Murphy is born at Tincurry in the Parish of Ferns, County Wexford in 1753, the youngest son of Thomas and Johanna Murphy. Studying for the priesthood is then illegal in Ireland and so priests are trained abroad. He sails for Spain in early 1772 and studies for the priesthood in Seville, where many of the clergy in Ireland receive their education due to the persecution of Catholics as a result of the Penal Laws.
Fr. Murphy is initially against rebellion and actively encourages his parishioners to give up their arms and sign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. On May 26, 1798, a company of men armed with pikes and firearms gather under Fr. Murphy to decide what to do for safety against the regular yeomanry patrols at a townland called the Harrow. At about eight o’clock that evening, a patrol of some twenty Camolin cavalry spot the group and approach them, demanding to know their business. They leave after a brief confrontation, having burned the cabin of a missing suspected rebel whom they had been tasked to arrest. As the patrol returns they pass by Fr. Murphy’s group, who are now angry at the sight of the burning cabin. As the cavalry passes by the men an argument develops, followed by stones being thrown and then an all-out fight between the men and the troops. Most of the cavalry quickly flees, but two of the yeomen are killed. The Wexford Rebellion has begun and Fr. Murphy acts quickly. He sends word around the county that the rebellion has started and organises raids for arms on loyalist strongholds.
Parties of mounted yeomen respond by killing suspects and burning homes, causing a wave of panic. The countryside is soon filled with masses of people fleeing the terror and heading for high ground for safety in numbers. On the morning of May 28, a crowd of some 3,000 gather on Kilthomas Hill but is attacked and put to flight by Crown forces who kill 150. At Oulart Hill, a crowd of over 4,000 combatants gather, plus many women and children. Spotting an approaching North Cork Militia party of 110 rank and file, Fr. Murphy and the other local United Irishmen leaders such as Edward Roche, Morgan Byrne, Thomas Donovan, George Sparks and Fr. Michael Murphy organise their forces and massacre all but five of the heavily outnumbered detachment.
The victory is followed by a successful assault on the weak garrison of Enniscorthy, which swells the Irish rebel forces and their weapon supply. However defeats at New Ross, Arklow, and Bunclody mean a loss of men and weapons. Fr. Murphy returns to the headquarters of the rebellion at Vinegar Hill before the Battle of Arklow and is attempting to reinforce its defences. Twenty thousand British troops arrive at Wexford with artillery and defeat the rebels, armed only with pikes, at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21. However, due to a lack of coordination among the British columns, the bulk of the rebel army escapes to fight on.
Eluding the crown forces by passing through the Scullogue Gap, Fr. Murphy and other leaders try to spread the rebellion across the country by marching into Kilkenny and towards the midlands. On June 26, 1798, at the Battle of Kilcumney Hill in County Carlow, their forces are tricked and defeated. Fr. Murphy and his bodyguard, James Gallagher, become separated from the main surviving group. Fr. Murphy decides to head for the safety of a friend’s house in Tullow, County Carlow, when the path clears. They are sheltered by friends and strangers. One Protestant woman, asked by searching yeomen if any strangers have passed, answers “No strangers passed here today.” When she is later questioned about why she had not said Murphy and Gallagher had not passed, she explains that they had not passed because they were still in her house when she was questioned.
After a few days, some yeomen capture Murphy and Gallagher in a farmyard on July 2, 1798. They are brought to Tullow later that day where they are brought before a military tribunal, charged with committing treason against the British crown, and sentenced to death. Both men are tortured in an attempt to extract more information from them. Fr. Murphy is stripped, flogged, hanged, decapitated, his corpse burned in a barrel of tar and his head impaled on a spike. This final gesture is meant to be a warning to all others who fight against the British Crown.
Fr. John Murphy’s remains are buried in the old Catholic graveyard with Fr. Ned Redmond in Ferns, County Wexford.