1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolvague” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1903: Emily Swann and John Gallagher, the Wombwell murderers

1 comment December 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1903, a 42-year-old mother of 11 was hanged side by side with her 30-year-old lover for murdering an abusive husband in the small South Yorkshire town of Wombwell.

That June, Emily Swann had shown her outgoing boarder and lover John Gallagher (together with some neighbors) the results of William Swann’s latest beating. John returned to the house and repaid the injuries in kind — and with interest.

After some minutes of fighting audible to the neighbors, Bill had been beaten to death.

Emily’s battered-wife situation might cut a lot more ice today, but by the jurisprudence of the day it was a fairly straightforward case, especially since all kinds of incriminating remarks were attributed by the neighbors to both Emily and John — “Give it to him, Johnnie, punch him to death,” for instance, and Gallagher’s own mid-bout respite at a neighbor’s house where he reported having broken four ribs with plans to break more. Both illustrated a level of intent among both parties beyond the heat of passion.

And you wouldn’t say the authorities were disposed to sympathize with Emily’s situation in general. They rather viewed her immorality — with John and otherwise — as the cause of the thrashings William gave her.

the wonder is that he has not killed her. He has frequently gone home after leaving work and found his wife drunk in the house and nothing prepared for him in the way of food. (case file comment, quoted here)

Fortified by a stiff drink of brandy, Emily Swann glided onto the platform at Leeds’ Armley Prison beside her already-trussed defender and delivered the somewhat famous greeting, “Good morning John.” Gallagher managed to return the salutation, and a few seconds before both were launched into eternity, she replied, “Good-bye. God bless you.”

It was an unusual exchange because the English execution protocol did not solicit remarks from the doomed prisoner, and in the occasional double hangings,* most participants were too frightened, awed or preoccupied to make small talk with their fellow-sufferers in the few seconds available.

* England would soon do away with double hangings altogether. Subsequent convicts to be hanged “together,” like Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, were in fact executed simultaneously but at different prisons.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Sex,Women

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