Thursday, May 14, 2009

J.J. Murphy: An Irish jewel on the South Indian High Ranges

The first half of the last century. A rainy day at Ooty, South India’s famous hill station. Some nuns were walking along a road in the cold.

Suddenly a car stopped by and the gentleman driver offered them a lift. He asked why they did not use a vehicle in such inclement weather. The answer was that their convent did not have one.

The next day, a local dealer delivered a brand new Dodge car at the convent. The astonished nuns thanked the donor. They also told him they could not keep the vehicle, because there was no money to engage a driver or to buy petrol.

That was no problem. The Irish gentleman assigned a driver on his payroll to the convent. He also instructed a petrol bunk to forward the convent’s bills to his office. That was John Joseph Murphy (1872 - 1957). He was the proprietor of Murphy Estates, Yendayar, which was India’s first commercially successful rubber plantation.

Another scene. An old man in a remote village receives a Money Order at the beginning of the month. That had become a routine for him and others who had retired from Murphy’s service.

A strange thing was that the message ‘This is the last payment’ was written at the bottom of every Money Order form. But the recipients were confident that the pension payment would continue till they died. Only Murphy knew the purpose of the message.

Murphy had a workforce of about 1000 people drawn from the three South Indian states. His concern for their welfare and that of their families was amazing. He was almost a century ahead of the labour unions and the government in providing amenities to the workers.

Murphy Estate had a small but pucca hospital, with a few beds for inpatients. In complicated cases, specialists were brought from outside for consultation. Patients in severe condition were taken to major hospitals far away from Yendayar. All expenses were met by Murphy.

Every married person in Murphy’s employment was provided free housing with piped water. When the couple had children, one more room was added to the living quarters.

The entire country faced severe food shortage during World War II. But the people of Yendayar were fortunate because Murphy ensured regular supplies of quality rice and other items at a great personal cost. Sub-standard stuff was destroyed.

One of Murphy’s passions was racing. He had a large stable and his horses brought him laurels from many courses in India, England and Ireland. The trophies were proudly displayed at the Yendayar bungalow.

One day Murphy found a gold cup missing. He was furious and called the police. The cops suspected an insider job and wanted to take the house staff to the police station for further questioning. That upset Murphy. He did not want his servants to face the ignominy of the police procedure. He withdrew the complaint.

Murphy’s philanthropy was legendary. No person who went to him with a genuine need had to return disappointed.

But the principal of St. Berchman’s College, Changanacherry, who approached the Irishman for a contribution to the college building fund, had a rough time. Murphy told the priest that he did not believe in college education. According to him, vocation-based technical training was more important.

Murphy’s experience with university education was rather short. He had enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). But without completing the course, he sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to seek his fortune. For some reason, he struck out on his own, though he belonged to a prominent Dublin family of shippers and bankers.

St. Berchman’s principal was rattled by Murphy’s reaction and mumbled defensively that they were running a weaving school also.

Anyway, Murphy donated Rs.5,000 – a princely sum those days – to the college fund. Later he made enquiries about the weaving school the principal had mentioned and sent a cheque for Rs.7,500 for modernizing it.

During World War I or shortly after it, an estate supplies company filed a case against Murphy alleging that he had smashed several bottles of liquor at their outlet in Mundakayam. The legal advice to Murphy was to deny the charge. But he refused, claiming that he would never tell a lie.

Murphy argued the case himself. He told the judge that his (Irish) blood boiled when he saw some German products on the liquor rack. He was let off with a warning.

In writing this I have relied heavily on an article about Murphy titled ‘Princely Planter’ by K. V. Thomas Pottamkulam. It concludes with the statement “I would like to think that if, instead of coming to India, he had emigrated to the United States, he might well have become the first Irish Catholic President decades before J. F. Kennedy.”

Tail piece. A few days back, on May 8 , when I checked into Lotus Club, Cochin, an young fellow named Siby brought my baggage to the room. I asked him where he was from. “Yendayar,” he answered, and added, “Murphy sahib’s place.”

I thought that his voice had a tinge of pride.

Ends.

Related post:
An Indian village remembers its Irish ‘father’.

24 comments:

Ashvin said...

:-)

kallu said...

The flow of the story is so smooth it draws one in. Thank you for letting us know about Murphy

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

That last sentence says it all - that after so many years, Murphy should be remembered and referred to.

