Martin, John (1812–75), nationalist journalist and politician, was born 8 September 1812 at Loughorne, near Newry, Co. Down, second son of Samuel Martin (d. 1831), a presbyterian farmer and co-owner of a linen manufactory, and Jane Martin (née Harshaw; d. 1847) of Ringbane. His mother's brother was James Harshaw (qv) and his sister Mary Martin married Maxwell Simpson (qv). In 1824 John became a day pupil at the school of David Henderson in Newry, where he became a close friend of John Mitchel (qv). Both were lifelong asthmatics with contrasting characters; unlike the fiery Mitchel, Martin was pacific and introverted from youth. He matriculated at TCD on 6 July 1830, but mostly studied at home. Showing great proficiency in modern languages, he graduated BA (1834). Left in independent circumstances by the death of his father (1831), he applied himself, with philanthropic intentions, to the study of medicine in Dublin for about a year. He stopped, however (1835), when he came into an estate at Aston, near Loughorne, Co. Down, with a rental income of £400 a year, on the death of his uncle, John Martin. He read avidly, was a benevolent landlord to his few tenants, and toured North America (1839) and continental Europe (1841). In the 1830s his politics followed those of Mitchel, then practising law in Banbridge: both attended a repeal dinner in honour of Daniel O'Connell (qv) in Newry in 1839, and became ardent readers of the Nation from its publication in October 1842.
Martin joined the Repeal Association (RA) in about June 1844. Though he rarely spoke at its meetings in Dublin, in late summer 1844 he challenged O'Connell by unsuccessfully calling for publication of the association's accounts. In August 1845 he wheezed through a walking holiday in Ulster with John O'Hagan (qv), Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and Mitchel. He sided with the Young Ireland group in the RA and was one of the deputation that went to condole with William Smith O'Brien (qv) during his detention in London in May 1846. After the secession of the Young Irelanders from the RA in July 1846 because of their refusal to disavow the use of physical force, he hurried to Dublin and tried to heal the breach, but to no avail. He was appointed to the council of the Young Ireland Irish Confederation established in January 1847, and to its finance, famine, and parliamentary committees, and was later made inspector of the confederate clubs in Ulster (all three of them). He regularly attended confederate meetings in Dublin, and became an intimate of the Rev. John Kenyon (qv). Believing that Ulster presbyterians could be brought to cooperate with Irish nationalists, Martin helped arrange a confederation meeting in Belfast in November 1847. Radicalised by the Great Famine, he wrote some articles for the Nation during Mitchel's editorial tenure, most notably ‘An apology and remonstrance’, in which he denounced the British government's relief policy and claimed that a ‘million corpses . . . cry out to heaven for vengeance’ (Nation, 22 May 1847).
In late January 1848 he chaired the three-day debate in the Irish Confederation on Mitchel's proposal for a rent-and-rates strike to spark a nationwide insurrection, and after this was defeated withdrew from the confederation's council and concentrated on building up support among the confederate clubs. He subsequently supported Mitchel in various letters to the press, although his theories of resistance rested on a half-formed concept of non-violent civil disobedience rather than the threat of force. Despite the fact that his estate was already heavily mortgaged for the sake of famine relief, he helped to finance the publication of the United Irishman under Mitchel's editorship (February to May 1848), and contributed several articles. He became more extreme after the French revolution of February 1848, and one of his letters in the United Irishman called for the confiscation of the estates of absentee landowners. After Mitchel was convicted of treason felony and sentenced to fourteen years transportation (27 May 1848), Martin became guardian to his friend's wife and family. He started the Irish Felon (24 June–22 July 1848) with Thomas Devin Reilly (qv) and Joseph Brenan (qv) to carry on Mitchel's work from the old United Irishman offices in Trinity St., and pitched in with Duffy, Reilly, Kenyon, and John Blake Dillon (qv), when vague insurrectionary plans were being hatched in June 1848. According to Duffy, however, Martin ‘was an upright, simple-minded gentleman, in feeble health and of impaired constitution, as unfit to play a part in a revolution as in a pantomime’ (Duffy, 612). Duffy maintained that it was Martin's friendship with Mitchel that made him a revolutionary, and that his own views were much more moderate. Unlike Mitchel, Martin persisted in the belief that the landed gentry had an important role to play in the nationalist movement.
