Wednesday, February 9, 2011

First Steps

Ruins of Loughorne cottage and barn
Word of John Martin's safe arrival spread joyously from field to field and cottage to cottage. But the happiness in Loughorne Cottage was tempered a bit as the midwives cleaned the baby. His head seemed too large for his body. His breastbone was too prominent, and pushed his rib cage to an unnatural position.

Worries about his health dissipated as he thrived under Jane's loving care. In fact, he was a happy baby, who seemed to be curious about his surroundings much earlier than expected. This was a special blessing for a small child from whom so much was expected.
Samuel Martin owned the land which John began to explore as soon as he was able to toddle about. Land ownership was rare thing in Ireland. Most of the land on this agricultural island was held in large estates owned by Englishmen. Some farmers, like James Harshaw, held long term leases for the land they farmed and the cottages they lived in. But most farmers held land at the pleasure of the owner or his agent. At any moment, any farmer, with lease or without, could be ejected, thrown out onto the the road without any way to earn a living, without any place to live. Any investment of time and money spent improving the property was lost and added to the wealth the landlord. Not surprisingly, this injustice was the source of much unrest and violence during John's lifetime.

But Samuel was a landlord of a different sort. He knew the families that leased his land. He worked with them in the fields, and made sure that they felt secure in their holdings. He felt responsible for easing their lives when he could. He intended to instruct John in his duties as a landlord while he was teaching him what he needed to know about farming.

Irish children had little time to enjoy childhood, for there was always work that the little ones could perform. So certainly John would have done simple tasks, like feeding the chickens and ducks that clucked and honked around the kitchen door at an early age.

But this early exposure to the fields and animals of Loughorne resulted in an unexpected crisis. When John was around two years old, he went to bed one night as usual. An hour or so later, he was awakened by a feeling that he couldn't breathe. Terrified, he struggled to pull air into his lungs. His groans awakened his mother, who rushed to his side, picked him up and held him upright. Sitting upright in his mother's arms calmed his panic, and allowed him enough ease to continue the struggle to breathe, the struggle to live. The asthma attack lasted into the second night. Finally, his breathing eased, and Jane put him back to bed to recover.

Sadly, the first attack was followed two or three weeks later by a similar crisis, dashing hopes that the illness had been a one time event. In fact, attacks occurred at similar intervals through much of his childhood and were made more dangerous by his misshapen chest. No medication seemed to help. But Jane did discover one treatment that made the struggle more bearable. She assigned some of the young girls who worked for the family to carry John about on their backs.

As soon as an attack had eased, John seemed to have extra energy and happily resumed his trips about the fields and games with the other children of the neighborhood. Shinny, a version of hurling played with stick and ball, was one of his favorites, and he was quite adept at it.

Samuel and Jane kept his life as normal as possible, considering the frequency of life threatening episodes. But there must have been some relief from the stress of a sick son when Jane gave birth to a second son, Robert, in 1814. Robert and all the other Martin children were healthy, all save John.

Given the state of Irish medicine, John should have died as a child, his loss depriving Ireland of a much loved Irish hero. Only Jane's tender care, and John's fierce determination to live allowed him to escape an early death.

Source: John Martin's letter in "Asthma" by Dr.Hyde Salter

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