Who was Mary Murphy?

The death of Martin O’Meara VC, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, in December 1935 prompted efforts in both Australia and Ireland to track down a certain Miss Mary Murphy.

Mary had been mentioned in O’Meara’s will and was to (subject to a range of conditions) keep his Victoria Cross medal. It seems that efforts to track her down were not successful; the West Australian on 26 January 1939 reported that “it has been found impossible to trace the whereabouts of the Miss Murphy”.

I needed to identify Mary Murphy whilst researching my coming biography of O’Meara, so I started digging around.

My investigations found that Mary Murphy had lived a few miles from O’Meara in County Kilkenny, Ireland, when the Irish census was taken in April 1911. She had been acquainted with O’Meara at the time but he had moved to Australia in late 1911 or early 1912 and she had moved to England in 1913 or 1914. Mary’s family in England (who provided much useful information) suggest that O’Meara wanted to marry her.

mary 3
Mary Murphy as a nurse.

She was nursing at a hospital in Caterham, south of London, in 1916 when he was hospitalised in London after being wounded on the Somme. It seems that they met again at this time, and then again when O’Meara visited England in July 1917, August-October 1917 and September 1918. It seems likely that O’Meara gave her the VC medal in July 1917, at the time he received it from King George V at Buckingham Palace, and that she returned it to him in September 1918 just before he returned to Australia.

O’Meara had made a new will in November 1917, in which he left the medal to her, so she obviously meant a great deal to him. Perhaps he still had thoughts of marrying her? Events, however, turned out very differently: he returned to Australia in November 1918 and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals after suffering a breakdown, and she married an English soldier whom she had met during the war and settled down on the English midlands. O’Meara’s VC medal was passed to the 16th Battalion in the early 1940s and is now held by the Army Museum of Western Australia.