‘Fighting FitzGerald’ tests Martin’s humanity

A rag-bag mixture: ‘Fighting FitzGerald’ awaiting execution on the scaffold at Castlebar (taken from a contemporary print published by J Ridgeway, London, 1786).

A rag-bag mixture: ‘Fighting FitzGerald’ awaiting execution on the scaffold at Castlebar (taken from a contemporary print published by J Ridgeway, London, 1786).

In 1835 Harriet Letitia Martin, the daughter of the famous ‘Humanity’ Dick Martin of Ballinahinch castle, Connemara, wrote a book, Canvassing (published by Saunders & Otley, London ), which, I imagine, was avidly read in Galway*. It told the story of the last time her father stood for parliament in 1826. He was successful, but a subsequent parliamentary investigation showed that fraud, trickery, bullying, intimidation, and misrepresentation on a vast scale had taken place. His tenants came into Galway from all over Connemara in a variety of disguises and voted repeatedly. He was dismissed from parliament, and consequently faced the wrath of his many creditors. As a member of parliament he enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Now he was thrown to the wolves.....

It was an ignoble end, for a man who, in many ways, was a much larger than life character. He was born at Ballinahinch, January 15 1754, and raised at the family’s Dangan home, now a ruin by the Corrib. He was educated in public school in England, and studied law at Cambridge. Because of his vast county Galway estates, he always assumed he had endless wealth. He was a colonel of the County Galway Volunteers. He survived two shipwrecks. He loved amateur theatre, and founded a theatre in Kirwan’s Lane. He travelled extensively in Europe and America. He was in New England when the American Revolutionary War began, and in Paris when the guillotine was doing its grisly work.

His first wife, Bridget Barnwell (with whom he had nine children but only three survived childhood ), had an affair with the family’s tutor, Theobald Wolfe Tone. The tutor, the future Irish patriot, was penniless at the time. He was unceremoniously kicked out of the house. But when, in 1791, Martin’s wife ran away with an Englishman William Petrie, he sued Petrie, and won the enormous sum of £10,000. Martin converted the money into coin, and threw it from his carriage window on his way home from London to Galway. He married a second time, the novelist Harriet Evans Martin, and had four surviving children with her, including Harriet Letitia.

The Martin Act

Martin was a successful parliamentarian. Although he was Protestant, he supported the Catholic Emancipation cause (which aimed at releasing Catholics from restrictions that prohibited them from participating in the legal, public or commercial world of these two islands ). Famously, however, he was deeply committed to the protection of animals. In 1822 he helped to pass legislation, which became known as the Martin Act, making it a criminal offence to mistreat animals. He tried to spread his ideas in the streets of London. He physically stopped people beating horses, cattle and donkeys, or watching bear baiting or dog fights. He became the target of music hall jokes, and political cartoons in newspapers. He was depicted with the ears of an ass. On June 16 1824 he supported the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA ). George IV was impressed. He greeted Martin with the cry: “Here comes Humanity Martin.” The name stuck.

A boon companion

Whereas Martin clearly loved animals, he was less considerate when it came to humans. He fought over 100 duels with sword and pistol, earning the nickname ‘Hair-trigger Dick’. In 1785 he clashed with his cousin James Jordan over a careless remark. Jordan issued a challenge and, despite Martin’s best efforts to apologise, the men fought a duel. Jordan was killed. This was a great source of regret for Martin for the rest of his life.

Generally, however, he shrugged aside the consequences of his duels. But one duel I feel that he was more than justified in pursuing was against George Robert FitzGerald, of Turlough, Co Mayo, a boorish little man, a rudesby if there ever was one, with the antagonistic title of ‘Fighting FitzGerald’. He deliberately insulted people in order to provoke a duel. He would stand in the middle of a narrow part of a dirty street where all passers-by had to choose between walking in the mud, or jostling him to avoid it. If they did the latter he challenged them.

He had a pet bear which he treated as a boon companion. They travelled everywhere together, even on stage coaches, to the terror of the other occupants. Sometimes he would disguise his bear as an old woman or gentleman, the face covered. Then, during the journey, he would expose the poor animal, and command it to kiss everyone present. At least one man leapt from the moving carriage.

