Martin, William Gregory Wood- (1847–1917), historian, archaeologist, folklorist, landowner, and soldier, was born 16 July 1847 in Woodville, Co. Sligo, the only surviving son of James Wood, landowner of Woodville, and his second wife, Anne (née Martin), of Cleveragh, Co. Sligo. Anne Martin, an heiress, obtained a royal licence in 1874 to use the surname Wood-Martin. William was educated at schools in Switzerland and Belgium before entering the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Most of his army career was spent in Ireland with the Sligo Artillery and Sligo Rifles. Between 1883 and 1902 he was a lieutenant-colonel in 8th Brigade, North Irish Division. He also served as ADC (militia) to Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and George V.
As a young man he became interested in the archaeology and history of Co. Sligo, and from the late 1870s began publishing papers about particular sites in academic journals. His first book, Sligo and the Enniskilleners 1688–1691 (1880), is thin on primary sources, and gives a rather plodding account of the various skirmishes that took place during the Williamite war in the north-west of Ireland. In 1882 he published the first volume of his much more ambitious History of Sligo: county and town, which covered the history of the county from the earliest times to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. Here he demonstrates detailed knowledge of the geology and topography of the region and includes excellent ground plans of archaeological sites. The second volume (1889) is more traditionally chronological and covers the period 1603–88; the final volume (1892) examines events up to 1891 and includes an account of manners, customs, superstitions, and legends. These volumes, written in simple language for the general reader, were well received. Some of the poems of W. B. Yeats (qv) in the late 1880s were inspired by legends that Yeats had read in the History of Sligo.
The lake dwellings of Ireland (1886) and The rude stone monuments of Ireland: Co. Sligo and the island of Achill (1888) are altogether more serious pieces of scholarship. Wood-Martin had a lifelong obsession with Irish crannogs (habitable structures perched on natural or artificial islands in lakes or marshy ground), and was one of the first historians to compare and contrast what he called ‘lacustrine settlements’ in Ireland with pile-dwellings in Scotland and continental Europe. In The lake dwellings he mapped out 221 crannog sites in Ireland, but believed that this was probably a ‘mere fraction of the multitude that had formerly existed’; recent scholarship confirms that there were perhaps 2,000 such sites. In addition to examining the mode of construction and typology of these buildings – using well drawn sections and plans – he also speculated on the purpose of crannogs by looking at the archaeological deposits. Rather than rely solely on museum exhibits, such as pottery and bronze fragments, he recognised the importance of biological data in waterlogged sites. He had correspondents all over Ireland who recovered seeds on his behalf from the uncontaminated lower levels of crannogs. These samples were then sent for analysis at TCD.
Sourcing appropriate illustrations for archaeological publications was a time-consuming and expensive business in the late nineteenth century, and yet Wood-Martin was able to include hundreds of new drawings in his volumes. The Rude stone monuments contains 207 maps and ground plans of cromlechs, dolmens, and other monuments. He was particularly good at describing the geographical context of complex groups of monuments such as those at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo, and acknowledged the accounts of earlier antiquaries. Pagan Ireland: an archaeological sketch (1895) and Traces of the elder faiths of Ireland (1902) show his deep interest in anthropology. Though he provides some interesting ideas about pre-Christian religions (and the comprehensive bibliographies show that he was well versed in the latest theories), much is pure conjecture. His most valuable chapters are based on the continuity of fairy lore, tree worship, and rituals.
Wood-Martin was one of the most important chroniclers of Sligo and his publications are still standard reference works. But he was rather more than a local historian. He attempted, not always successfully, to place artefacts, monuments, and customs into a national or even international framework. Sometimes the colonial notions of ‘progress’, ‘civilisation’, and the linear path towards modern man crept into his work, even though the evidence at Irish crannogs showed that sites continued in use for thousands of years without any obvious change. His military eye for detail in recording sites in Ireland – of which many are now destroyed – has helped successive generations of archaeologists to map out the distribution of crannogs and other monuments. He was elected a fellow of the RSAI in 1882 (he edited sections of its journal between 1887 and 1889) and MRIA (1884).
While resident in Sligo for most of his life as a soldier and landowner (he owned 7,062 acres in and around Woodville and Cleveragh), he took an active interest in local affairs and served as a JP, deputy lieutenant of the county, and high sheriff (1877). He was a member of the Orange Institution in Ireland, and at his death was grand master of the Co. Sligo grand lodge. His personal political views and strong allegiance to the crown did not, however, seem to taint his historical writings. In the preface to Sligo and the Enniskilleners he argued that he did not wish ‘to perpetuate the religious animosity which has so disfigured the history of Ireland’. William Wood-Martin died 16 November 1917 at Cleveragh House, the maternal family seat. He is buried at St Anne's church, Strandhill, Co. Sligo.
He married (November 1873) Frances Dora, eldest daughter of Roger Dodwell Robinson of Wellmount, Co. Sligo; they had four sons, two of whom – James Isidore and Francis Winchester – were killed in action during the first world war.