Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mystery Man of Irish History

John Martin and his role in Irish history has been almost completely forgotten. In many histories, he is missing entirely. In others, he is a single phrase or a footnote. As writers would have reported in his day, he has faded into oblivion. This is a strange fate for someone who was a national leader for many years and well known, respected and loved in many parts of the world.

Suzanne Ballard, a direct descendant of one of John's brothers, was the first sleuth in recent history to attempt to rediscover the truth of John Martin's life and contributions to his country. She was relentless in her search for any reference to his life and work. There was indeed a lot to find.  She found references to him in books written by many of the leaders of his day. But she also discovered that John had left a great body of material, letters to friends and newspapers, speeches, even a personal journal which Suzanne transcribed. The John Martin her research discovered was a thoughtful and wise man. Though he was never strong or well, he spent every ounce of his energy in selfless service to Ireland. His high standards appealed to friend and foe alike. And at one point in his life, he was the most important man in Ireland.

One of the people with whom John carried on a long correspondence was William O'Neill Daunt. He was the personal secretary of Daniel O'Connell. Like John, Daunt remained politically active for his entire life. This quote comes from a letter John wrote to Daunt on April 28, 1866. It was a time when political changes for Ireland were being discussed with the idea that they would make Ireland more democratic and Irish independence less necessary. One initiative was the creation of universal suffrage, the other the secret ballot.

John wanted his friend to be clear about his own ideas. He described himself as a "CONSERVATIVE." He then went on to describe how he defined the word. "my preoccupation as a politician would be that all the citizens be equal before the law and that the law be really the will and voice of the whole nation in all its classes. This might exist under a fine monarchy, and it might not exist under the fairest & freest seeming constitution that liberals can invent. It is REALITY that I care for, & not very much the form. Besides I hold that the rich, the strong, the cunning can and will always deal unjustly with the poor, the feeble, the simple, if both be left perfectly “free.” And therefore I would endeavour to protect these latter. And I would see that as much by legislation as by institutions which leave unshaken and which nourish and strengthen the policy’s of moral responsibility."  These ideas from 150 years ago can contribute in the political debates of today.
John Martin Letter

Tomorrow, I am leaving for Ireland on another search for more information on John Martin. For the next two weeks, I'll be hunched over a microfilm reader in the National Library in Dublin, reading newspapers published over 150 years ago. I had planned the trip and booked my tickets months ago. Only well after the fact did I discover that I would be in Dublin at a most interesting time. While I'm there, Queen Elizabeth will make an official visit, the first time a King or Queen of England has visited in almost 100 years. She will be joined also by Prime Minister of England David Cameron. The 10,000 troops which will be on hand for security will have just begun to rest up when another visitor arrives. Barack Obama will be making his first trip to Ireland a few days later. The Irish Parliament building is next door to the National Library, so I should have a good view of the visitations. If I can, I will be sending back posts of my discoveries about John Martin, and my adventures with the visiting dignitaries.

Then I'm traveling north to John's home territory for the opening of a special exhibit in the Newry and Mourne Museum called "A Great Change - the Lives and Times of James Harshaw, John Mitchel, and John Martin." James Harshaw was John's Uncle Harshaw. For the first time, visitors will be able to see the original journals both of these men kept. This exhibit will be open until the end of November, so many visitors will be able to take advantage of this very special opportunity.

Look for my next post from Ireland.