Animal cracker – Frank McNally on “Humanity Dick” Martin and 200 years of the SPCA

His efforts advanced mainstream acceptance for the idea that animals should be legally protected

Richard Martin: eccentric Irish lawyer and MP, known as “Humanity Dick”, was devoted to animal rights

Two hundred years ago this week, on June 16th, 1824, a group of like-minded people gathered in a London café and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later to acquire the prefix “Royal”).

It was primarily the idea of an English clergyman, Arthur Broome. But it followed a trail blazed by an eccentric Irish lawyer and MP, Richard Martin, who was also among the attendance at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House, where the epochal meeting took place.

Known variously as “Hair-trigger Dick”, “Humanity Dick”, and “the King of Connemara”, Martin had recently persuaded parliament to pass the “Ill Treatment of Cattle Act 1822″, the first-ever law protecting animal rights.

He then simultaneously promoted and enforced the measure by personally arresting abusers of animals on the streets of London and by such headline-making legal strategies as summoning an injured donkey as witness in a case against its owner.


One result was press lampoons portraying the MP himself with donkey ears. Another was that the legislation became known as “Martin’s Act”. The combined effect was to advance mainstream acceptance for the idea that animals should be legally protected.

Born in 1754 into one of the old 14 “Tribes of Galway” - merchant families that had ruled the city for centuries – the young Martin inherited a 200,000-acre estate in Connemara that his temperament was singularly unsuited to manage.

His fellow lawyer Jonah Barrington, a lifelong friend, said of him: “He is one of those good fellows who would rather do anybody’s business than his own, and durst look anything in the face than his own situation.”

But Martin also became a member of parliament, first in the Irish House of Commons and later Westminster where, although his family had become Protestant by then, he was an ardent supporter of Catholic Emancipation.

His other achievements of note included setting up Galway’s first theatre. This may have been partly an attempt to entertain his wife, Elizabeth Vesey, a woman of aristocratic stock who found life in the west a bit dull.

If so, the plan proved less than successful. Eliza was widely assumed to have had an affair with a young tutor hired by the family, Theobald Wolfe Tone, who left Galway in mysterious circumstances, including rumours about the paternity of Martin’s first child.

After a later affair, this time with a Mr Petrie in Paris, Martin successfully sued the lotherio for “criminal conversation”. Despite habitual indebtedness, he distributed his €10,000 award to the poor, via the windows of his coach, on the journey home to Galway.

That he “blazed” a trail for the SPCA, as stated earlier, may be a cliché. But the phrase is more that usually apt in Martin’s case. Defending animal rights aside, the other thing he was most notorious for during his lifetime was settling matters of honour by duels.

Sometimes he combined the two, as in the case of his vendetta against George Robert Fitzgerald, aka “the Fighting Fitzgerald”, which began when the latter shot an Irish wolfhound owned by Martin’s friend Lord Altamont.

Charming but violent, Fitzgerald was infamous for, among other things, keeping bears, dressing them in funny clothes and parading them in public to terrorise the unsuspecting.

He too was an inveterate dueller and despite the dog killing and accompanying insults, Lord Altamont thought better of “challenging” him in the traditional manner.

Martin had no such reluctance, except that to avenge his friend’s honour would be to expose the friend to the appearance of cowardice.

But he eventually found a pretext when Fitzgerald imprisoned his own father – in a cave, chained to a bear – and a brother brought legal proceedings to free the old man. Martin took the case, waiving his fee.

When defence counsel mounted an attack on the character of Fitzgerald Snr, Martin agreed the father was a reprobate, but claimed his worst crime was begetting the son. In their subsequent meeting with pistols at Castlebar, both men were injured but survived that and a rematch before Fitzgerald’s fighting career ended on the gallows.

Martin’s extraordinary life is worthy of the stage, and indeed will bestride one in Galway this coming weekend, when Seán Leonard presents his one-man show “Humanity Dick – A tale of Beasts and Bullets” – at the Mick Lally Theatre on Friday and Saturday night. It also plays Clifden on Saturday 22nd.

Getting back to the SPCA, the meeting of 200 years ago led a decade later to the abolition of the sports of bull and bear baiting. Subsequent milestones included the death of an SPCA inspector in 1838, from injuries suffered when he tried to stop a cockfight.

Martin spent his later years in French exile, forced to flee the UK and bankruptcy when he lost his seat after a petition accusing him of voter intimidation. He died in Boulogne in 1834.

A lesser indignity of his last years in London, it is said, was that he could no longer get a hackney cab. Drivers were too much afraid he would arrest them for whipping the horses.