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MURPHY, MICHAEL, cooper, tavern-keeper, and Fenian leader; b. in 1826 at Cork (Republic of Ireland); d. 11 April 1868 at Buffalo, N.Y.

Michael Murphy came to York (Toronto), Upper Canada, from Ireland with his parents as a young boy. He received little formal education and was apprenticed to a cooper. Murphy eventually operated his own business for several years before purchasing a tavern in Toronto.

The late 1850s were years when feelings between Irish Catholics and Protestant Orangemen often ran quite high in Toronto and celebrations on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) and on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) were frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence. The bloodiest of these “incidents,” the St Patrick’s Day riot of 1858 when one person was killed, prompted Michael Murphy and other prominent Irish Catholics in Toronto to create in that year the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada. Murphy became its first president. The society grew rapidly and branches were soon established in both Canada East and Canada West. It stressed its benevolent aims, “assisting . . . their distressed members, attending them in their sickness, and, in case of death, defraying their funeral expenses,” but when its constitution was made public in 1865 it indicated that the society had evolved along secret and paramilitary lines to meet the needs of self-defence. In January 1863 the society acquired its own organ in Toronto, the Irish Canadian, which proclaimed that its “printers, publishers, editors and stockholders are hibernians”; Murphy was a provisional director when the paper was established.

By late 1864 the society was identified by many with the fast-growing Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, and Murphy himself was publicly accused by his most ardent critic, George Brown*’s Toronto Globe, of having attended a recent Fenian convention in the United States. In defence of himself and his organization, Murphy wrote in a letter to the Globe that the Hibernian Society was founded on “the principles of benevolence and self-defence.” Its existence was justified on the grounds that “Orange excesses” and the apparent reluctance of the local authorities to protect Irish Catholics compelled the latter “to depend mainly upon themselves for the protection of their families and property.” He insisted that there was “no connection whatsoever between Fenianism and his organization,” but he did admit that the Hibernians would always express “a heartfelt sympathy with any organization . . . having for its object the freedom and prosperity of the Irish people on Irish soil.” Murphy had indeed attended the first national convention of the Fenians in the United States in November 1863.

Murphy was probably the most important of the small group of Canadian Fenians. His sympathy for the John O’Mahony wing of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, which supported revolution in Ireland, was known, and the authorities were aware that he was selling Fenian bonds and making financial contributions to O’Mahony. However, Murphy vigorously denounced the W. R. Roberts faction of the brotherhood which openly advocated an invasion of British North America as a step towards the liberation of Ireland.

In March 1866, when rumours abounded of an imminent Fenian raid from the United States, and 10,000 volunteers were called out for duty, the Toronto Hibernians were determined to march on St Patrick’s Day despite a decision by the St Patrick’s Society not to hold a parade. Toronto authorities, led by Mayor F. H. Medcalf*, eventually permitted the march but only after Gilbert McMicken*, the chief of a government detective force, had arrived on the scene and had received Murphy’s promise that his followers would “keep the peace.” About 600 Hibernians paraded without incident, while 2,000 soldiers stood ready to intercede. Some of these men had been billeted in Murphy’s tavern several days before.

In the days that followed, although no Fenian raiders appeared, the government of Canada, particularly Attorney General John A. Macdonald*, was now determined to prove that Murphy worked actively for the Fenians. However, before McMicken’s “detectives” could accumulate sufficient evidence against him, Murphy was arrested at the Cornwall railway station on 9 April 1866. The Hibernian president and six companions had been on their way to Portland, Maine, to join the Fenian raid on Campobello Island. Instead, they were led to the local jail. Mayor William Cox Allen of Cornwall confiscated a considerable supply of weapons, ammunition, and money. Other Toronto Fenians were also arrested and sent to Cornwall.

The sudden arrests had not been ordered by Macdonald, but rather by his cabinet colleagues George-Étienne Cartier* and Alexander Tilloch Galt* who felt that the group should not be allowed to leave the country and thus escape Canadian surveillance. Macdonald was greatly annoyed, for he had given strict orders that the group should only be shadowed in order to gather more reliable evidence for use in a courtroom. Although no incriminating evidence could be found, not even by a spy “planted” in prison with Murphy, the prisoners were charged with treason for, as British subjects, having planned to participate in a raid on British territory.

The trials, set for the autumn assizes, were never held: on the night of 1 September Murphy and five followers escaped and fled across the border. The Globe fulminated over the escape, but other newspapers and even government officials expressed relief that the troublesome Murphy had slipped away. After all, the government prosecutor would have found it quite difficult to prove Murphy’s complicity in a court of law. A sentence of outlawry was passed against Murphy at the October assizes in Cornwall, but three other prisoners were never tried.

Murphy was soon reported denouncing the Roberts Fenians for their recent raids on Canadian soil, especially that at Fort Erie [see Alfred Booker*], and on 11 September he appeared at Lewiston, N.Y., where he met a group of Toronto Hibernians. Shortly thereafter he moved to Buffalo and became the proprietor of the Irish Arms Hotel. His health was now failing rapidly, however, and business was poor because local Fenians suspected him of spying for the British and avoided his establishment. On 11 April 1868, at the age of 42, Murphy died of pulmonary tuberculosis. He left a wife and several children. His body was brought home to Toronto for burial and funeral services were held in St Michael’s Cathedral.

Michael Murphy provided the strongest connection between Fenians and the Irish Catholic community in British North America. Most contemporaries considered Murphy and the inner circle of the Toronto-based Hibernian Society to be “the Canadian branch of the Fenian Brotherhood,” but the number of Fenians was small; not even among the Hibernians were Fenians in a majority. In fact, Fenian supporters in British North America probably never numbered more than a thousand. Murphy was a man whose character was ill suited for revolutionary activities, for he was both vain and highly excitable and he lacked skill and discretion. He was an impulsive but sincere person, and he was convinced that by supporting the Fenian movement he was doing his patriotic duty for Ireland. At heart he was still an Irishman who “longed for the hour when Ireland should be free to manage her own affairs and enact her own laws within the shores of the island.”

W. S. Neidhardt

PAC, MG 26, A, 58, 236–37. Globe, 1864–66; 13 April 1868. Irish Canadian (Toronto), 1863–66, 15 April 1868. Leader, 1864–66. C. P. Stacey, “A Fenian interlude: the story of Michael Murphy,” CHR, XV (1934), 133–54.

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Cite This Article

W. S. Neidhardt, “MURPHY, MICHAEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murphy_michael_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murphy_michael_9E.html
Author of Article:   W. S. Neidhardt
Title of Article:   MURPHY, MICHAEL
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   December 7, 2023