John Martin, Irish nationalist activist, is born on September 8, 1812, into a landed Presbyterian family, the son of Samuel and Jane (née Harshaw) Martin, in Newry, County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland. He shifts from early militant support for Young Ireland and the Repeal Association, to non-violent alternatives such as support for tenant farmers’ rights and eventually as the first Home Rule MP, for Meath (1871–75).
Martin first meets John Mitchel while attending Dr. Henderson’s private school in Newry. He receives an Arts degree at Trinity College Dublin in 1832 and proceeds to study medicine, but has to abandon this in 1835 when his uncle dies and he has to return to manage the family landholding.
In 1847 Martin is moved by the Great Famine to join Mitchel in the Repeal Association but subsequently leaves it with Mitchel. He contributes to Mitchel’s journal, United Irishman, and then following Mitchel’s arrest on May 27, 1848, he continues with his own anti-British journal, The Irish Felon, and establishes “The Felon Club.” This leads to a warrant for his arrest, and he turns himself in on July 8, 1848. He is sentenced on August 18, 1848 to ten years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.
Martin arrives on the Elphinstone with Kevin Izod O’Doherty in Hobart, Tasmania, in November 1849. He accepts a “ticket of leave” which allows him to live in relative freedom at Bothwell, provided he promises not to escape.
While in Tasmania, Martin continues to meet in secret with his fellow exiles Kevin Izod O’Doherty, Thomas Francis Meagher, William Smith O’Brien, and John Mitchel. He and Mitchel live together before the arrival of Mitchel’s wife, Jenny. He chooses not to join Mitchel when Mitchel revokes his ticket of leave and escapes. Instead he remains in Tasmania until he is granted a “conditional pardon” in 1854. This allows him to leave for Paris, and he returns to Ireland on being granted a full pardon in 1856.
On return to Ireland Martin becomes a national organiser for the Tenant Right League. He begins to write for The Nation in 1860. He forms the National League with others in January 1864 – it is mainly an educational organisation but Fenians disrupt its meetings. He remains in contact with Mitchel in Paris through 1866. He opposes the Fenians’ support of armed violence, yet, together with Alexander Martin Sullivan in December 1867, he heads the symbolic funeral march honouring the Manchester Martyrs as it follows the MacManus route to Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. He is briefly arrested for these activities but the charges are dropped.
Martin is in the United States in December 1869 when he is nominated by Isaac Butt and his nationalists as the Irish nationalist Home Rule candidate to oppose Reginald Greville-Nugent, who is supported by the Catholic clergy, in the Longford by-election. Greville-Nugent initially wins the vote but the result is nullified by Judge Fitzgerald on the grounds that voters had been illegally influenced in the non-secret voting process. In the May 1870 re-run, Butt’s second candidate, Edward Robert King-Harman, like Martin a Protestant landlord, is also defeated, but this time legally.
Contradictions and factionalism are symptomatic of the struggle for influence and leadership at the time between the waning Church of Ireland and the rising Irish Catholic Church. Hence a secular Protestant land-owning, non-violent elite reformist nationalist who desires Home Rule like Martin, can find himself both sympathetic to and at odds with a militant organisation like the Fenians with their Jacobin– and American-influenced ideas of revolutionary republicanism and different social roots. Until Charles Stewart Parnell, the Isaac Butt-originated Home Rule forces could not obtain the support of the Catholic Church under the anti-Fenian Cardinal Paul Cullen or manage to achieve more than short-term tactical alliances with Fenians, leading to a split and uncoordinated opposition to British rule. Protestants such as Martin and John Mitchel, with their early political roots in Young Ireland, are, whatever their political ideals, not part of the majority Catholic mainstream, which consists largely of tenants rather than landlords.
In the January 1871 by-election, Martin is elected by a margin of 2–1 to the seat of Meath in the British parliament as the first Home Rule MP, representing first Isaac Butt’s Home Government Association and from November 1873 the Home Rule League. This is unusual for a Protestant in a Catholic constituency, and is a measure of the popular esteem Martin is held in. He retains his seat in the 1874 United Kingdom general election as one of 60 Home Rule members. He is commonly known as “Honest John Martin.” In parliament he speaks strongly for Home Rule for Ireland and opposes Coercion Bills.
Martin dies in Newry, County Down, on March 29, 1875, homeless and in relative poverty, having forgiven tenant fees during preceding years of inflation and low farm prices. His parliamentary seat of County Meath is taken up by Charles Stewart Parnell.
Martin marries Henrietta Mitchel, the youngest sister of John Mitchel, on November 25, 1868, after twenty years of courtship. She shares her husband’s politics, and after his death campaigns for home rule believing this to be a continuation of the Young Ireland mandate. After the split in the party, she sides with Charles Stewart Parnell. She dies at her home in Dublin on July 11, 1913, and is buried in Newry.