Colonel Richard Martin, Irish politician and campaigner against cruelty to animals, is born in Ballynahinch, County Galway on January 15, 1754. He is known as “Humanity Dick,” a nickname bestowed on him by King George IV. He succeeds in getting the pioneering Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, nicknamed ‘Martin’s Act,’ passed into British law.
Martin is brought up at Dangan House, situated on the River Corrib, four miles upriver from the town of Galway. The Martins are one of the Tribes of Galway. They own one of the biggest estates in all of Great Britain and Ireland as well as much of the land in Connemara. He studies at Harrow School in London and then gains admission to Trinity College, Cambridge on March 4, 1773. He does not graduate with a degree but studies for admission to the bar and is admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on February 1, 1776. He serves as a lawyer in Ireland and becomes High Sheriff of Galway Town in 1782.
Martin is elected to represent County Galway in Parliament in 1800. He is very popular with people in Galway and is well known as a duelist and as a witty speaker in the houses of Parliament. He campaigns for Catholic emancipation but is best remembered for his work to outlaw cruelty to animals. He earns the nickname “Humanity Dick” because of his compassion for the plight of animals at that time.
Through Martin’s work the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act is enacted in 1822. This is the first piece of legislation which aims to protect animals from cruelty. Most people do not recognise animal rights in those days and people often make fun of him. Cartoons of him with donkey ears appears in the newspapers of the day.
After having the Bill passed by Parliament, Martin actively seeks out cases where cruelty has been inflicted on animals on the streets of London. He is responsible for bringing many people to court for cruelty against horses. He often pays half the fine of the accused in cases where the accused cannot afford it and seems genuinely sorry for his actions.
Due to Martin’s profile as a politician and as the drafter of the anti-cruelty legislation, a public perception develops that he is the initiator and creator of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). At the Society’s first anniversary meeting he sets the public record straight and gives credit to Rev. Arthur Broome, although he maintains an interest in the Society.
After the election of 1826, Martin, now a heavy gambler, loses his parliamentary seat because of a petition which accuses him of illegal intimidation during the election. He flees into hasty exile to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, because he can no longer enjoy a parliamentary immunity to arrest for debt. He dies there peacefully in the presence of his second wife and their three daughters on January 6, 1834. A year after Martin’s death, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act is extended to cover cruelty to all domestic animals.
Martin’s work continues today. The RSPCA now has members all over the world. In Ireland it is known as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA). Many other groups have been set up which protect animals from cruelty.