Richard Martin 'Humanity Dick' (1754-1834)

By Farrell, Stephen | History Today, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Richard Martin 'Humanity Dick' (1754-1834)


Farrell, Stephen, History Today


THE BRITISH UNION with Ireland in 1800 brought a cast of new figures on to the parliamentary stage, Richard Martin, the subject of this month's biography from the files of the History of Parliament Trust, was regarded as one of the most colourful; but his concern for animal welfare resulted in a very significant contribution to the laws of the new United Kingdom.

Richard Martin of Ballynahinch, in Connemara, was once called the 'Wilberforce of hacks'. Born in Dublin in February 1754, ha became one of Ireland's great and perhaps underestimated eccentrics. He was raised as a Protestant and educated in England, but retained the unmistakeable characteristics of a wild Galway gentleman and, as 'King of Connemara', was a virtual law unto himself on his vast, desolate and encumbered estates. Hardy, pugnacious and cavalier, he was a renowned duellist, who well deserved his youthful nickname of 'Hairtrigger Dick'.

Endowed with an over-fine sense of honour, which was tempered only by a ludicrous talent for the bathetic, Martin had a deep disgust for the unconscious barbarities perpetrated against the brutes of creation. One of the most sensitive of men, he could never abide to observe suffering in any form and his love of animals was of a piece with his universal benevolence, which his daughter Harriet summarised as 'fatherliness'. It was for this quality that he was dubbed 'Humanity Martin' by his friend the Prince Regent, whom he could not resist ribbing; he once told him, on being asked who would win a severe election in which he was involved, 'The survivor, Sire'.

Martin, who was colonel of the County Galway Volunteers, sat in the Irish Parliament as a Patriot for Jamestown, 1776-83, and, following the 1798 Rebellion (for which he had no time), for Lanesborough, 1798-1800.After several attempts, he was elected for County Galway in 1800, just before the Union with Great Britain, which he supported as a quid pro quo for Catholic emancipation. He continued to represent the county at Westminster until 1812, usually acting as an idiosyncratic independent, and again from 1818, as a supporter of Lord Liverpool's Tory administration.

In the Commons, where he had a habit of making mordant interjections, he was an effective, though comic, speaker. According to one account, 'he holds the House by the very test of the human race, laughter', but 'lets drive at [it] like a bullet'. His pugnacious temperament produced a number of possibly apocryphal anecdotes. In one, he was supposed, on being interrupted by coughing, to have said, 'some honourable Member appears to be afflicted with a bad cold: I have no doubt I can cure his cough with a single pill'. Yet, unable to contain his penchant for humour and his delight in affecting an exaggerated brogue, he was often misunderstood as an inconsequential joker by his fellow Members and misreported in the press. …

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