Review: Pat Murphy: Social Republican. 1937-2009. Edited by Philip O’Connor
Meeting Pat Murphy
There is some inaccuracy in the booklet about Pat Murphy published by the Howth Press and distributed by Athol Books. It was not actually the case that he joined “the ICO, the leading voice of which was Brendan Clifford”. He had more to do with setting up the ICO than I had.
We met in the Working Men’s College in Camden Town about 1960. I went to it because I passed it every day in a bus I conducted and the name made me curious. He went to it to get some education. He had missed elementary schooling because of a long treatment for TB as a child, which left him with one leg shorter than the other, and a strong determination not to be disabled either by his leg or his missed education.
He was literate and numerate, and had an original power of observing the world directly. He didn’t need education and didn’t take much of it as I recall. But he struck up an acquaintance with the English lecturer, Levine, whose first name I forget. And Levine, who was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, trained him about doing an interview for a job, in the civil service as far as I recall. He got the job, and then didn’t bother with education any more.
What was interesting about the Working Men’s College was what it was, rather than what it did in the way of education; and the incidental amenities it provided.
It was set up by the English Protestant Christian Socialists (Anglicans), after the fright the English upper classes got from the Chartists, with the object of diverting working class militants into ‘the Humanities’ in an ersatz University that opened in the evening. It had a good, cheap canteen (called by some other name), a Common Room, a Library with an open fire run by an Army Major, and many other facilities that it was pleasant enough to pass the time in. But, in order to avail of these amenities, one had to sign up for a course of study and make some pretence of improving oneself.
I signed up for Russian to begin with in order to get the pronunciation. Then I went for Divinity, as a subject in which one ran no danger of being improved. It was conducted by the local Vicar, the Rev. Cordell, whose Vicarage was almost next door to the WMC. At the end of the year I was set to write an essay on Might and Right. I wrote that Might came first and established Right as a defensive measure of power. Rev. Cordell was quite upset, but he was not able to show me from British history that I had got it wrong. Then I did the piano with the daughter of a famous song-writer. And then Etching with a very aesthetic Fascist who committed suicide when the dullness of England became intolerable to him.
The great drawback to the WMC was the gentry who ran it with a view to improving the lower classes and making them harmless. The Christian Socialists were Church of England gentry, both clerical and lay. Their time had passed but they carried on regardless. The Principal was the grandson of the founder, F.D. Maurice, and the son of General Maurice who cut a bit of a dash in the Great War. At a certain point he had to engage in correspondence with me and his letters were written on the notepaper of The Athenaeum, a club in Pall Mall near Buckingham Palace.
The authentic gentry had been severely thinned out by then. They were supplemented at the WMC by City financiers who were overcome by an urge to find a means of expressing their philanthropic inclinations. And there was a genuine industrial capitalist (Mr. Saklatvala), who was Dean of Studies, and tried to write poetry, and who belonged to the Tata family.
1960 was not long after the 2nd World War. Most of the philanthropists had been officers of one kind or another in the War. And they seemed to have brought their batmen with them to the WMC to be the working class.
It was absurd. But it was useful having been there. It helped me to know England. The rooms were called after Anglican Christian Socialists and Liberal Imperialists of the generation that launched the Great War, and of Liberal Imperialists like Haldane, who helped to mould the Labour Party for office after these Liberals had wrecked their own Party. And the Rev. Charles Kingsley, the “muscular Christian” who provoked Newman’s Apologia, was so actively remembered that one almost felt he was there.
But all good things must come to an end. And the end of the WMC—or at least of its pretensions—came through hubris.
The gentry and bankers decided to move with the times. An elective element was introduced into the College Council, hitherto selected by itself. Pat said we should contest the Election. I wrote election propaganda and he lobbied. Himself and me got elected and a couple of other Camden Town Irish came close.
Pat was put on the Finance Committee and I was put on the Executive Committee. Pat suggested that we should ask for funding for a Student Magazine. The gentry decided to give it in order to bring home to us the fact that we had nothing to say.
