Meet one of the forefathers of the Animal Protection Movement: Richard Martin “King of Connemara”
For nearly four hundred years, the Tribe of Martin flourished in the isolated wilderness of Connemara, a sweeping landscape in the Irish County of Galway dotted with expansive moors, bogs, and mountainous terrain. Here, in 1754, the future of Ireland, Great Britain and the Animal Protection Movement would be forever changed with the birth of the King of Connemara.
Nicknamed so for his inherited proprietorship of the family’s incredible estate which spanned over 100 miles of coastline, Richard Martin governed atypically: with a kind hand and giving nature, always providing his feudal tenants with shelter and sustenance and standing up for injustices affecting both people and animals. Bestowed upon him by his father was the pursuit of emancipation for the Irish Catholic from the harsh realities of English Protestant rule. He would actively work for this cause when serving as a Member of Parliament, for the Irish House of Commons and later the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Richard’s love of animals was observed and fostered from an early age. His mother and aunts filled their homesteads with horses, hounds, felines, and sweet- singing canaries, and, like scores of aristocrats of the era, his uncle, botanist and zoologist Lord Trimlestown, showcased an exotic menagerie on his estate, which captivated Martin. In Dr. Samuel Parr, he found not only a compassionate schoolmaster but a kindred spirit who also believed and taught that the brute creation deserved not only respect, but humanity’s empathy. As the King of Connemara, Martin banned within his lands cruelty to animals, specifically the then widespread practice of tying a plow to a horse’s tail. Violators were punished fairly, but certainly not harshly.
Snippet of History: Discriminated Catholics in the Irish colony were unable to serve in Parliament, much less marry a British monarch; nor were they able to hold office, vote, attend university, heir their property to a sole relation, or own or brandish a pistol. The peasantry suffered the brunt of the oppression. While Richard Martin’s family fell into the Catholic denomination, his father made the bold move to align with the Anglican Church and raise his son as a Protestant, effectively making his government career a possibility.
Reported to be of rather average height, with a brawny, stocky build, the ginger-haired Martin was also considered the most formidable and well-known fire-eater, or duelist, of the 18th century, having fought on over 100 occasions. An illustrious example of his skill and compassion relates to one incident involving a beloved canine by the name of Prime Serjeant.
Claiming the wolfhound was consuming meat scraps that should have been destined for the poor, George Robert “Fighting Fitzgerald” shot the dog with a pistol, but allowed the women in the Browne domain to keep their lapdogs. As a dear friend to the Browne Family and Prime Serjeant, Martin personally vowed to avenge the dog’s untimely end which he did some years later in a heated clash with Fitzgerald. (As he wasn’t the guardian of Prime Serjeant, Martin had no legal grounds to pursue justice at the time of the shooting.) Martin was maimed in the chest and proudly sported his battle scars in the years to follow, while the twice-hit Fitzgerald went unscathed as he had sneakily donned protective undergarments during the scuffle.
There are quite a few sympathetic animal tales like the above, some of which even Martin himself would recount in Parliament. At the ripe old age of 67, MP Martin stood on a street on London’s Ludgate Hill, watching a man mercilessly beat his equine. Out of nowhere, two men emerged, yanking the man away from the horse and dolling out punches on the animal abuser. The two avengers had been paid five shillings a piece for their act. Their financier? Richard Martin. Martin’s physical and legislative fight for four-legged creatures would continue in the decades leading up to this point and following it as well.
Snippet of History: With urbanization spreading and evermore people populating cities, animal cruelty became a more exposed occurrence: whipping already sick and injured horses with impunity, racing horses until they died of exhaustion, bull-baiting, pitting animals against one another in cockpits, etc. As such cruelties were witnessed, empathy for animals increased, likely easing the passage of Martin’s Act
Smitten with the beauty, brains and wit of Elizabeth Vesey, Richard married the artistically-inclined bride in 1777 and was blessed with three surviving children of the nine she conceived. The Martins were quite the socialites, attending masked balls and starring in the local theatre. With her husband attending to matters in the city quite often, lonely Elizabeth strayed from her marital vows with two separate men, one being her child’s tutor, Wolfe Tone, and John Petrie, an Englishmen living in Paris. Richard sued the latter, winning a large sum of money which he threw out of his carriage, refusing to benefit from Elizabeth’s infidelity. Two years later, Richard married the widow Harriet Evans, another well-educated dame, who expanded their family with four more offspring.