Murphy seems to have been a wonderful and humanitarian boss. An ideal for anyone to follow.

Anonymous said...

I am curious to know why Murphy an Irishman was allowed by the British, then rulers of India
to cultivate rubber plantation, as plantations ( coffee, tea and rubber) were the exclusive domains for Scots. Unless of course Murphy was not from Ireland but Scotland where many many Irish families migrated during the potato famine in mid 19th Century and quickly became Scot-Irish.

“Murphy’s experience with university education was rather short. He had enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). But without completing the course, he sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to seek his fortune. For some reason, he struck out on his own, though he belonged to a prominent Dublin family of shippers and bankers”.

**TCD was mainly protestant at that time and still is to some extent. The native Irish Catholics, as Murphy’s surname indicates would have had hard time studying there, unless of course they were of Irish immigrant stock from Britain.

**Him belonging “to prominent Dublin family of shippers and bankers” is questionable as
during the British rule of Ireland which lasted until 1922 when Ireland became independent
it was unthinkable of an Irish family of shippers and bankers. Also, as the potato famine ended in 1851, there were hardly any well to do Irish were left in Ireland at that time. Murphy was born in 1872, less than 25 years after the end of the famine.

“Murphy argued the case himself. He told the judge that his (Irish) blood boiled when he saw some German products on the liquor rack. He was let off with a warning”.

**Why should Murphy’s Irish blood boil ? The native Irish during WWI (and indeed later during WWII) did not hate Germans. They hated the occupiers, the British. Unless of course, Murphy was from Scotland. There were substantial Roman Catholic enclaves in Scotland in mid 19th century. Scots and Scots-Irish did hate Germans.

“In writing this I have relied heavily on an article about Murphy titled ‘Princely Planter’ by K. V. Thomas Pottamkulam. It concludes with the statement “I would like to think that if, instead of coming to India, he had emigrated to the United States, he might well have become the first Irish Catholic President decades before J. F. Kennedy.”

**The above is a mere myth. Murphy was born in 1872. Assuming that he left for Ceylon in his 20s, we are talking about 20th century nearly. Historically, American presidents in 19th and early 20th century were Anglo Saxons, from Teddy Roosevelt through Taft, Wilson , Harding etc.. Unless of course Murphy was Scot-Irish, he as a pure Irish RC stock stood no chance.

Kariyachan said...

A High School and a Rubber Research center are named after Murphy, acknowledging his vision and contribution to the society.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Ashvin, thank you.

Abraham Tharakan said...

kallu, I am so glad you liked the post.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Yes, Raji, Murphy was a remarkable man.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Anonymous, some of the points raised by you are covered in my different posts about JJ Murphy. You can read them by following the links provided therein. He was very much from Dublin.

Further,

1. There were no restrictions on Irishmen planting in India.

2. JJ Murphy did join TCD.

3. Perhaps you would be interested in the book THE SHIPPING MURPHYS by CORNELIUS F. SMITH. (ALBANY PRESS. ISBN 0 954034 01 5)

4. JJ joined the British Army during WW I. When the war began, there were 20,000 Irish regulars in the British Army and 50,000 in the reserves. During the first 12 months of the war 80,000 Irishmen enlisted, about half of them from Ulster. More followed.

5. I only quoted from KV Thomas about Murphy and Kennedy. Considering that JJ died only in 1957, there does not seem to be anything illogical about that writer’s imagination.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you, Kariyachan.

Anonymous said...

"There were no restrictions on Irishmen planting in India"

This is a mere assertion and goes against the grain of the British thinking at that time, considering British let Scots to monopolise education (most so called English professors in India at that time were Scottish/extraction) and plantations. That was a carve up. But you entirely missed my argument. As a Scot-Irish citizen Murphy would have been acceptable, even from Dublin.

I was not disputing that Murphy did not join TCD an almost wholly protestant institution. [No self-respecting RC Irish joined this institution for study then. Indeed, the first act of the independent Ireland's politicians was to create a Catholic National University]. Since you also say he did, it proves my point of him being a Scot-Irish. Murphys might have resided in Dublin. Lots of Scot-Irish did at that time under British. British would rather trust Scot-Irish than nationalist Irish.

"JJ joined the British Army during WW I. When the war began, there were 20,000 Irish regulars in the British Army and 50,000 in the reserves. During the first 12 months of the war 80,000 Irishmen enlisted, about half of them from Ulster. More followed".

