SUMMER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 2
Reflections on a Long-Lost Lieutenant

By Oona Chantrell

I`m gazing at a sepia photograph of Christopher Murphy. He wears the uniform of the Royal Munster Fusileers. It is 1916. He is 22-years-old and about to embark from the Southern Irish coast to join the British army in France. Within two months, he will be dead and buried in a foreign plot somewhere on the Western Front. 

Christy Murphy is my great-uncle whose existence I had never heard of until my brother in Cork started delving into WWI records. One hundred years since the Great War and this anniversary has seeded a strange momentum. People all over the world are urgently tracing fallen relatives. Where did they fight? How did they die? Where are they buried? The nations of beloved dead are being resurrected and brought back to the light. 
Christy Murphy is our unknown soldier but came as quite a surprise, given that my family is Irish and republican. It was a shock to learn that one of our own fought in the war as an officer in the British army. And the date of that photo, taken in the spring of 1916, jumped out at me. Christy Murphy was going to fight for the British at about the time of the Easter Rising at the Dublin Post Office: the famous, failed action which led to Ireland`s eventual independence.

But when we dig up our ancestors we dig up their times which is a world away from ours. In 1916, Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom. Most of the population had little to do with the Irish Citizen Army and the armed struggle to free their country. All that would change later, we know, with the making of martyrs at Kilmainham Goal, the "Terrible Beauty" that would turn public sympathy towards the cause. But that was yet to come. 

From the point of view of my ancestors in Tralee in the early 1900s, it seemed right that the eldest boy would sign up to fight for King and country against the Kaiser, along with tens of thousands of other Irish men.

2nd Lt. Christy Murphy
Royal Munster Fusileers
Photo courtesy of Oona Chantrell

From scant bits of information, we can piece together the basic facts of Christy`s short life. In the 1911 Irish census he was 17 and living with his widowed mother, Marie, described as "Station Mistress at Tralee" in Co. Kerry. There were three siblings: Bridget, Josephine and Leo. 

Christy was listed as an engineer. When the war came, he enlisted with the Munster Fusileers. In 1915, aged 21, he was doing his officer`s training in Kinsale. An army death notification details that he "entered the theatre of war" on 30th May 1916 and died on 20th July that year. There is some mention of "Stars" and of "Victory" which may be medals they awarded. His body is in a French war cemetery.

Hatless and high-browed, the young 2nd Lt. Murphy stares back from his photograph. A final formal image snapped at embarkation to send back to his mother at home. He seems composed. His uniform neat, his buttons and buckle shining. There is the ghost of a smile. It is late May, 1916. Some seven or eight weeks later, he will be killed in action. No one knows how or where he died. The army records refer to his battalion being engaged in "heavy skirmishes" throughout those weeks. 

We can only imagine how his end came and how mercifully quick or otherwise it might have been. We can assume he had the courage to face it. A newspaper cutting from the Cork Examiner reports that in the previous summer, 1915, whilst engaged in his officer training in Kinsale, Christopher Murphy dived from the pier into the deepwater of Summercove to save a drowning boy. 

They gave him a civic award for this instinctive act of bravery, risking his life for another. A training, perhaps, for what was to come.

The following are more details about Lt. Christy Murphy from newspaper accounts and his burial notice.

MURPHY, CHRISTOPHER JOHN, 2nd LIEUTENANT, 1st BATTALION - MURPHY- (CORK EXAMINER 14/8/1916) - Killed in action on 20th July, Christopher John Murphy, 2nd Lieutenant, Royal Munster Fusiliers, aged 22, dearly-beloved son of Mrs. Murphy, Spa Station, Tralee, Co. Kerry, RIP

(CORK CONSTITUTION 23/8/1915) - REWARDS FOR BRAVERY - Testimonial on vellum to 2nd Lieutenant C.J. Murphy, 3rd Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, for his gallantry in saving a boy who had fallen from the pier into deep water at Summercove, Kinsale, May 29.

(CORK EXAMINER 14/8/1916) - 2nd LIEUT. CHRISTOPHER J. MURPHY, Royal Munster Fusiliers, killed in action July 20th. Last year, while training at Kinsale, he rescued a boy from drowning at great risk to his own life, and was awarded the Royal Humane Society's certificate on vellum for his bravery. He was a son of Mrs. Murphy, Spa Station, Tralee, and was only twenty-two years old. 

MURPHY, CHRISTOPHER J., 2ND LIEUTENANT - (August 1916) - 2nd Lieutenant Christopher J. Murphy, RMF, was killed in action on July 20th. Last year while training at Kinsale he rescued a boy from drowning, at great risk to his own life, and was awarded the Royal Humane Society's Certificate on Vellum for his bravery. Lieutenant Murphy was the son of a Nenagh Lady, and nephew of Messrs John and Patrick Bourke, of Dublin road, and his father, (the late Mr. Denis Murphy), was universally known and respected as guard of the Limerick and Waterford Railway before its amalgamation with the Great Southern and Western system. - In Freedom's Cause - Pádraig Ó hAicéad (Nenagh & District WWI)


Initials: C J
Nationality: United Kingdom
Rank: Second Lieutenant
Regiment/Service: Royal Munster Fusiliers
Unit Text: 1st Bn.
Age: 22
Date of Death: 20/07/1916
Additional information: Son of Denis and Marie Murphy, of The Spa, Tralee, Co. Kerry.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: I. J. 31.
Cemetery: Philosophe British Cemetery, Mazingarbe

Oona Chantrell is an Irish woman now living in London. She writes poetry and memoir as an interest. Coming from an Irish family with strong republican leanings, she was intrigued to learn that they had a relative who fought and died for the British in the First World War." Her previous piece for The Irish American Post, "Irish to English - Creating Translation," was published in the winter, 2013, issue. click here


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