When not tending to his family, Martin could be found in Parliament advocating for the rights of Catholics, opposing the death penalty for the crime of forgery, and attempting to create a public defender’s office of sorts for low-income individuals facing capital crimes. He was known for his comedic anecdotes in the House of Commons, knack of switching accents – from a strong Irish brogue to one of English sophistication-, and complete zeal for the causes that captured his heart. It wasn’t until later in his political career that Richard took up the issue of animal welfare.
Before Martin stepped onto the scene, only once before had an animal cruelty bill been proposed in Parliament: “An Act to prevent malicious and wanton Cruelty to Animals,” a failed effort initiated by Lord Erskine in 1809. In 1821, Martin introduced a “Bill to Prevent the Ill-Treatment of Cattle,” which endured much ridicule from some MPs, but received significant support from the community. It applied to cattle, horses, oxen, heifers, steers, sheep, and other cattle. If a witness reported the crime, those who wantonly and cruelly beat, abused, or ill-treated these animals would be beckoned to the magistrate’s court for punishment for this less-than-a-misdemeanor offense. Passing by a landslide in the House, 40-16, it failed when sent to the Lords. And so would begin Martin’s long venture taming a political animal, the MPs who comprised Parliament.
Richard drafted and introduced a second Ill-Treatment of Cattle Bill in 1822, and in this bout he had an ally in Lord Erskine who would ensure its success with the other Lords in the House. On July 22nd, King George IV signed off on the measure, also known as Martin’s Act, effectively making this piece of legislation the first animal protection law passed by a nation.
But what good is a law if it isn’t enforced? Typical Martin took the law into his own hands. Bearing witness to Thomas Worster, a vegetable vendor, unleash his wrath on a donkey that had been scared by a large stagecoach, consequently sending produce into the filthy streets, Martin stopped him in mid-strike. Other bystanders helped to intervene on behalf of the working animal and report the case to the magistrate who summoned Worster into the courthouse. After hearing his seemingly sincere apology and regret, Martin asked the magistrate to levy the smallest fine possible, ten shillings, which even for a laboring class man was a bit much. Martin’s compassion shines in this anecdote as he “went Dutch” and paid half of the man’s fine.
Given the nickname Humanity Dick by King George IV, Richard Martin’s remaining career would be dedicated to amending, expanding and strengthening his 1822 Bill. He would also become an integral figure in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and participating in one of its committees that sought improved techniques in enforcing Martin’s Act, one of which would be the employment of SPCA inspectors. By 1825, 69 out of 71 prosecutions had resulted in convictions. (The SPCA would later be adopted by Queen Elizabeth and renamed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the RSPCA.)
“Brahmin, Don Quixote”
Richard’s life was rifled with ridicule and hardship as his 80th birthday neared. He sought to pass additional measures in Parliament such as bans on bull-baiting, bear-baiting, dogfights, and slaughterhouse regulations. Tired of Martin’s rhetoric and large number of bills introduced in the House, MPs would begin laughing the minute Richard stood up to present his case. Newspapers referred to the King of Connemara as “Brahmin” (Dublin Star), “Don Quixote” (The Chronicle) or a “blustering and blundering blockhead” (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine).
In 1826, with a lost bid for reelection, Humanity Dick ended his 25-year career in Parliament and was forced to move to France. All his life, Martin had been plagued with debt and financial woes, but enjoyed legal protection from creditors through his government position. No longer safeguarded, he, like many other Brits, moved to France to escape the law. A year after his death on January 6, 1834, Parliament approved an amendment to Martin’s Act that would extend the law to include canines, bulls, other cattle, and domestic animals. On the horizon were additional amendments to his Act.
A champion for all sentient beings, spirited Humanity Dick will always be known as one of the forefathers of the animal protection movement. His influence improved the quality of life for countless brutes and inspired a nation to endorse the welfare of animals.
If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go,
D’ye think I’d wallop him? no, no, no!
But gentle means I’d try, d’ye see,
Because I hate all cruelty;
If all had been like me, in fact,
There’d have been no occasion for Martin’s Act.
Dumb animals to prevent being crack’d,
On the head.
Set to a traditional ballad, commonfolk altered the original lyrics to pay homage to Humanity Dick’s Ill-Treatment of Cattle Bill.
For more information on this colorful character,
we recommend the following texts:
Lynam, Shevawn. (1975). Humanity Dick. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Phillips, Peter. (2003). Humanity Dick: The Eccentric Member for Galway. Kent: Parapress LTD.
Shevelow, Kathryn. (2008). For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement. New York: Henry Holt and Company.