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Joseph John Murphy (1827 - 1894):
Businessman; critic; author

Joseph John Murphy was the elder of the two sons of John Murphy of Wellington Place, Belfast, and Mary (née Cullinmore) from Wexford (although the family was formerly from London) but had settled at Rathfriland, County Down and they had been married on 1 June 1825 at Grange, Charlemont. Both John Murphy and his wife were from Quaker backgrounds and John, with his brother William, had built up the linen firm of John Murphy & Co, proprietors of the Linfield Spinning Mill reputedly the largest and best equipped linen mill of its kind in Belfast. Joseph John and his brother Isaac James (b. 21 March 1828) were educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution entering together in 1836, and on leaving involved themselves in their father’s substantial business, and on his death in 1843 and while still minors they inherited a substantial patrimony. Joseph John’s interests however lay other than in commerce, still less in manufacturing, and on 21 January 1850 when aged only 23 he was elected to membership of the Belfast Literary Society (his brother followed on 4 May 1851 aged also 23) both having already become members (“Subscribers”) to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, Joseph John in 1849 and Isaac James in 1850.  Both brothers proved to be diligent members (Joseph John became a shareholder in 1862): they had, however, different interests and since Joseph John was the more involved and his writngs more numerous, lasting and relevant to the great debates of late nineteenth century science and religion than those of his brother, it is with him rather than his brother that this entry in principally concerned. 

Joseph John (hereafter referred to as Joseph) took religious matters very seriously and in 1856 when 29 he was baptised at St, John’s, Malone into the United Church of England and Ireland (which was to become the disestablished and unendowed Church of Ireland after 1870) and at various times and for various periods he was Honorary Secretary of the Diocesan Council of Down, Connor and Dromore and was also a member of the General Synod and Representative Church Body, and in 1870 published Computation and Compounding, and in 1877 Compounding Clergy. However, it was with other aspects of religion, religious bodies and philosophy that he was mainly to be concerned, and his influence was through his papers delivered before local literary and philosophical societies, through the honorary positions he long held in these, and in his three major books that he is mostly remembered. The scale of this commitment may be summarised as follows. Apart from other, lesser, commitments he was twice President (1855-56; 1892-93), Honorary Secretary (1850-54) and Honorary Treasurer (1856-94), and read 18 papers before the Belfast Literary Society between 1850 and 1890; he was Vice-President (1864-66;1869-71; 1877-80), President (1866-68; 1871-74) and Honorary Treasurer (1860-67) and read some 40 papers before The Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society; he was Vice-President (1869-74) and then President of the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge (The Linen Hall Library) for twenty years (1874-1894); principal founder of the Belfast Social Inquiry Society in 1851(which later developed into The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland) and to which he was a frequent contributor; and wrote numerous letters and other communications for the specialist and diurnal press, and much more besides including his three major books and a collection of sonnets (vide infra). 

Unquestionably these commitments required time free from the tedium of earning a living and he retired early from his commercial activities inherited from his father which were now disposed to the Ulster Spinning Company, and this left him and his brother well-off with Joseph installed in quiet comfort in Old Forge House, Dunmurry, near Belfast.  However, at some unknown stage in his later life “Through no fault of his own…he suffered great losses which left him a poor man…[but] it did not cause him a night’s sleep”, and he moved to the quiet semi-comfort of Osborne Park, Malone, Belfast in the early eighteen-eighties. This change in his affairs did not seem to affect in any way his commitments to non-paid activities or to the authoring of his books. All the books dealt with the growing debate between the findings of Darwin, his supporters and those who were opposed, some on the basis of religious orthodoxy, and some on the actual findings and arguments which were deployed. The books in question were, in chronological order of publication, firstly Habit and Intelligence (1869, revised 1879); The Scientific Bases of Faith (1873); and Natural Selection and Spiritual Freedom (1893). Naturally Murphy was only a very minor player on the increasingly crowded stage occupied by the controversialists surrounding the Creationist/Natural Selection/Origin of Species arguments, but he was noticeable enough to be mentioned by Richard Dawkins even if only to disagree with his views; to be mentioned by the great man, Charles Darwin, himself; to be quoted by the Roman Catholic, St. George Mivart; and for his last-named book to be reviewed by no less than Alfred Russell Wallace himself. Ironically perhaps the work of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk, which became crucial to many of the then current arguments, was not “rediscovered” until after Murphy’s death.  Murphy also published a volume, Sonnets and Other Poems (1890), which he authored. They were largely religious in theme and without any intrinsic literary distinction though one was anthologised in Miles’ Poets of the Century. The writer knows of no better consideration for the general reader of Murphy’s scientific books than Oswyn Paulin’s paper read before the Belfast Literary Society on 3 March 1997 (referenced below).

Murphy died still in harness as Honorary Treasurer of the Belfast Literary Society and President of the Linen Hall Library, pre-deceased by his wife Anna who had died in 1889.  The funeral service was in St. John’s Malone, where he had been baptised in 1856, and he was buried in the nearby Balmoral Cemetery. His estate was probated at £2,330.

Born: 13 January 1827
Died: 25 January 1894
Peter Froggatt

Belfast Literary Society 1801-1901: An Historical Sketch with Memoirs of some Distinguished Members Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr (Linenhall Press), 1902, pp.109-110, 177-178; Simms, Samuel, “Brief sketches of some forty Belfast authors”, in: Belfast Natural and Philosophical Society: Selection from 150 years of Proceedings, 1831-1981 (Belfast: Belfast Natural and Philosophical Society, 1981, p.222); SS Millin: Samuel Shannon, “Joseph John Murphy”, in: The Belfast Natural and Philosophical Society: Centenary Volume 1821-1921, p.94 (also see pp.141-2. 172-5, 196); John Killen John; A History of The Linen Hall Library, 1788-1988 (Belfast: The Linen Hall Library, 1990; pp.63, 71-2, 145, 200); JR Fisher & JH Robb: The Royal Belfast Academical Institution: Centenary Volume, 1810-1910 (Belfast, McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, 1913, p.269).

The paper referred to in the text, by Oswyn Paulin, is “Climbing the Stairs of the Linenhall Library: Joseph John Murphy, President British Literary Society, 1855-6, 1892-3”. It was read before the Society on 3 March 1997 and will be found verbatim in the Papers read during the 1996-7 Session and bound in hard copy and saved on digital disc and available for consultation in The Linen Hall Library, Belfast among the material relating to the Belfast Literary Society.