F.X. Martin, noted Wood Quay activist, dies


The noted historian, Prof F.X. Martin, has died. An Augustinian friar, he was professor of medieval history at UCD and came to public prominence by leading the campaign against Dublin Corporation's development of its Civic Offices at the Viking site in Wood Quay.

Aged 77, Prof Martin died yesterday morning at the Augustinian house at Ballyboden, Co Dublin. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, who represented him in numerous court appearances, paid tribute to his "spirited engagement; strength of personality and leadership, drawing on his expertise as a medieval historian", which led to Wood Quay becoming "a watershed in the official attitude towards preserving the past".

"The passion with which F.X. strove to save Wood Quay, whether as a litigant, as leader of huge public demonstrations, or as occupier of the site itself, was a passion for a Dublin which understood and treasured its past. He combined this passion with a great sense of fun and love of life."

The director of the National Museum, Dr Pat Wallace, said as excavator of the site, he was the main beneficiary of Prof Martin's efforts to save Wood Quay. "He made the time. It was the most important urban excavation in Europe. We should all be grateful for that."

His campaign was backed at every turn by the Friends of Medieval Dublin. But it was he who was later pursued by the corporation for some £80,000 in costs. Prof Martin took great pride in describing himself as a "mendicant friar" in the face of the corporation actions against him. This "debt" was later forgiven, almost coinciding - ironically - with the local authority presenting him with a conservation award.

Wood Quay was frequently in the news between 1976 and 1981, and the public became increasingly aware of its enormous archaeological significance. He led an occupation of the site in June 1979. The High Court declared the part of Wood Quay within the old city wall a national monument, but the decision was overturned in the Supreme Court. Prof Martin trenchantly articulated this view.

Asked what he felt about the new Civic Offices, he replied: "Every city, including Dublin, should have a permanent monument to ugliness as a grim reminder of what has to be avoided in the future."

The bulldozers moved in in March 1981, but it was not until 1985 that the European Commission of Human Rights finally ruled Prof Martin's case was inadmissible.

Through Wood Quay, a mood of militant pacifism fired a new generation of campaigners - they succeeded those who fought to preserve Georgian Dublin - believing construction in the city was again becoming synonymous with destruction of its most precious heritage. Being in the frontline of such a campaign did not pose difficulties for him within the order, according to Irish Augustinian provincial, Father Des Foley OSA.

While Prof Martin specialised in medieval history, his work also touched on modern history, notably the period around 1916. This was reflected in his involvement in The Course of Irish History, a book which he edited with Prof T.W. Moody. He published many books.

He was "always full of activity; very Augustinian, and did a lot of work on the history of his order", Father Foley said.

Francis Xavier Martin was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry. He attended the local national school before attending Holy Faith School, Clontarf; Ring College, Belvedere College, UCD, the Gregorian University, Rome, and Peterhouse College, Cambridge (the first Roman Catholic priest to be admitted there since the Reformation). He joined the Augustinian Order in 1941 and UCD staff in 1959. He was appointed professor in 1962.

His remains are to be removed to the Augustinian church, John's Lane, Thomas Street, Dublin, at 5 p.m. tomorrow. The funeral Mass takes place at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, followed by burial at the Augustinian plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.