People often confuse the term " Irish", meaning they were all from Irish republic or what it was then, and hence must all be RCs. Not the case, even the die-hard protestants in Northern Ireland call themselves as Irish ( in their case Scot-Irish), like Bill Clinton's ancestors. Ulster in Northern Ireland for centuries has been protestant ( Scottish Presbyterian). No surprise in Ulstermen enlisting.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Anonymous, Frankly, I don’t understand what you are driving at. It could be interesting if you come out with specifics.

I do sufficient research before I write something. In JJ Murphy’s case, I know his domain well, have gone through records and know what I am talking about.

Incidentally, the Irish Ambassador to India visited Murphy’s tomb to pay homage some time back. That should be enough indicator of the eminence of the Irishman.

Reflections said...

Read the whole story interestedly....

Thank U:-))!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I have expressed my misgivings about the claim that Murphy was a Dubliner and was native Irish. It was based on the history of Ireland which I know well having visited it many many times, have a number of historian friends there and the knowledge about its inhabitants before Ireland became independent particularly during the potato famine and the decades later. I am not sure what your sources are, and if they are
books and Wiki and the like, I cannot say they show complete provenance. The late Sir C P Iyer, whenever embarked on writing a book, he went to London and did his research at the British Library, which arguably has the best sources on any topic in British Commonwealth. Sir CP died when he last arrived in London doing research on a topic. If you read his book " Biographical Vistas", it shows the extent of his research.

As for Irish Ambassador, it only shows that he believed what he probably read from the sources that you referred to.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Reflections, thank you. Glad that you liked the post.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Well, Anonymous, we disagree on every point including the correct name of the author of the book ‘Biographical Vistas’.

Incidentally, the Irish Ambassador’s visit to Murphy’s grave was a couple of years or so before I published anything about Murphy. As you might know, governments do have methods for collecting information on their country’s eminent citizens abroad.

paul said...

Hi,

John Joseph Murphy (JJ Murphy) was my great great grandfather and he was indeed from a Dublin family. From what I know of him he was the least successful once he had completed his education and was sent off to make his fortune (which he clearly did). He founded (built) a school and a convent (I think)

Anyway great and informative article

Abraham Tharakan said...

Hello Paul, thanks for the comment. Glad to come across another descendant of Mr. JJ Murphy.

My email id is abrahamtharakan1@gmail.com

I would be very happy if you can get in touch with me. I am thinking of writing a biography of JJ.

Ashwin Thomas said...

Loved the post so much so, that I've decided to visit Yendayar and Murphy's tomb on my next visit to Kerala. :)

arafath said...

am curious to know the history of yendayar after Murphy has passed away. how and to whom the lands are distributed, etc

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Anonymous said...

I visited murhy's tomb during my last visit to my home town. On the top of a small hill "madhumalai - meaning hill of honey, I guess - I could see a couple of tombs within an almost collapsed compound wall, one of them engraved "John Joseph Murphy". It was sad to see the tomb of this rich and colorful bachelor in almost abandoned state. This point on madhumalai is understandably the top most point from where probably Murphy could see the vast estate which he created in the first half 20th century. I am not sure, if the st. Marys church mundakayam -which was built bim him - shows adequate interest in maintaining the tomb of the one who contributed immensely to the creation of many chapels, convent and the church itself. During one of my visits to this church, I could see a chair with murphy's name engraved on it.

I have heard many stories about murphy during my child hood. One of them is about a belief that even after his death Murphy's soul comes on a hours for a around in his estate ! Looks like some one trespassed into his way was booted down by him...!!!!

Anonymous said...

I also remember seeing the portrait of murphy in the office room of st. Josephs girls school which belongs to the Latin catholic church.

I have heard interesting stories about the personal life of Murphy as well. He was a very strong person with unmatched commitment to his profession as a planter and administrator.

I strongly feel that the biography of Murphy will be the story of cultural, economic and religious evolution of this small hill region.

All the best to Abraham for bringing out the story of this real life hero.

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, the vast estate was sold to a family in koottickal for an unknown price. It is heard that the Murphy family in uk did not have any interest in his property away in India. The only condition the Murphy family had was that the new owners should run a scoop in the memory of Murphy, which is the current Murphy memorial school yendayar.