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The Flag in the Wind
Features - John Murphy

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John MurphyI first got to know the late John Murphy over a quarter of a century ago in the mid-1970s when I began attending the 1820 commemorations at Sighthill and Strathaven which he had been organising since the late 1960s in his capacity as Secretary of the 1820 Commemoration Committee, formed in the aftermath of the 1968 publication of the late Frank Sherry’s seminal pamphlet, "The Rising of 1820"!

As a young history teacher I was fascinated to learn of the exploits of the working-class Scots Radicals of 1820 especially as they had not been mentioned in any history course I had ever taken either at school or university. I was also immensely impressed by the quiet dedication which John brought to the task of keeping their memory alive in sometimes daunting circumstances —the 1970s, after all, was a decade of intense political development in Scotland in which the energies of most young Radical Scots, whether inside or outside the SNP, were focussed on the struggle for some kind of self-government.

It was therefore difficult to embark on a campaign aimed — at least on the surface — at merely raising historical awareness as this was (wrongly) seen by many activists to be irrelevant. If you want to change the present you have to understand the past in all its complexities. Though not himself an academic historian but an engineer to trade, this was a history lesson John nevertheless instinctively understood, and for a decade and a half until the mid-1980s he kept his 1820 show on the road, often dipping into his own meagre resources to keep the now re-christened 1820 Society afloat.

It pleases me to recall that my own election in 1984 as Secretary of the newly reconstituted 1820 Society was likewise a source of considerable satisfaction for John. Not only did he buy me a post AGM pint at a local (Paisley) hostelry but he also presented me with his battered old orange briefcase containing his 1820 papers as a kind of badge of office and, I suppose, a guarantor that I would persevere in the often onerous task I then inherited from him! John was of course a lifelong Nationalist who had been a teenage recruit to the infant SNP back in the 1940s. A political protégé of R E Muirhead, the Renfrewshire industrialist, ex-ILP pacifist and SNP founding father (& SI financial backer), John followed the latter in the 1950s into his fringe group Scottish National Congress with its programme of passive resistance — or "nonviolent non-co-operation with English domination". On Muirhead’s death he served on a committee formed to perpetuate his memory — alongside other Nationalist stalwarts like Oliver Brown, the Rev Alexander Borrowman and Robert Blair Wilkie.

His interest in history extended beyond the 1820 episode to embrace in particular the history of his native Paisley of which he was inordinately proud. A member of the Old Paisley Society he in 1984 produced a small booklet on Paisley’s two Covenanting martyrs, James Algie and John Park — who are both also commemorated in Woodside Cemetery where they are indeed buried. In 1997 he published (with Robbie Moffat) a more substantial booklet on Patrick Brewster, the Radical mid-19th century Minister at Paisley Abbey who championed the causes of Parliamentary Reform and Catholic Emancipation, and in whose honour the people of Paisley erected a statue in Woodside Cemetery in 1863.

Previously — in the early 1980s—he had inaugurated the 1820 Society’s annual commemoration at the Baird & Hardie Memorial in the same Woodside Cemetery, an event which has since become an established feature of the local Paisley scene, regularly attracting the attendance of the Renfrewshire Provost or some other local dignitary.

A man of many parts— trade unionist, community councillor, CND activist —John Murphy was also a talented photographer and a Past President of the Paisley Photographic Society. For the past decade he was an Honorary Vice President of the 1820 Society which he had effectively founded. At his funeral, appropriately in Woodside Crematorium, his coffin was draped in the Society’s banner with its slogan "Scotland Free Or A Desert" and the names of the martyrs, "BAIRD, HARDIE & WILSON" inscribed on it, as a mark of our enormous respect for him.

In 1993 former Party leader veteran SI columnist and academic historian James Halliday had dedicated his booklet, "THE 1820 RISING The Radical War" to "JOHN MURPHY—A MODERN PAISLEY RADICAL". It is impossible to think of a more fitting epitaph. John, who was unmarried, passed away at the age of 75 on 14th February in Paisley’s Royal Alexandra Hospital after a lengthy illness.

Ian Bayne

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