The Murphy Riots
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.

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