McTier, Martha (1742–1837), writer of letters, was eldest of the three surviving children of the Rev. Thomas Drennan (qv), non-subscribing presbyterian minister of Belfast, and his wife Ann Lennox (c.1719–1806), daughter of a wealthy Belfast merchant. Nothing is known of her youth or education. In 1773 she married Samuel McTier (qv), a Belfast chandler and a widower. Martha appears to have inherited both her father's intellect and her mother's lively personality, and in 1776 she began the remarkable correspondence with her brother William Drennan (qv), United Irishman, physician, and poet, for which she is chiefly remembered. Drennan lived successively in Edinburgh, Newry, and Dublin, while the McTiers remained in Belfast. Their marriage was happy in spite of constant financial insecurity; Sam went bankrupt in about 1781, but in 1785 he was appointed ballast master of Belfast harbour and he subsequently began a business as a notary public. From 1786 to 1789, the McTiers lived at Cabin Hill, a house that Sam had built on a small farm in Co. Down, near Belfast.
In 1789 Martha became ill and suffered a complete mental breakdown. William described her illness as a ‘distressing depression of spirits’; in the only letter she herself wrote on the subject, she mentions panic attacks about money. Anxiety about her sister Nancy (c.1745–1825), who was becoming increasingly reclusive and eccentric, may have contributed to her distress. After subjecting herself to a rigorous regimen of confinement and bloodletting, she returned to normal life in 1792, and the correspondence with her brother, which had lapsed, was resumed.
Sam became president of the United Irishmen in Belfast, and Martha was swept into United Irish activity. They had sold Cabin Hill at the time of Martha's illness and thereafter lived in Belfast. She became friendly with Thomas Russell (qv), who was a frequent visitor to their house, and she wrote on his behalf to members of the Catholic Committee trying to secure him financial assistance. She sympathised with his love for the beautiful Eliza Goddard, the daughter of one of her closest friends, now dead, but thought it an unsuitable match.
Like most Belfast presbyterians, Martha greeted the French revolution with enthusiasm and was as radical in her views as her brother, but she was never a republican, and after the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette she urged him to express himself with caution. She herself began to acquire something of a literary reputation. In 1793 she was approached by a committee of ladies to become secretary of the new Belfast Female Society which founded the Lying-in Hospital, and she was associated with both the Society and the Union School for a number of years. In 1794, hearing that John Pollock (qv), attorney and government agent, was amassing and, where necessary, fabricating evidence against Drennan, Martha wrote boldly to him, defending her brother, and threatening to make public Pollock's underhand proceedings. Pollock replied in a letter that is a masterpiece of elegant sarcasm. Well aware that she was outclassed, Martha nevertheless wrote an excellent riposte, and Pollock was so entertained that he circulated the letters among some of his political associates. Her brother was brought to trial for sedition in June 1794, and Martha remained cheerful and supportive, suggesting brightly that he might like to publish a periodical paper from Newgate.
In 1795 Sam died suddenly. Although the McTiers' financial situation had improved in the 1790s, Martha now found herself poor, because Sam had died intestate. She and her stepdaughter Margaret McTier (1762–1845) set up house together in Belfast, and Martha augmented a small annuity from a cousin, Martha Young, by taking charge of an orphaned girl of good family as a paying guest.
In 1797 William warned Martha that it was being said in Dublin that she wrote for the Northern Star, the United Irish newspaper. She immediately sent him a carefully phrased letter of denial, intended for perusal by the local postmaster who regularly opened her letters. Nothing in print can be directly attributed to Martha, but it is quite possible that she contributed to the Star in some minor way. She was openly radical in her political views but, like her brother, she wanted reform through constitutional means, and neither appears to have been in any way involved in the 1798 rebellion. After the rebellion she wrote a petition on behalf of Joe Crombie, a young United Irishman, son of the Rev. James Crombie (qv), formerly minister at Belfast; and Crombie subsequently escaped, or was allowed to escape.
In 1793 William had been briefly engaged to Sarah Swanwick, a young Englishwoman, but had broken off the engagement because his political notoriety was leading to a decline in his medical practice. He never ceased to regret this, and in 1799 Martha propelled him into writing to Sarah and her parents, and eventually into going to England to visit her. He and Sarah were married in 1800, but his income from his practice proved inadequate to support a growing family. Martha found him a succession of paying guests and was instrumental in inducing their cousin Martha Young to leave him her fortune. She stayed for long periods with her at Cabin Hill, which Martha Young had purchased, but the tedium of these visits was relieved by the presence of her eldest nephew Tom Drennan (1801–12), a delightful child who lived with her from 1803 to 1807, and who looked on her as his mother. In 1807 Martha Young died, leaving her fortune to William, who moved from Dublin to Belfast, at which point the regular correspondence ceased. Martha was left Cabin Hill, but she moved to Belfast after Tom's death there in 1812. She died in Belfast on 3 October 1837, having become completely blind. Several portraits are in the possession of her brother's descendants.
Both sides of the Drennan–McTier correspondence have survived, spanning over forty years. The political content of the letters makes them a leading source for the study of Irish politics in the 1790s, but there are few aspects of eighteenth-century life that they do not cover. Martha discussed everything she read, from political pamphlets to three-volume novels, and from devotional works to poetry. She enjoyed assemblies and card parties. She loved the theatre and saw all the leading actors of her day. She attended political meetings and charity sermons. She discusses fashion, furniture, and food, servants, house-hunting, money, and debt. Medical problems are recounted and remedies sought, and she writes about love, marriage, child-rearing, and the tedium of widowhood. Having no children of her own, she channelled much of her energy into ambition and solicitude for her gifted younger brother. Throughout his life he could count on Martha to look at all his problems squarely and to advise him at every turn. Though frequently unsolicited and strongly worded, her advice was intelligent and sound. Her style was less polished than that of her brother, but is fresh, vivid, and witty. Her letters contain anecdotes, gossip, and portraits of friends, acquaintances, and enemies. They provide a unique window on to Irish life in the latter half of the eighteenth century.