I have been thinking a lot about John Martin today. This day marks the passage of 200 years since he took his first breaths in a small Irish cottage in the townland of Loughorne in County Down. John was the much desired heir of a prosperous Presbyterian family.
While this might be interesting information for those of us who share parts of his family tree, this anniversary would seem to be of little interest to the general public. But the terrible years through which he lived and how he conducted himself provide clear lessons for us in our painful times.
Let me explain how he deserved the title of “Beloved Politician” that I have given him as well as the title by which he was known during his life, “Honest John Martin.” If it hadn’t been for the Irish Famine that devastated Ireland when he was a young man, he would have remained a private small landowner, much loved and admired by his friends, neighbors and tenants for his kindness and generosity. When he saw his nation’s need, he gave up all he cherished to help.
John was a man of strong principles that governed his life, principles that are useful to remember to day.
He believed in doing the right thing, not just when doing so was easy, but especially when doing so was very hard, when the price for doing so very high. Ireland was ruled by the English Parliament, and the laws to deal with the Famine were passed in London with little influence from the Irish. First John protested, then John joined those who were actively resisting British laws. The English government considered him a great threat, had him arrested and charged with treason. He was convicted in a rigged trial and sent off to exile in Tasmania. This injustice did not make him bitter. He knew he had done his best to do the right thing for his country. He only regretted that he hadn’t succeeded.
John believed in the obligations of citizenship. He was first a landlord with responsibilities to the tenants who worked his farm. He would not allow them to starve during the Famine though paying for their food forced him to mortgage his land, reducing him from financial comfort to financial distress the rest of his life.
For him, citizenship meant more than a call to serve his friends, and neighbors. It was an obligation to country as well, to serve his country, not fight for power. There came a time late in his life when he was the most powerful and most respected man in Ireland. For a few months, he enjoyed the acclamation of his countrymen. But when others stepped forward, he stepped back. But he didn’t step away. He continued to explain the Irish point of view in the English Parliament of which he was then a member.
Finally, John believed in the obligation to lead a moral and ethical life. No one could ever provide a better example. Like many others, he was an active member of his Presbyterian church, but he always went the extra mile. When the church needed land to build a manse for their minister, John gave them the land. He followed his religion’s call to serve the needy, using his medical training to provide free medical care for the poor.
This belief guided his political career as well. He would never participate in any project that wasn’t ethical. So people recognized that whatever project John Martin participated in was a worthy one. He never hated his opponents, even those who had attacked and belittled him. When he ran for a seat in Parliament, elections were bought by the powerful. John required his supporters to run a totally honest election, no bribery, no intimidation of voters, no slandering of his opponent. His victory shocked England, Ireland and America.
I often think about the leaders of today, and how much better we would all be if they followed John Martin’s pathway, leaders who did the right thing, leaders who believed in the obligations of citizenship, and who always strove to lead moral and ethical lives.
So Happy Birthday John. How I wish I could have spent an hour in your presence. How I wish that I could have given you just one hug. On this special day, as we remember you, I make you a promise. Those who so admire you will never allow you and your exemplary life to be forgotten.