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THE MILLIONAIRE MURPHY

by
Herbie Conlon

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1992 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society



On the Dundalk Road running south from Newtownhamilton past the old coach road toward Cullyhanna and beyond the quarry along the bottom of the hill is a section of country known as McGinn's Rocks. To the right is another area which has no particular name but has been populated by Murphys for generations. This is a tract of land bordered by the Tullyvallen river to the west and running to a point at Donnelly's Bridge.

The people who lived in this area were small farmers who eked out a precarious living by planting potatoes, sowing oats, keeping one or two cows, a few store cattle, some hens, a few pigs and some goats. As there were no bread vans or no creamery in those days, they baked their own soda bread and churned their own milk to make butter which along with oatmeal porridge and potatoes made up their staple food supply. Buttermilk was the everyday drink.

The houses were all of the one-storey type. The kitchen served as a pantry, living room and dining room all-in-one. Most homes had at least two small bedrooms, some had more, some had less. Before the introduction of corrugated iron, the roof was usually of local timber thatched with straw that tied down with wire against the winter winds. Turf was cut from McGinn's bog. The heating and cooking was done over an open fire which was kept alive with the use of bellows. Usually two or three pots hung from an elevated crook.

There were no pensions or assistance at this time. Money was scarce and virtually unobtainable, except when livestock was sold in the Newtownhamilton or Crossmaglen fair. When a few farmers had pigs ready for slaughter a local butcher would do the killing and then the one with a horse and cart would transport the lot to Newry market for sale.

While not living an entirely idyllic existence, it seems to have been happy enough, especially with the companionship provided by music, dancing and story-telling. Poteen would enliven many an occasion such as weddings, wakes and ceilis.

This land was the birthplace of James Murphy who, by the time of his adolescence in the 1840's, was known to all as "Red Jemmie" on account of his ginger hair. At his death he had an estate which was valued at over 40,000 pounds (the equivalent of roughly two million pounds today). That he accumulated a vast sum of money as well as a great deal of land in such an environment seems unbelievable.

A lot of stories have been handed down by one of his contemporaries.

On a hot summer morning, when Jemmie, as usual in his bare feet, was lying in the shade herding his goats, an official-looking man came by. He was astride a horse with rich leather trappings secured by silver mountings from which hung two saddle bags and two water bottles. On seeing the young lad the rider reined in, dismounted, and tied his horse to a nearby Hawthorne bush. Taking his bottles with him he approached Jemmie and asked where he could replenish his supply of drinking water.

Jemmie got to his feet to study the stranger and his well-equipped horse. The newcomer's bearing and attire indicated that he was an army officer. Indeed, he was a trooper who was making his rounds from barrack to barrack distributing money, presumably wages. After sizing up the situation. Jemmie directed the yeoman to a distant well beyond a hill. Leaving his horse tethered to the bush, the trooper set off on foot. A short time later, he returned with full water bottles and seeing no sign of the helpful gasson, mounted his steed and contentedly rode away.

That night, what was described as "a regiment of soldiers" was scouring the countryside looking for a large amount of gold sovereigns that had gone missing from the army officer's saddle bags. Since there were no holes in the bags through which the money could have fallen, it was assumed that it had been stolen somewhere alone, the line. Despite a meticulous search, the money was not recovered. While under interrogation, Jemmie maintained that he knew absolutely nothing about the contents of the panniers.

Years moved on and small farmers were having a hard time making a living on their poor land. Many sold-out cheap and moved into the towns where they had the hope of getting, jobs in the emerging linen industry. Unfortunate others had their small-holdings confiscated. Buyers understood that they could get a bargain by purchasing such holdings. For instance. one could acquire a repossessed farm by paying nothing more than the debt owing oil it. This opportunity was not lost on Jemmie who traveled to the auction courts in Dublin. The ginger-haired man, dressed in rags and tatters, looking like a penniless tramp, was nearly thrown out of the court by a disbelieving judge when he shouted out his first bid. To everyone's amazement Jemmie retorted that he was prepared to pay on the spot. Then and there, he triumphantly poured a heap of gold sovereigns onto the judge's bench. In this way, "Red Jemmie" accumulated hundreds of acres of land in and around the townlands of Ummerinvore and Ummeracam. He shrewdly let it out in conacre and, over the years, became known as "The Millionaire Murphy".

Despite his extreme wealth. Jemmie was most reluctant to separate himself from his money. The story is told of an incident in an exclusive hotel.

The Dublin lawyers whom he had hired to assist him at court persuaded him to buy them dinner. Jemmie, who always carried some bread in his pocket for sustenance, did not frequent such establishments. When they had partaken of the very best fare. the waiter presented the bill to Jemmie. He was stunned when he saw the exorbitant amount and very grudgingly handed over the money. The waiter still hovered around expecting the customary tip. Realizing that same was riot forthcoming., he whispered to Jemmie, "You'll remember the waiter.", to which the farmer replied. "I will - all the days of my life".

Recently, the Dundalk Democrat & People's Journal recalled the death of James Murphy and his sister Ann on Christmas Day about 100 years ago. By this time, he was also known as "The Armagh Miser". The article noted, for example, "...that he and his sister had not partaken of any food save warmed milk for some time previously and that they had no dinner on Christmas Day.... death resulted from pneumonia accelerated by long continued self-neglect".

"Millionaire Murphy's" death-bed was a pathetic help of straw, according to one of his contemporaries. There are numerous theories about the ways in which his unbelievable wealth was scattered. After saving and scraping and depriving himself and his sister of even the most basic necessities one wonders was it worth it!