‘What we were doing was right’

Msgr Raymond Murray had an uphill battle exposing human rights abuses, writes Martin O’Brien

"It was all about breaking the wall of silence,” explains Armagh priest Msgr Raymond Murray as he reflects on more than 50 years of ministry dominated by dogged campaigning for those at the receiving end of state violence during the Northern conflict.

Fr Murray (75), a native of Newtownhamilton, recently retired from full-time ministry, was speaking in his home a short distance from St Patrick’s Cathedral where he was Administrator under Cardinal Tomás Ó’Fiaich and Cardinal Cahal Daly from 1985-93.  Later he was parish priest in several places including 11 years in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

He is still on the Sunday Mass rota and helps out the priests of Armagh City and surrounding district in various pastoral capacities.

A story in The Irish Catholic two weeks ago under the headline ‘More will emerge on collusion – NI priest’ prompted this feature on Fr Murray whose human rights work over more than 40 years is nothing short of phenomenal.

In that story he praised Pat Finucane Centre researcher Anne Cadwallader’s important new book Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland (Mercier Press) documenting collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the British State resulting in, it is believed, the murder of 120 people in Armagh and Tyrone in 1972-76 alone.

Tireless advocate

Fr Murray, a distinguished Irish scholar and author of three published books of poetry in Gaelic, is well qualified to assess Cadwallader’s work. With the late Mgr Denis Faul and the late Fr Brian Brady he has been a tireless advocate of human rights and a brave critic of state violence since 1971.

One former Northern civil rights activist said:  “With collusion back at the centre of public debate and Dr Richard Haass [the American diplomat] about to deal with the huge unresolved issue of the past, we must never forget the courageous and determined work of Fr Murray and his colleagues in trying to hold the British security forces and Government to account against all the odds.”


In  the period 1972-84 Fr Murray and Fr Faul jointly wrote 30 books and pamphlets documenting a litany of human rights abuses including torture, internment without trial, individual killings of civilians by the British Army, the lethal use of rubber and plastic bullets, and miscarriages of justice including most infamously the Birmingham Six.

Their 82-page 1977 booklet The Birmingham Framework was a powerful statement proclaiming the innocence of the six men after the dismissal of their first appeal against their conviction for the 1974 pub bombings. But few listened then. It would take another 14 years for justice to be done and Fr Murray’s and Fr Faul’s case to be vindicated. 

Fr Murray has also written a monumental book The SAS in Ireland, and two other substantial books: State Violence Northern Ireland 1969-1997 and Hard Time: Armagh Gaol 1971-86 (all Mercier Press).

His human rights work began in December 1971 after a phone call from Fr Faul telling him that 130 internees, many of whom had been ill-treated, were on their way from Crumlin Road Prison to Armagh Gaol – where he was chaplain. The gaol usually accommodated about a dozen women and 40 borstal boys in separate wings.

He was not prepared for what happened next. “It was very very frightening.”

Many of the prisoners “had been very badly beaten” and he asked him to take down their trousers and lift their shirts to reveal their wounds. He was shocked to find injuries over their bodies including the privates.

Some had been subjected to electric cattle prods and one prisoner, Joseph Rafferty “had an electric fire held close to his stomach and it was all burned and he had to be taken to hospital”.

“These men were arrested under emergency law, interrogated and tortured until they signed statements.”

Fr Murray took signed statements from the men and the world got to know.


He visited 10 countries including the United States, Australia and New Zealand highlighting human rights abuses in the North and testified to congressmen in Washington DC and later to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin. 

Amid outrage at the ill-treatment the Irish government took a case against Britain and the European Commission on Human Rights stated that the treatment of the “hooded men” subjected to “five techniques” of interrogation did “amount to torture”.  These techniques were ‘wall-standing’, ‘hooding’, continuous loud noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and drink. On appeal, the European Court of Human Rights in 1978 qualified this to “inhuman and degrading treatment” in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  


His work was brave, difficult and misunderstood in some quarters and there were those in the Catholic Church who were not always comfortable with it.

But to what extent did the violence of the IRA and their cruel and widespread violations of human rights thwart and undermine his work and Fr Faul’s?

“Of course it did. The IRA were doing atrocities such as Bloody Friday and it was easy for anybody to condemn the IRA atrocities and we condemned them from time to time. But all the politicians and all the Churches condemned the IRA. There were 100 condemnations of the IRA for one condemnation of torture.”

He says “there was total silence from the Protestant Churches” on issues such as torture and ill-treatment and that campaigners such as himself “were only a little minority”.

Fr Murray admits the Catholic hierarchy “stood back at times, yes” but to their credit “did not stop us because they knew what we were doing was right”.

He says the bishops collectively issued some “strong statements on peace on a wider scale”.  

“The Pope and the bishops could speak very wonderfully for justice and principles. For us on the ground it came down to the individual, the human being, the person with a name.”

Plastic bullets

There were times when he lost patience with the bishops, recalling for example their slowness in issuing a statement on plastic bullets which he effectively forced out of them. “Seventeen people were killed by rubber and plastic bullets, eight of them were children and one was a woman.”

The conferral of the title Monsignor on both Fr Faul and Fr Murray in 1995 when Cardinal Daly was Archbishop of Armagh was seen as an endorsement of their human rights work from the highest level in the Church. 

Fr Murray paid a price for his perseverance in that work. He recalls many instances of harassment and threats. On one occasion in broad daylight in the centre of Armagh he was subjected to a public humiliation by British soldiers who “held the barrel of a gun to my neck for almost an hour” until another priest alerted the RUC who intervened to free him to continue his walk to Armagh Gaol where he was chaplain for 19 years until 1986. 

Fr Murray recalls an uphill battle engaging the media, particularly the Dublin based media which had “an inferiority complex” about responding to such revelations. He says although Dublin papers had the evidence “two weeks before” they waited until brave figures in the British media such as John Whale and The Sunday Times Insight team publicised abuses first. He says that BBC Northern Ireland waited years to interview Fr Faul whom he describes as “very intelligent, very compassionate and very concerned”.

“He wouldn’t hesitate to get into his car and drive to Cork to help someone in trouble.”


He describes “a major breakthrough” journalist Peter Taylor’s 1980 Penguin Special Beating the Terrorists? Interrogation in Omagh, Gough and Castlereagh which documented the inside story of RUC interrogation from 1976-79 and the accompanying political cover-up.

Fr Murray is critical of the North’s two universities and trades unions for not standing up strongly enough for human rights while praising individual academics, principally the late Professor Kevin Boyle.

He sees his work seeing as a profoundly moral issue. “Those who were in charge of the law were breaking the law and acting immorally.”

Irish learning

Fr Murray regrets that his campaigning meant he has had less time to satisfy his thirst for Irish learning.  As the holder of a Queen’s University PhD in the work of the 19th-Century Mullaghbawn poet and historian Art MacBionaid, whose Irish poems were edited by the late Cardinal Ó Fiaich, there is little doubt he would have had much more to contribute.

But Dr Murray’s courage in confronting state violence and fighting for the rights of those particularly vulnerable must mean there are many in his debt and more inspired by his example.