However much the treatment of his bear might have aroused Martin’s sympathies, FitzGerald was a marked man after the following outrage. For some reason FitzGerald had a deep-rooted hatred of the Brownes, Lord Altamont’s family, with whom the Martins were on intimate terms. The Brownes had an exceptionally gentle, and affectionate wolfhound which the whole family loved. One day, FitzGerald rode over to Westport House, and rang the bell. When the dog came out on the steps, FitzGerald raised his pistol and shot the dog dead.**

Helped away

Martin was outraged. He hesitated to challenge FitzGerald however, lest it appeared that Lord Altamont was afraid to do so himself (which in fact he was ), and decided to wait his chance. It was not long in coming. In a desperate row with his father over his inheritance, FitzGerald imprisoned him. He kept him chained in a cave in Turlough. On occasions he chained the unfortunate father to the muzzled bear. When it became known FitzGerald was arrested and charged with cruelty to his father. Martin gladly accepted to prosecute on behalf of the State. Martin’s biographer, Shevawn Lynam tells us that “ The trial, which excited great local interest, lasted 15 hours, during which Martin heckled FitzGerald so wittily that the prisoner remarked, with a cool smile: ‘Martin, you look very healthy. You take good care of your constitution. But I tell you that you have this day taken very bad care of your life.’” This gave Martin a reason to challenge FitzGerald to a duel, but it would have to wait. FitzGerald was found guilty, fined £500, and imprisoned for three years in Castlebar goal. Incredibly, within weeks, FitzGerald escaped, kidnapped his father and was hidden away in the homes of his cronies. He was recaptured in Dublin and once again imprisoned.

On his release FitzGerald stayed in Castlebar. Martin sent word that he was challenging him, and to be prepared. Martin sent ahead his duelling pistols, but when he arrived in Castlebar, the carrier got drunk, and the pistols could not be found. Instead Martin grabbed his servants’ common holster pistols. The triggers were so stiff he could hardly squeeze them. Nevertheless the two men faced each other in anger and hatred. They stood so close that their pistols actually touched. Both men fired at the same time.

Among FitzGerald’s many tricks was his ability to shorten his body by stooping very low. As well as that, the moment his adversary fired, he would stretch out his hand towards the muzzle of his opponent’s pistol. If a bullet was to reach his brain or his heart, it would have to travel up along his arm. He was a hard target to kill.

I am sure FitzGerald adopted every trick in the book to avoid Martin’s bullet. In the event, his shot missed Martin. But Martin’s bullet struck home. FitzGerald remained standing. He demanded another shot. Again both pistols fired. FitzGerald was hit a second time. Martin was hit also. But neither man fell to the ground. They were helped away by their seconds.

An old battered hat

FitzGerald may have lived to fight another day, but his days were numbered. In a fit of jealousy over an appointment, he tried to arrange the murder of a local Castlebar solicitor, Randall McDonnell. When this failed, and FitzGerald’s role became known in the attempt, he was arrested. Once again he was imprisoned in Castlebar. His trial was swift and deadly. He was sentenced to hang. His clothes were torn during a prison fight, and he appealed for a decent suit with which to meet his Maker. He appeared on the scaffold in a rag bag mixture of (see illustration ) an old coat of the Connollys’ hunt at Castletown, a flannel waistcoat, old trousers and an old battered hat. Bizarrely, the rope broke. He had to wait several hours, being jeered and laughed at, before another rope was found, and secured to his neck.

Next week: The Galway election of 1826, and the end of Martin

NOTES: *There were several writers in the Martin family: Harriet Letitia also wrote The Changeling, a tale of the year ‘47 (published 1848 ). Her niece Mary Letitia Martin, sometimes known as the ‘Princess of Connemara’, wrote several books including an autobiographical novel Julia Howard, published 1850, the same year she and her husband sailed for America, abandoning Ballinahinch, which was at the time a bankrupt estate. She died 10 days after arriving in New York following a premature confinement on board ship.

Another kinsman of Martin was Violet Florence Martin of Ross, Rosscahill, who in the 1890s, wrote a series of successful novels with her cousin Edith Somerville, of Castletownsend, West Cork.

** Was FitzGerald mad? The late Shevawn Lynam, in her excellent biography Richard Martin MP (Hamish Hamiliton, London 1975 ) suggests that as a young man FitzGerald had been involved in a duel in Galway over the advances he had made to a shop girl. He was wounded in the head, and had to be trepanned. His appalling behaviour was attributed to the operation not going right.

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