We produced the magazine and made its title a Chinese character meaning Words and pronouncedHua—on the ground that it would have the biggest recognition factor in the world. (I have forgotten how to write the character, and it could not be reproduced if I could remember.) And, after that eccentricity, we produced several issues of a magazine that people wanted to read—unlike the official magazine produced by the bankers. And then we were expelled—Pat and myself and a dozen other Camden Town Irish.
There were trumped-up charges. Pat, as a member of the Finance Committee, had had dealings with the local Council about a subsidy to the College. He made the gentry and bankers reinstate him as a member, or else submit the charges against him to scrutiny by the Council.
Before being expelled I was removed from the Executive Committee at a meeting called half an hour early by Saklatvala without informing me. Then I was told I was expelled from College membership and might not again enter the College premises. I forced my way into the next meeting of the Council and reminded it of its Constitution, and told it that the Executive did not have the authority to determine membership of the Legislature, of which I was an elected member, and suggested that it debate the matter. The Principal, Maurice, suspended the meeting and called the police. I explained the legality of the situation to the police. They said that was all nonsense and that Principal Maurice had absolute authority.
That being made clear, and not being disputed by the members of the Council present, I allowed myself to be removed forcibly but with no more than passive resistance through the pandemonium of a jeering crowd of students in the corridor and lobby.
And that was the end of the Working Men’s College, effectively abolished by the grandson of the Founder. (It then become something else under the same name.)
Very shortly before the expulsions Liam Daltun, a Republican who had done something in the 1956 Campaign and had since become a Trotskyist, turned up at the WMC, struck up an acquaintance with Pat, and asked him to go along to a meeting at which doing something in Irish politics would be discussed. And Pat asked me to go along with him. And out of that meeting eventually came the ICO.
But for Pat, I doubt that I would ever have got involved in a political group.
At the WMC I struck up an acquaintance with a Belfast Communist called John Clarke. (It is curious how famous names from history turned up on the English Left. Jack Straw for example. John Clarke was the name of the last dictator of England in retirement, Richard Cromwell.)
Clarke was in dispute with Desmond Greaves of the Connolly Association, which was a front of the Communist Party. Clarke, as a straightforward Party member, was irritated by the spin Greaves put on things for the CA paper, the Irish Democrat, and he protested in letters to the Democrat. His letters were loosely drafted and this enabled Greaves to publish replies which exploited the looseness. I took to tightening up Clarke’s letters so that they were strictly to the point. And then, of course, Greaves stopped publishing them.
My function in the group founded by Liam Daltun and Pat was much the same. I tried to focus the sense in which was wanted to be said. I was never a founder of things—well, hardly ever. Pat was. I was a Scaramouche.
Tony Monks says that Pat told him “Clifford would react to your mind, which was what I needed”. The last thing Pat said to me was that I listened. That must have been what he meant by relating to his mind—listening and asking an occasional question.
I listened because he had a very original mind, and he was a Dubliner who knew rural Ireland and could explain Dublin to a countryman. I was strongly prejudiced against cities on the strength of a brief acquaintance with Limerick and Cork before I was in my teens. I barely knew London as a city, having mixed with the free enclaves of West Indians and Irish when I went there. It was from Pat that I got some understanding of the life of Dublin, and indeed of Irish Party politics. I suppose my listening to him caused him to think in a way he would not otherwise have done. And, when you come to think of it, is not listening to somebody reacting to his mind if you ask a question?
The purge of the WMC by the philanthropic gentry did not pre-empt a coup against them. There was no coup in prospect. The life that blossomed in connection with the Magazine was anarchist in spirit. It could not have been organised for a coup. It was unacceptable only because it was life that the philanthropists had not fostered. They were confused by it and drove it out into the world. The College had been waiting almost a century for some energetic lower class life to come along for it to absorb and render harmless. When it came along, all the gentry could do with it was drive it out into the world. I thought it was a very satisfactory and encouraging result—a little victory from which something followed.
Pat Murphy: Social Republican. 1937-2009. A tribute to his life and work. Edited by Philip O’Connor. 60pp, with colour photos. ISBN 978-0-955316-30-4. Howth Free Press. €6, £5.