"Honest" John Martin


"In the whole record of his life there was...nothing to conceal, nothing to be condoned, nothing that he said or did that might not be blazoned forth to the world. Nor did he ever–although he had great cause–allow himself to say anything harsh or uncharitable to those who forgot their professions of patriotism and deserted Ireland in her hour of need."

(P. A. Sillard, "The Life & Letters of John Martin", 1893, Dublin)

"John Martin was a man of high character, gentle and retiring in disposition, charitable to the poor and kind to his tenants, a great lover of books, a good linguist, patriotic, tolerant in his views and impatient of injustice. Serious-minded, he did not lack a sense of humour."

(T.F. O’Sullivan, "The Young Irelanders", 1944, Tralee)

"He possessed...a keen sense of humour, a great love of fun.... He had a pretty wit when he chose to exercise it, but his jokes were always harmless and never caused ill-feeling or left a wound behind.... He was not in any sense a remarkable looking man, but he looked to be (what he was) a man who would not be guilty of a mean or unworthy action. There was nothing coarse, aggressive or impetuous about him; and the dignity of his manner had nothing austere or affected about it. He was a man to know and love, and whose friendship was worth having."

(P.A. Sillard)

Nephew to James Harshaw, the Diarist, was the Presbyterian Young Irelander, John Martin. His mother, Jane Harshaw Martin, was James’s sister and died in 1847 at the height of the famine from the contagious diseases that were prevalent in the Workhouses for the poor. She had been there helping care for the famine victims. Her death (vividly described in the Harshaw Diaries), and the involvement in Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Movement by his best friend, John Mitchel, pushed Martin to begin investigating and writing about the results & political causes of the famine in Ireland. 

The potato blight was not just an Irish problem. It also afflicted most of Europe, England, and Scotland. But only in Ireland were there massive deaths from starvation and disease–-as well as huge emigration across the Atlantic. 

Martin had been educated in medicine at Trinity College Dublin and used his skill to help provide free medical care for his neighbors and tenants of Loughorne (the townland next to Harshaw’s Ringbane, about 5 miles North of Newry, Co. Down). He freely dismissed or "forgave" tenant rents due him during the famine so that his tenants could buy needed sustenance. He heavily mortgaged his land to pay his own debts and sold property to keep himself afloat during the famine years. 

The inadequate way the English Parliament was handling the famine in Ireland so incensed Martin that he began writing for "The Nation", "The Freeman", and "The United Irishman" newspapers as well as letters to "The Newry Telegraph" newspaper in Co. Down. In 1848 the English Parliament passed the Treason/Felony Act solely for the purpose of stopping those who objected to their famine relief efforts by advocating that the Irish could better rule Ireland than the British were doing. Mitchel was the first one convicted under the new Act for his editorials in his newspaper "The United Irishman." He was convicted by a "packed" jury of British loyalists.

Martin was so incensed that the British law did not apply equally to the Irish, that he began his own newspaper, "The Irish Felon," partly to continue Mitchel’s work and partly to help support Mitchel’s young family. Martin, though, never advocated the overthrow of the British Monarch nor did he advocate armed insurrection. The British Government suspended the Habeas Corpus Act only in Ireland. (The Habeas Corpus writ prevents someone from being illegally imprisoned without charge or trial date.) With that suspension, a warrant was issued for Martin and others just on suspicion of their political activities.

As detailed in the Harshaw Diaries, Martin was tried and found guilty of Treason/Felony because of one single editorial in his newspaper where he asks the Irish to "retain their arms" when the British Government declared the Irish people must give up all weapons in certain proclaimed districts. This one editorial resulted in his sentence of 10 years transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania.) He and 6 other Young Irelanders eventually were sent to Tasmania, including Mitchel, William Smith O’Brien, Kevin Izod O’Dogherty, Thomas Meagher, and others.

In 1854, after the escape of Mitchel, Meagher and others, Martin, O’Brien and O’Dogherty were granted "conditional pardons" and Martin moved to Paris. In 1856 they were granted "unconditional pardons" and in 1858 John Martin moved back to Ireland to care for his seven orphaned nieces and nephews, all under the age of 10! (His brother, Robert, and sister-in-law, Millicent Martin, died 9 days apart in Kilbroney, Rostrevor, Co. Down.) As a bachelor, John Martin raised these children to adulthood and cared for their inheritance, the Martin Linen and Bleaching Greens in Kilbroney. The children were so well cared for that they took honors at Trinity College Dublin and the eldest nephew was eventually able to take over their father’s Linen Works.

In the 1860's John Martin and a few others were regarded as the leading influence in Irish national politics and he formed the National League and opposed the Fenian movement (Martin was always against armed violence). He was again arrested in 1867 after leading the funeral committee and speaking at a public demonstration for the Manchester Martyrs, but all charges were dropped.

In 1868, the mild, gentle John Martin married the youngest sister of John Mitchel, Henrietta. Shortly thereafter, Martin helped found the "Home Government Association of Ireland" which advocated Home Rule--similar to the relationship Canada had with England at the time. He was elected a Member of Parliament for Co. Meath (amazing for a Presbyterian in one of the most Catholic constituencies in Ireland!) For the next several years he attempted to achieve Home Rule for Ireland by speaking against Coercion Bills and in favor of the Irish making laws for the Irish–all the Irish, no matter their religious or political persuasions! He was never one to preach or advocate intolerance or violence. He quietly and calmly tried to persuade, direct, or communicate his point with the opposition. Even his opponents claimed that while they may have disagreed with John Martin, they always found him to be totally honest in all his dealings–-hence his nickname.

In the meantime his financial debts had mounted to such an extent from his forgiveness of tenant fees during the inflationary years of low farm prices, that he and Henrietta were actually homeless the last few years of his life, living with friends and relatives. He refused pay as Secretary of the Home Rule League believing that patriotic endeavors should not result in personal gain.

When John Mitchel returned to Ireland and suddenly died on March 20, 1875, a distraught John Martin attended and spoke at his funeral in Newry. He died 9 days later (March 29th, 1875) of bronchial asthma in the same house where Mitchel died (Dromolane House, Newry). He was buried at Donaghmore Church of Ireland cemetery in his parent’s plot since the Donaghmore Presbyterian Church had no burying ground. His "funeral procession was large and impressive, all shades of opinion, both political and religious, being represented, as well as every public body in Ireland,...for ‘Honest’ John Martin." (Sillard)

Upon his gravestone are the following words:

Article written by Suzanne Ballard, March 29, 2000
(125th Anniversary of John Martin’s death.)