Martin, Robert Jasper (1846–1905), stage-Irish humorist and unionist political activist, was born 16 June 1846 at Ross House, near Killanin, Co. Galway, eldest son of James Martin and his second wife, Anna Selina (née Fox). Violet Martin (qv) (‘Martin Ross’) (qv), famous for her literary collaboration with Edith Somerville (qv) as ‘Somerville and Ross’, was his youngest sister. The Ross estate suffered increasing financial problems as a result of loans taken out during the famine, the expenses of a large family, and lacklustre management by James Martin, who kept afloat by leader-writing for the London Morning Herald and by working for the local government board as a poor law auditor. The young Robert shot and fished in the countryside and basked in the deference of the tenants. After graduating from TCD Martin went to London, where he lived with a cousin, Willie Wills, and worked as a society journalist, notably on the Sporting Times.
After his father's death in 1872 (attributed by the Martins to grief at ‘betrayal’ by tenants who voted for a home rule candidate against his wishes in the 1872 Galway by-election) Robert leased out Ross and remained in London. He returned to Dublin in 1877, working as a journalist. He took a prominent role in charitable entertainments aimed at relieving distress; it was at this point that he began to compose and perform the comic songs which were the mainstay of his subsequent career.
The agricultural depression and the land war cut off Martin's remaining income from the Ross estate. Martin accepted his agent's assertion that the tenants could not afford to pay their rents; it later transpired that the agent had collected and embezzled the rents, while despoiling the estate by other means. In the early 1880s Martin worked as an emergencyman, earning considerable unpopularity and narrowly escaping assassination on one occasion. Several of his anti-Land League verses were collected in Days of the Land League (1st ed., Dublin, 1882; an expanded edition adds several verses written for pantomimes and ceremonial dinners held by Dublin clubs). These combine sentimental descriptions of murdered landlords and their starving families with denunciations of Gladstone's government for alleged weakness in the face of the ‘Land League ruffians’:
The difference ‘twixt moonlight and moonshine
The Irish now well understand;
The law of the Land League is moonlight
And moonshine's the law of the land.
In 1886 Martin married Amelia Constance Roche (née Schmidt), widow of Victor Baddely Roche of Killuntin, Co. Cork. She originally came from Thornfield, Lancashire, England, and was of Jewish descent. ‘Connie’, as she was known, was somewhat older than Robert; they had one daughter, Barbara. The marriage was troubled by Robert's flirtations with other women, Connie's increasing drink problem, and tensions between her and Robert's mother.
On marriage, Martin moved his household to London, where he achieved increasing success as a stage-Irish entertainer under the name ‘Ballyhooly’ (the title of one of his songs, celebrating an Irish ‘temperance band’ whose ‘temperance drink’ is whiskey punch). He drew on the repertoire of imagery established by Charles Lever (qv), and on aristocratic celebration of plebeian hedonism over bourgeois decorum, to fantasise an Ireland whose peasantry's dearest wish was to live in drunken harmony with their landlords; the threat to this paradise, he told his predominately male audience, came from the same priggish English radicals who wished to close music halls and pubs. Martin helped his sister and cousin get their first stories published, but his own sketches show violent misogyny against female liberal activists and temperance reformers. These sketches were immensely popular: by 1890 Martin was hailed in Dublin clubs as ‘Ireland's foremost man of letters’ by diners who knew nothing of W. B. Yeats (qv). Bits of Blarney by Ballyhooly (London, 1899) collects several of his humorous songs and sketches. On a somewhat more serious note, Martin employed a highly coloured version of his experiences against the Land League as a platform speaker for unionist candidates in British elections. He was elected to the Carlton Club for his political services, and thought this the greatest honour he ever received.
In 1888, after the agent's defalcations had been discovered, Selina Martin and two of her daughters (including Violet) returned to Ross, where they refurbished the house. Robert occasionally visited but found the place boring. In 1891 he helped to oversee official famine relief in Connemara. He occasionally spoke of contesting a Galway seat in the hope of reversing his father's humiliation; this was fantasy, and he turned down offers of British seats because he was financially dependent on his stage career. Martin regularly visited Connemara to vote at Oughterard petty sessions or meetings of the poor law guardians; he regularly gave charitable entertainments, used his political influence for local good causes, judged Oughterard races, or presided at the tenants’ annual dance. However, he did not take up permanent residence there till kidney disease ended his stage career in early 1905. He died at Oughterard on 13 September 1905, and was buried there rather than in the family vault at Killannin.
Violet Martin and Edith Somerville responded to their class's decline with humorous and often acute dissections of their society; Robert Martin retreated into self-serving fantasies, profitably marketed to English audiences. Some nationalists displayed a certain respect for his talents; one of his tenants composed a poem in his honour suggesting that he had received his musical skills from the fairies. Others were less impressed: Arthur Griffith (qv) called him ‘a thing called Robert Martin who has done more to slander Ireland than any man alive’.