. After Gageby,

the newspaper reverted to something of its old form, commenting in an increasingly

derisive manner on the state, and particularly on what Pat called “the natural party”

of the state, Fianna Fáil, if now expressed ever more from a “leftist” rather than the

previous unionist perspective. These were matters which Pat commented upon at

some length, and we reproduce some of these comments in this pamphlet. It was an

ultimate irony, therefore, that it was that very newspaper that was to carry a worthy

obituary for Pat.

Quiet and private, Pat nevertheless took a lively interest in all around him, and after

pondering and assessing his thoughts, would suddenly make a decisive intervention

in debates, an intervention invariably marked by a withering logic and consistency

of thought. He formed strong bonds, and enjoyed lifelong friendships with a great

number of people, notably those he had met through his political work – Angela and

Brendan Clifford, Mick Murray, Conor Lynch, Joe Keenan, Manus O’Riordan and

many others. He was an equally close and ever dependable colleague for the many

people he worked with over the years, especially Maria Tyrrell and her co-workers

at the Larkin Centre and Bernie Walsh and the board and staff of Sunflower


Though he never married, he remained close to family, and also took a lively interest

until the end in sport, culture, and all other aspects of life.

At the end, Pat took a lively interest in the organising of his funeral arrangements,

often coloured by his dryly infectious humour. When asked if he would like an

official of the Humanist Association to preside at the secular ceremony, he replied

that he’d prefer to do without bishops of any kind! Together with Manus he selected

the music and readings he would like and also, to the surprise of some of his friends,

made it known that his coffin should not bear the Red Flag or even the Starry

Plough, but the Tricolour of the Republic he had served so honourably. And so it was

that at the funeral the Tricolour draped his coffin, and after being folded in the

traditional ceremonial military manner by his close lifelong comrades, Conor Lynch

and Malachi Lawless, was presented to his family.

It has been a great honour to have known and worked with Pat Murphy.

Philip O’Connor

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