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Murphy, Jeremiah Matthias (1883–1955)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Jeremiah Matthias Murphy (1883-1955), priest and university educationist, was born on 13 July 1883 at Kilkenny, Ireland, son of James Murphy, headmaster, and his wife Mary Kate, née McGrath. His parents died while he was young and he boarded at St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, where, although a moderate scholar, he excelled in classics. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1901, studying at St Stanislaus' College, Tullamore. In 1904-07 he attended University College, Dublin, graduating M.A. with first-class honours in classics. In 1908 he undertook non-degree postgraduate studies at Oxford under Gilbert Murray and A. E. Zimmern, whose liberal influence is evident in his rather florid essay, 'Athenian Imperialism', in Studies (1912).

In 1910 and 1913 Murphy taught classics at Clongowes Wood and Belvedere colleges, interspersed with theological studies at Milltown Park, Dublin. After his ordination in 1916 his health failed, although he taught for some time and spent 1919 studying theology at Canterbury, England. Next year he sailed for Melbourne where he was senior classics master at Xavier College in 1920-22, and rector of Newman College in 1923-53. With another Kilkenny Jesuit, W. P. Hackett, he became confidant and adviser to Archbishop Mannix; this influence may explain what was, for his Order, an unusually long rectorship.

Murphy's Newman years were significant for his contribution to better understanding between Catholics and the rest of the community. He was outward looking, insisting that college students participate fully in university life and not adopt utilitarian attitudes to study. He set a personal example, serving long terms on numerous university bodies, including the council, the boards of management of the union and the university press; for years he was a member of the Schools Board and the Council of Public Education. He encouraged graduates to further research, including overseas study, believing that they should become community leaders. Mannix's opposition to the foundation of a Catholic university, a Sydney proposal of the 1940s, must have owed much to Murphy's Melbourne success. He certainly played a major role, in 1950, in establishing the Archbishop Mannix travelling scholarship.

Always prominent in diocesan intellectual life, Murphy was a frequent public preacher and speaker. He served as chaplain to various bodies, including the Newman Society and the National Catholic Girls' Movement; he assisted the establishment of the Catholic Teachers' Association. Although he never adopted an aggressive or ostentatious Catholicism, he was a successful exponent of ideas to the general public. He proved his abilities as a Catholic Evidence lecturer and, from 1932, in Catholic broadcasting. He gave evidence on behalf of the archbishop to the 1941 parliamentary committee on broadcasting.

Murphy raised the academic quality of Newman by developing a tutorial system across many disciplines, tutoring in classics himself and employing others who later became prominent in professional and academic life. Out of this intellectual ferment grew, in the early 1930s, the Campion Society.

Murphy possessed an irrepressible sense of fun, and, despite a misleading manner of appearing impatient and superficial, was a good listener. When needed, his tolerance and wisdom prevailed. His genial smile and his old-world sense of courtesy were surely taxed, however, by the pressures of increased student numbers and changed post-war expectations. Unfortunately he failed to grasp the architectural importance of Walter Burley Griffin's college design, and under his custodianship the fabric deteriorated and disastrous alterations were made to the dome.

Senior university administrators sought his advice, appreciating his shrewd, penetrating and moderate judgements. He also could be consulted regularly in the front row of the Carlton Football Club members' stand. His educational contribution was recognized in 1954, when the university conferred upon him a doctorate of laws and he was appointed C.M.G.

Transferred rather abruptly from the rectorship to semi-retirement at Xavier at the end of 1953, Murphy died on 17 May 1955 and was buried in Kew cemetery. His portrait by William Dargie hangs in Newman College.

Select Bibliography

  • U. M. L. Bygott, With Pen and Tongue (Melb, 1980)
  • H. Dow (ed), Memories of Melbourne University (Melb, 1983)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Mar 1954, June 1955
  • Xavier College, Xaverian, Dec 1955
  • Murphy papers (Society of Jesus Provincial Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne)
  • Irish Provincial Archives, Dublin
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Murphy, Jeremiah Matthias (1883–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murphy-jeremiah-matthias-7706/text13493, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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