Although born into the privileged life of a landed Presbyterian family, John Martin laid it aside to serve his suffering fellowman through the dark days of the Famine. He also endured exile to a foreign land because he sought to reform the Government which he saw as destructive to his native land during the poverty stricken years of the 1840’s.
His financial security also suffered greatly, as he campaigned vigorously for ‘Home Rule’ in the 1860’s to 70’s. It may be said that all his struggle led to his early death, as it did for his lifelong friend, John Mitchel who lived for the same ideals and were both laid to rest within a week of each other.
His date of birth was always considered 8th Sept 1812 but a recent article found in America suggests different: – It states, ‘My son John was born in Ringbane on 28th September 1812, between the hours of ten and eleven of the clock at night’. His mother was Jane Harshaw and the house at Ringbane was her father’s house and the place where her brother James Harshaw wrote his famous diaries, which are now in the Public Records Office, Belfast.
Around 1810, Jane married her neighbour from Loughorne, Samuel Martin, who was some 36 years her senior. She had always high ideals for her son John and taught him the principles of truth and justice and concern for his fellowman. She raised him with a knowledge of the classics and of the ‘Good Book’. He attended Dr Henderson’s private school in Hill Street Newry, where he met John Mitchel who was to become his lifelong friend and future brother in law. Many times John Mitchel accompanied him out to his home at ‘Loughorne Cottage’ and the two boys would spend their nights reading books and their days, exploring the countryside.
He secured a place at Trinity College, Dublin, where after obtaining his degree in Arts in 1832, he took up the study of medicine. He was about to take out his medical degree in 1835 when his Uncle John died and he inherited ‘Loughorne House’ and its land.
Owing to this his medical career was put aside and returning to Loughorne, he took up the duties which fell on him as a small landlord and farmed some of his lands. As a landlord he proved a model and it is said he was, ‘a friend of all, giving medical attention to the poor and food to the hungry.’ He was a quiet, cultured, country gentleman, loved by all. His manner was mild: he was tender hearted, at war with oppression and always seeking some means to overthrow injustice.
In 1839 he went to visit his sister, Jane and her husband, Donald Fraser in London, Ontario, Canada and while there made a tour of the United States. In 1840 he took a brief ‘Grand Tour’ to Belgium, Italy and Germany. He returned to Loughorne in 1841, by which time John Mitchel was a solicitor working in Banbridge. By 1843 John Mitchel had moved to Dublin and had joined O’Connell’s ‘Repeal Association’ and following the death of Thomas Davis was writing articles for the paper ‘The Nation’. John Martin followed his example and so it may be said, his political career commenced. Once again following Mitchel’s example he left the ‘Repeal Asssocition’, when they considered it no longer consistent with honest patriotism.
On 16th July 1847 he suffered his greatest loss when his beloved mother died of the fever, caught when attending to the sick and dying. This event and the suffering caused by the famine, when many poor, sick and dying people gathered around his door, moved him to campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union and so he became known as ‘John Martin The Repealer’.
When John Mitchel left the ‘Repeal Association’, he began his own journal ‘The United Irishman’, to which John Martin contributed articles. On 27th May 1848 John Mitchel was arrested and the government seized his journal. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation for his seditious articles. Immediately he began to keep a journal, which was later published and is now a famous piece of Irish literature. Owing to Mitchel’s arrest, John Martin in Loughorne immediately settled his affairs and moved to Dublin. He launched a journal ‘The Irish Felon’ and ‘The Felon Club’- a semi-military organisation. In his journal he produced articles similar to those of Mitchel; hatred for England and hopes for a better future for Ireland. The Government moved at once and ordered his arrest for treason-felony. Rather than be arrested, he turned himself into prison on 8th July. Back home in Loughorne the police began a search of his property. His Uncle James Harshaw records in his Diaries, that he felt much happier for John, when Charles Gavan Duffy was also arrested and shared a cell with him. He and the whole family were much grieved, but gave him all their support.
For his trial on 18th August 1848, a lot of his Loughorne tenants travelled to Dublin to offer their support. After he had been sentenced to ten years transportation to Van Diemen’s land, his brother, James challenged the foreman of the jury to a duel, for which he spent a few weeks in prison!
Before his transportation he was kept in Newgate prison, but had the freedom to exercise, receive visitors and read books. Many of his family and friends called and brought gifts of food and drink; a Mrs Boyd of Loughorne, even sent eggs and fowl and his Uncle James sent up some of his books. His cousin John Harshaw took care of his estate, selling his crops and livestock and around October, he organised an auction of agricultural implements at ‘Loughorne House’. On his behalf he continued to collect the rent from the tenants.
