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Seán revives one-man play celebrating Humanity Dick 

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From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Seán revives one-man play celebrating Humanity Dick  Seán revives one-man play celebrating Humanity Dick 

Two-hundred years ago, on June 16, 1824 , the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded following a meeting at the wonderfully-named Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in London. Later to become the RSPCA, it was the first organisation of its kind in the world.

Galway’s Richard Martin, who was the driving force behind that meeting, has previously been celebrated by Claddagh man Seán Leonard in his one-man show, Humanity Dick: A Tale of Beasts and Bullets.

Seán is reviving this show to mark the bicentenary of that meeting, with performances scheduled for Galway and Clifden.

In youth, Richard Martin was the most renowned duellist in Ireland or Britain,  and known as ‘Hairtrigger Dick. He later lived through revolution, bankruptcy and exile, and also sensationally sued an Englishman for a “criminal conversation” with his wife.

But, says Seán, Martin’s lasting legacy was the creation and enforcement of legal protections for animals.

Humanity Dick: A Tale of Beasts and Bullets, has been previously staged in Galway and at the UK’ s Brighton Fringe Festival. There, it was praised as “fantastic…filled with righteous indignation balanced by droll quips and side-eyed sarcasm…told with confidence and affection” (Broadway Baby, UK).

Seán frames the story around Martin’s two obsessions: his honour and animal welfare.

Raised at Dangan, outside Galway City, and with a townhouse in what’s now Tigh Neachtain, his obsession with honour led to him becoming the leading duellist of his generation. His career as Hairtrigger Dick ended badly when he killed his cousin in a duel.

Having inherited the family’s vast estate in Connemara, he married and took a seat in the Dublin Parliament in the 1770s, being a major supporter of Catholic Emancipation. Back in Galway, he established the town’s first theatre, which, according to Seán, was partly an attempt to provide a diversion for his wife, Eliza, after she’d moved to what was then a provincial backwater.

“Unfortunately, Eliza had already found ample distraction in the form of the tutor they had taken on for Martin’s younger siblings, a wispy 20 year-old by the name of Theobald Wolfe Tone,” Seán explains.

Tone, who went on to lead the 1798 Rebellion, soon left Galway in mysterious circumstances, leaving a question mark over the paternity of the Martins’ first child.

However, Martin soon had to address bigger issues, mostly self-created. Although he owned 200,000 acres in Connemara – and was responsible for many tenants there – he was useless financially and borrowed to fund his lifestyle.

As an MP, Martin was immune to prosecution for his debts but that ended in 1789 when he lost the Galway election. He, Eliza and their three children fled to Paris – just in time for the storming of the Bastille.

In Paris, Eliza began an affair with an English plantation-owner named Petrie, moving to London with him. Martin sued Petrie for “criminal conversation” with his wife and, after a sensational trial, was awarded £10,000.

Instead of paying off his debts, Martin converted the money to change, “loaded it into his carriage in London and set off for Galway. En route, he threw every penny out the window to the beggars”, says Seán.

Back home, he took refuge at his Connemara house which is  now Ballynahinch Castle but was then far beyond the reach of the law.  There, in the 1790s, Martin focused on his second obsession: animal protection.

“He took to arresting locals for mistreating their animals, taking them out in a boat on the lake at Ballynahinch to lecture them about animal husbandry, and then imprisoning them for a few days in the ruin of the O’Flaherty castle on the island,” says Seán.

After the 1801 Act of Union, Martin saw a golden opportunity in the newly-amalgamated House of Commons in London. He began campaigning to introduce legislation to protect animals, despite being ridiculed by fellow MPs.

As Seán explains, animals weren’t seen as worthy of legal protection, being regarded as insensate machines or sources of human entertainment.

But Martin was stubborn. Working with a growing number of progressives in Parliament and society – including slavery abolitionists – he campaigned relentlessly for almost 20 years. Finally, in 1822, his “Bill to Prevent the Ill Treatment of Cattle” was passed into law.

The next task for the 68-year-old was to make this law relevant. On the streets and markets of London, he began arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of cruelty.

News of this mad Irishman started to spread, especially after a case involving the presentation of a neglected donkey as evidence, Seán explains.

In 1824,  Martin was the driving force behind the meeting at which the world’s first SPCA was established. In honour of his tireless work for humanitarian causes, which also included legal and penal reform, King George IV gave Martin the name he’s remembered by today: “Humanity Dick”.

After losing his seat in Parliament some years later, Martin went into exile in France, beyond the reach of his creditors and died in January 1834, just before his 80th birthday, having continued to work for animal rights.

Seán will reveal more when he presents Humanity Dick: A Tale of Beasts and Bullets in Druid’s Mick Lally Theatre this Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15. Tickets at www.druid.ie.

He’ll be at Clifden’s Station House Theatre, on Saturday, June 22, and Saturday, July 6. For tickets, go to www.eventbrite.ie and key in Humanity Dick.

Pictured: Seán Leonard in his one-man show about Humanity Dick.

 

 

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