The present national election is a mild and gentle affair, compared to some previous occasions though none reached the madness and abandonment of the notorious Galway election of 1826.
It was such a blatant hijack of votes, a total fraud and swindle, that it outraged the investigating committee from the House of Commons some months later. But the outgoing holder of the Galway seat, Colonel Richard Martin, was desperate. Despite his enormous estates, consisting of 196,540 acres, virtually the entire territory of Connemara stretching westwards from Galway, he was deeply in debt. He was a useless landlord in the sense that his collection of rents was haphazard and irregular. He had a generous heart. He did not press his tenants for money.
He hoped that the marble quarry on his land would restore his fortunes, but the business of promoting the deep green marble was slow and incompetent. While he was a member of parliament he was safe from his creditors. But if he should lose his seat, he would also lose that immunity.
The pay-back for his easy ways with his tenants was that at election time. They came into Galway in their hundreds and voted for their ‘master’, many of them voting repeatedly; and unashamedly attacking supporters of the rival candidate with cudgels and fists. Pitched battles, often whiskey fueled, were commonplace.
The writer Charles Lever* used the 1826 election, thinly disguised, with hilarious effect, in his book Charles O’Malley, The Irish Dragoon (published in Dublin 1841 ). Describing the tenants’ arrival he wrote: “ It was past ten o’clock when our formidable procession got under way, and headed toward the town of Galway. The road was, for miles, crowded with our followers; banners flying and music playing. We presented something of a spectacle of a very ragged army in its march. At every cross-road a mountain path reinforcement awaited us, and, as we wended along, our numbers were momentarily increasing; here and there along the line, some energetic and not over sober ...”
A deadly ingredient
The ‘army’ arrived in Galway in the days preceding the poll. Later, Martin’s daughter Harriet Letitia, known as Hatty, described the scene in her story Canvassing: ‘The whole town was alive at the dawn of day. Crowds of partizans of all ages and ranks gathering around the Committee rooms of the opposing candidates; electioneering agents, oratorizing, explaining, or mystifying, as suited their purpose; looking over certificates, and making “Pat Conny sinsible he was only to be Pat Conny the first time he voted, but Dennis Sleevan the second time, in regard of poor Dennis not being convenient just then, because he was buried last week. And voters were eating, drinking, shouting, and whirling their ferrals to give “the raal fighting touch.”’
A deadly ingredient in the election was the old Catholic Emancipation argument once again. Martin was emphatically for reform. His main rival, James Lambert, had traditionally been against reform, but now, sensing that the wind was changing, suddenly announced that he too was in favour of reform. Martin did not believe him, and neither did Martin’s followers. With such incendiary passions aroused, it was convenient that the High Sheriff of Galway, James Martin, was a cousin of Humanity’s. He obligingly, remained at home during the election period.
Battle of the Tribes
It was claimed that the tenants of Martin’s cousin, John D’Arcy of Clifden, who was supporting Lambert, were beaten back by Martin’s supporters who held all the roads and passes into Connemara, and prevented most of them from reaching Galway in time to vote. Kirwan’s tenantry in east Galway, who were going to vote for Martin, were attacked by those of Bingham, who was supporting Lambert, and the police had to intervene.
Lambert’s and Martin’s supporters clashed head on. Lambert’s brother shot dead a man called O’Sullivan, and was lodged in prison. The tenants of Blake of Menlo broke down Anthony Martin’s gates at Dangan. An infuriated Anthony rode out, and publicly horsewhipped Blake. A thatched warehouse in which tenants were lodged waiting to vote was burned to the ground. A yacht, which was to fetch others, suffered a similar fate. Martin’s tenants were described as landing on the quays and patrolling the streets to “ the spirit-stirring drum and ear-piercing fife”. Somebody opened up the whiskey supplies. The crowd rioted. The military was so slow in acting that there were several deaths.
A duelling reputation
Martin won a landslide victory, but within months a parliamentary committee arrived in Galway. Almost immediately it was striking off Martin’s votes by the dozen. It was obvious that some tenants had voted twice, even three and four times. The result was that the committee found that not only was there fraud on a vast scale, but that the local authorities had failed to use the ample forces it had at its disposal to preserve the peace and to quell the rioting. It decreed that Martin was not duely elected; and that Lambert be returned as the member for Galway.
Martin, his second wife Harriet and his three daughters, including Hatty, removed themselves immediately to Boulogne, a pleasant town on the Normandy coast, which was outside the reach of his creditors. It was a dramatic and sudden rift for him. He had lost his place as a popular parliamentarian, a foremost member of the social life of the period, he had finished his battles on behalf of Catholics and animals, and perhaps most painful of all, he was never to see his beloved Connemara again.
His biographer Shevawn Lynam tells us that “He could be seen walking in the streets of Boulogne with an observant eye, and strolling along the beach at low tide picking up immature fish the fishermen had cast out of their nets, and putting them back into the water. Once in a while some incident would occur to remind him of his old crusading days, such as the occasion which he came across a young Englishman mercilessly whipping and spurring his horse upon the sands. Humanity Dick remonstrated with him, and said he pitied the horse for having such a bad rider. The young man demanded an immediate apology, and presented his card. But when he discovered that the old man facing him was Richard Martin, his ardour cooled, and he withdrew. In those days great duelling reputations died hard”.
Martin died on January 6 1834 at his lodgings at 6 Rue de l’Ecu. He was 80 years of age.
*Charles J Lever (1806-1872 ), a forgotten Irish writer, was born in Dublin, and a contemporary of Charles Dickens. His escapades as a medical student at Trinity gave him plenty of ammunition for many of his plots, which were generally light hearted romps, often with a military flavour. His novels were praised by Anthony Trollope. He is not read today, however, because many feel he lampooned his Irish characters. Yet his output was prodigious. When his daughter, Julie Kate Neville, put together his collected works, it came to an impressive 37 volumes.