About May 1849 he set sail for exile with his friend Kevin O’ Dougherty (a Catholic) on board the ‘Elphinstone’. During his voyage he kept a diary, which is remarkable reading, and is now kept at the Public Records Office Belfast and is also displayed on the Internet – Click here.
He arrived at Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land around November 1849 and was allocated to live in the village of Bothwell, where as a “ticket of leave” he could move freely around the district, reporting to the local constable each day. He probably spent his time reading as he took out some books with him and made friends with the locals, who showed him great kindness. One good friend was a Scottish settler called Russel, who lived at a place called Denistown. Another close companion was his pipe, which he spent hours smoking and dreaming of life thousands of miles away at his home in Loughorne.
In April 1850 he had the company of John Mitchel, who was brought on account of his health, as the climate of Bermuda aggravated his asthma. Owing to this they were allowed to live together; Martin was also a victim of asthma all his life.
Together the boyhood friends explored the countryside around, just as they had done when growing up in Ulster, when they went on walking tours from the Mountains of Mourne to Donegal. Now together in exile, John Martin acted as guide, riding a grey pony and often they met the other ‘felons’ such as Meagher and O’Dogherty in secret; at a place near Lake Sorel. During this time O’Dogherty gave Martin the name ‘John Knox’ and he called him ‘St. Kevin’.
Despite their exile they always managed to get hold of Irish newspapers, to be kept up to date with political and social issues in the land of their birth. Strangely John Mitchel could never bear to look at them and so John Martin read them to him.
In July 1850 John Mitchel had the idea of bringing his wife and family out to join him and he discussed it with Martin. Eventually in 1851 Jenny Mitchel and the 5 children were reunited with husband and father and their close friend- almost brother.
As the cottage was too small for the entire family, Martin was once again living alone as the Mitchel family took up residence at ‘Nant Cottage’ Bothwell. From John Mitchel’s ‘Jail Journal’, we find this was the most happy, contented time of his life, as he settled down to turn his hand to farming. Martin probably had a similar contentment, as he now had so many close friends near him and when John and Jenny went to visit the other exiles, it was he who looked after the children. Returning from one visit the Mitchel’s brought home a little kangaroo to their children and there was great joy at ‘Nant’ over this.
Sadly this idyllic life could not go on for ever and in January 1853, one P. J. ‘Nicaragua‘ Smith arrived at Mitchel’s door with a plan for his escape to America. At the beginning John Martin was also involved in the plot, the plan being to present themselves at the police office, withdraw their parole, offer to be taken into custody and then hopefully make a dash for freedom. Indeed it seems P. J. Smith was no stranger to them, as they had his acquaintance during their days in Dublin. However as the year rolled on towards June, John Martin decided to keep out of the affair as it was now the depth of winter, he would be subject to much hardship and have to assume various disguises and owing to his health he would not be well adopted to it.
John Mitchel was more adventurous and went ahead with the scheme and following some time on the run, by August 1853, he and his family left Australia on the ‘Orkney Lass’ and after transferring to an American ship the ‘Julia Ann’, sailed to San Francisco. During this time a close watch was kept on John Martin, as an attack was also expected from him.
The authorities need not have worried as he never gave them any trouble, quietly living out his exile until he was given a ‘Conditional Pardon’ in 1854 – the condition being that he should not visit any part of the United Kingdom. So leaving ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, he took up residence in Paris, most likely in a boarding house close to the Jardin des Plantes. His sister, Anna who married Dr Thomas Archer Hurst, may also have living in this area at the time. In 1856 the pardon was made unconditional and he visited Ireland for a short time to see his family.
In 1858 he took a quiet tour of Ireland and in October his brother, Robert and wife Millicent came over to visit him. It was to be the last he would see of Millicent, as returning to Kilbroney, she was carried off with Scarlet Fever. When John got the news he headed to Kilbroney, to find his brother, Robert seriously ill and he was to die just nine days after his wife. The nanny Jenny Cooley was also taken and it fell to John to move permanently to Kilbroney to care for his two orphaned nephews and five nieces.
In 1860 he began to write for ‘The Nation’ newspaper, having met Mitchel the previous October in Paris, when political issues were no doubt discussed. On 11th April 1860 he must have been back in Loughorne, as he promised a site for a Manse for Donaghmore Presbyterian Church in Loughorne.
