The Murphy Riots of the late 1860s was
an issue that tested the Victorian values of individual
freedom and religious tolerance.
William Murphy had been born
and baptised a Catholic in 1834 in Limerick. His father
later converted into a secret Protestant and then became
head of a Protestant school in County Mayo. His son eventually
sailed for Liverpool and made his way by foot to London,
offering his evangelist services to the Protestant Electoral
Union as an anti-Popery lecturer.
He then set about a career of
inciting religious violence. His tactic was to book venues
for lectures held over several nights which would culminate
in a no-women, no-under 21s, lecture on the supposed secrets
of the confessional which he claimed allowed priests to
ask women questions of a most intimate sexual nature "contrary
to the laws of nature", putting ideas into their heads that
they would not have thought of themselves.
Not surprisingly, the local Irish
communities did not take too kindly to this and over several
years, he caused riots in Plymouth, Wolverhampton, Birmingham
and Rochdale, with such claims "that every Popish priest
was a murderer, a cannibal, a liar and a pickpocket", mainly
a reference to the Holy Communion.
Although he did not speak in
Ashton, by 1868, his intolerance had taken hold. A group
of men who had been at an anti-Catholic lecture in Ashton
were ambushed on their return to Stalybridge by a group
of Irishmen who had put out the street lights and placed
ropes across the road. The battered and bleeding victims
plotted an attack on the Roman Catholic chapel the following
day, only to find it guarded by hundreds of stone-throwing
protectors and a rifle-wielding priest. It took two days
to restore order.
That was in April, but there
was further trouble in May 1868. Over 200 Irishmen attacked
a large group of 'Murpheyites and Orangemen' wearing ribbons
and rosettes, promising to "drive the ******* English out
of town. This was followed by a counter-attack that severely
damaged the RC chapel and left 20 houses in 'Little Ireland'
without a vestige of furniture or clothing.
It would be good to think that
Blind Jonathan protected one of the 'opposition', which
seemed to be the gist of what my grandmother used to tell
me. It was obviously a deeply embedded story since it happened
22 years before she was born.
As for Murphy, he went on to
raise his own kind of hell elsewhere and the politicians
of the day had to try to reconcile freedom of speech and
religious tolerance. We have the same problem today, of
course, and I believe we have reached the same conclusion
- that free speech is important, but not at the expense
of religious or racial intolerance.