Remembering the man called ‘Humanity Dick’

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Tucked away amid the mountains and lakes of Connemara lies stylish Ballynahinch Castle Hotel.

Over the years, the ancient walls have welcomed the novelist Maria Edgeworth, the politicians Daniel O’Connell and Eamon De Valera, while a photograph records the visit of U.S. President Gerald R. Ford.

I popped in there last week, not because I could afford the tariff paid by the American and Canadian residents, but simply to drink a coffee in what had been the home of a once-famous Irishman. My dated guide-book had told me that Ballynahinch Castle had once been the home of ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin, founder of the R.S.P.C.A and M.P. for County Galway in the early nineteenth-century.

A close friend of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, Richard Martin lived a boisterous life, throwing lavish parties, and quick to challenge an adversary to a duel. But his nickname was earned because in 1822, he introduced a bill in the Westminster House of Commons proposing a ‘Cruelty to Animals Act’, which led in turn to the formation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Just before he died, he was asked why he was so kind to animals and so harsh with humans, and he replied with a question, ‘“Did you ever see an ox with a pistol?”

The Bible sees animals as part of God’s amazingly diverse creation, over which humankind are to preside as responsible stewards. Part of God’s concern is seen in the closing chapter of the Book of Jonah. The reluctant and churlish prophet was annoyed that the citizens of Nineveh had repented at his preaching. But, reasoned God, Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city’(Jonah 4; 11).

Jesus, so often critical of the Pharisees’ rigid Sabbatarianism, approved of the way in which they interpreted the Sabbath rules to allow them to rescue a sheep which had fallen into a pit.(Matthew 12; 11). And he based his certainty of a Father’s care for humans on the fact that God cared even for the sparrows, sold cheap as food for the poor (Matthew 11; 29). ‘Humanity Dick’ was right...