In 1864 his political life recommenced, when with others he founded ‘The National League’. On 8th June he was back in Loughorne to lay the foundation stone for the Manse.
In 1866 he was presiding officer of ‘The National League’ and saw Mitchel twice in Paris in January and September.
Although 1867 started quietly it became more eventful, as his Uncle James suffered a stroke and he attended to him until his death. In August he took a month’s tour to the continent. 1867 was the year of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ and two weeks after their execution, he took part in an impressive demonstration in Dublin to Glasnevin Cemetery. Due to his years of exile, he was now feeble in body, yet insisted on walking almost the whole route in the pouring rain. He still had enough strength to deliver a speech of great power, commencing “May their Souls Rest In Peace” and concluding- “You will join me in repeating the prayer of the three martyrs whom we mourn -‘God Save Ireland!’ and all of you men, women, boys and girls, that are to be men and women of Holy Ireland will ever keep the sentiment of that prayer in your hearts”. Following this four days later he was arrested and at his trial in February 1868, he defended himself and all charges were dropped.
Despite his advanced years and failing health or perhaps owing to them, in November 1868 he married Henrietta Mitchel, (youngest sister of John) in Hampstead, England. They honeymooned in Eastbourne and spent time with her brother William in London, before returning to Kilbroney for Christmas. Although their marriage may have been a surprise to many, they had known each other since he was a schoolboy and she a child. They also worked together in the Dublin days of Young Ireland. She was a good manager and had strong principles of Irish Freedom. She would work for this cause with her husband and would keep him on the move, as even he knew he was lazy and up until this time it was his sister, Mary Simpson who kept him at the grinding stone.
In the Autumn of 1869 the new Mrs Martin and her husband visited the United States. While there they went to Brooklyn and stayed with the Mitchel’s. Once again the two Johns could sit by the fireside, smoking and talking. However they could not go on such long walks now, owing to their advancing years and frail health. John Mitchel’s beard was turning white, but he still had his chestnut curls, John Martin on the other hand, now had a bare scalp with long, shoulder length hair hanging from it.
While there he also visited New York, where Horace Greely presided at a banquet given in his honour. Dr William Caroll also honoured him with another banquet in Philadelphia. During this time he went twice to see his sister, Jane Fraser in Canada.
While he was away from Ireland he was proposed as M. P. For Longford, but was defeated.
Before returning home in April 1870, he visited Boston in February and New Jersey in March. While touring the two 1848’ers gave many addresses to help raise funds for the ‘Old Cause’.
In May his name was nominated for a vacancy in Meath and he won it, his constituents paying his expenses. Henrietta was a good help to him as she knew her way around London, but speaking in Parliament seems to have been a daunting task to him, as is clearly seen in a letter written to Mitchel, from Warrenpoint on April 13th 1871- “The Parliament was such a bore to me, and the idea that I ought, that I must, sometimes speak in it and say and keep saying things to make the men in it hate me worse than hell was such an irritation and fever to my nerves”.
During this time he lived at ‘Seaview’, Warrenpoint which was rented accommodation. In April 1873 he had to leave it, as his financial situation had become so bad. This was because as secretary to the ‘Home Rule Association’, he at first took half pay and later none and he spent his entire fortune in the cause of ‘Home Rule’. He thought about returning to ‘Loughorne Cottage’ but his wife objected, so for the next few years, it seems they lodged with friends as they travelled around the country and back and forward to London.
In March 1875 John Mitchel stood as candidate for County Tipperary and returning to Ireland he won a landslide victory. The Government declared the seat vacant as he was still an unpardoned Felon, but in the re-election he won again. However by this time the two Johns were ill. John Martin gave his last speech in Newcastle and returned to Dromalane, where John Mitchel had died on 20th March. The day of his funeral was wet and despite the conditions, John Martin insisted on walking the whole way to the Old Meeting House Green in Newry. Standing at the graveside he collapsed and was carried home to Dromalane, where after a few days of struggling for breath, death gave him relief on Easter Monday 29th March 1875. A lot of his political companions wanted to give him a grand funeral to Glasnevin in Dublin, but it was remembered that he wanted to be laid to rest with his parents in Donaghmore. All the different Political Parties also greatly mourned his passing. So his casket left for Loughorne and his funeral to Donaghmore Parish Churchyard, which was the largest ever see in the District, with all shades of opinion, both religious and political attending. He was laid to rest at the side of the Church, where a granite stone has the inscription-
‘John Martin Born 8th September 1812