After only five issues of the Irish Felon Martin was arrested and charged with treason felony. Tried at Green St. courthouse after six weeks in Newgate, he was sentenced to ten years transportation. He insisted that he had been convicted by a packed jury, and his brother James (1821–93) was arrested for challenging the jury foreman to a duel. John Martin was confined in Richmond gaol until late June 1849, when he and Kevin Izod O'Doherty (qv) were transported to Van Diemen's Land. Arriving in Hobart in late October 1849, he accepted a ticket of leave, which allowed him free movement within his local police district, and passed his term of sentence very happily in a small bare cabin near Bothwell. He was joined there in April 1850 by Mitchel and helped nurse him back to health after a year of severe illness. Given a conditional pardon in June 1854 under which he was allowed to travel anywhere except the UK, Martin settled in Paris in October 1854. In 1856 the restrictions on his pardon were rescinded and, after the sudden death of his sister-in-law and his brother in October 1856, he shouldered responsibility for the care of his orphaned nephews and nieces and settled in Kilbroney House near Rostrevor, Co. Down.
During the mid 1850s Martin was critical of Mitchel's belligerent championing of slavery in America and offended at his portrayal in Mitchel's Jail journal (1854), and their friendship cooled for a time. However, they were reconciled and Martin visited Mitchel in Paris on several occasions between 1859 and 1862. Although no admirer of slavery, he supported the confederate states in the American civil war, arguing that they were resisting northern aggression, and assisted efforts to discourage Irishmen from joining the federal army. Anxious to wean nationalists from the appeal of Fenianism, in the late 1850s and early 1860s he advocated the creation of a new nationalist paper and repeal organisation, and with The O'Donoghue (qv) founded the Irish National League (21 January 1864). It staggered on until 1867 but never attracted widespread support. Standing as an independent nationalist in the Longford by-election of December 1869, Martin received strong support from local Fenians but was soundly beaten. In May 1870 he joined the Home Government Association (HGA) on its formation, despite doubts over the limited nature of the federal powers it sought. In January 1871 he was the first HGA candidate to be elected in Ireland, becoming MP for Co. Meath. During 1873 he served as secretary of the Home Rule League. He was reelected to Westminster in February 1874, and cautiously supported the obstructionist tactics of J. G. Biggar (qv) and other militant home-rulers. In February 1875 he backed Mitchel's candidacy for Cork, arguing that despite his opposition to home rule his services on behalf of Ireland justified election.
At Mitchel's funeral on 22 March 1875 Martin took pneumonia after a drenching and died 29 March 1875 in Newry. He was buried in the family plot in Donoughmore cemetery near Loughorne. He was succeeded as MP for Co. Meath by Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). Possessed of an almost child-like simplicity that both charmed and exasperated colleagues, Martin was much admired for his kind nature and personal integrity and was popularly known as ‘Honest John’. However, his political effectiveness was limited: he never imposed his acute intellect on nationalist politics and, although often shrewdly analytical in private correspondence and letters to the press, never published any major work.
On 25 November 1868 (after a courtship of twenty years) he married Henrietta Mitchel (1827–1913), youngest sister of John Mitchel; they had no children. Henrietta shared Martin 's nationalist politics and, after his death, campaigned strongly for home rule, which she saw as a continuation of the Young Ireland struggle. The Fenian Mark Ryan (qv) recalled that when introduced to her, he said ‘ “I am proud to meet John Mitchel's sister”, and she remarked with a smile, “why not John Martin's wife?” ’ (Ryan, xvi). In the Irish party split of 1890–91 she sided strongly with Parnell. For the next twenty years she travelled widely to rally support for Irish self-government, especially among protestants, and was an honoured guest at many political gatherings, including the national convention of the UIL at Boston in October 1902. She died 11 July 1913 at her home in Dublin, and was buried in Newry.