An unacknowledged local star

Richard "Humanity Dick" Maritin does seem to be largely unacknowledged in his native county and yet he is one of the most colourful characters to enliven the pages of history. However, this obscurity has now been rectified by a Welsh author, who has written a worthy exposition of his life.

His nickname was derived from his compassion towards animals bestowed on him by the English, known today for their obsession with animals. The anomaly is that it took an Irishman to expose and overcome their then brutality towards them.

The latter day home of the Martins was Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara. Descended from a Norman family, who had arrived in the country 400 years previously, they stepped into history at the Battle of Aughrim, when the Jacobite army was defeated by the Williamites.

Dick Martin’s grandfather was among those fleeing and to preserve his life and estate he became a “Protestant of Convenience”.

At that time the Martins, who were substantial merchants in Galway, lived at Dangan, but also maintained a house in Dublin and Dick was born into this wealthy and sporting family in 1754. Eventually elected to parliament, he fought throughout his life for Catholic emancipation, as well as for animal rights, and became one of the longest serving politicians in political history.

However, his parliamentary duties did not prevent, or interfere with, his extravagant and colourful life-style, during which he became known at home as “Hairtrigger Dick” from his legendary feats as a duelist. He once challenged the famous, if psychotic, Fighting Fitzgerald to a duel after the latter had shot and killed Lord Altamout’s pet wolf hound.

After the duel in Castlebar, in which both men were hit, Fitzgerald turned out to have been wearing concealed armour.

Dick was married to Elizabeth Vesy, who subsequently betrayed him with Wolfe Tone, who was suspected of fathering her daughter, Laetitia. He married secondly Harriet Hasketh, with whom he had four children.

In time, Parliamentary duties necessitated a residence in London, so an expensive and debt-ridden life-style ensued. Maintaining his seat in Parliament was not always easy, either, as he had several rivals in Galway. But as he was was a hugely popular landlord his tenants would arrive en masse by boat from all parts of what was the largest estate in the British Isles and each man would vote three or four times. Others would man the roads leading from the strongholds of opponents and prevent their voters from passing.

Perhaps what really irked the English, though, was Dick Martin’s insistence on animal rights legislation and his descriptions in the House of animal baiting and other practices, which included a dog being rubbed all over with sulphuric acid as a punishment, horses with their eyes knocked out and a greyhound nailed to a table by its ears and paws. He was in the habit of prowling the streets of London by himself and arresting perpetrators, once famously producing a mall treated donkey to give its own evidence in Court.

In the end his Bill was passed, but finally Martin’s debts and dodgy votes caught up with him and he was forced into exile in Paris, leaving Ballynahinch, with his smuggling activities, copper mine and marble factory in the charge of his son, Thomas. He died in France in 1834, bequeathing a memory to be blessed by animals in the 132 countries where versions of the RSPCA prevail.

This book, “Humanity Dick, the Eccentric Member for Galway”, by Peter Philips, at Eu24, is a must for all who are interested in both local history and the country’s connection with the wider world.

Courtesy of the Mayo News