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Home » James Martin: From Belfast Barista to Beverly Hills

James Martin: From Belfast Barista to Beverly Hills

by Flynn Owen
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It’s not often that a Belfast barista gets serenaded by the glitterati of Hollywood.

But then it’s not often that you win an Oscar and celebrate your birthday at the 95th Academy Awards.

Cue James Martin. Coffee connoisseur, soccer lover and one of those rocking the night away with Sir Elton John at the Los Angeles After Party.

Martin, 31, is one of the stars of An Irish Goodbye, which won an Oscar for best live action short film, just weeks after it clinched a Bafta.

Filmed on location in Londonderry, Templepatrick and Saintfield, Martin previously said an Oscar win would “put the icing on my birthday cake”.

Who is James Martin?

The broadcaster Ivan Martin was told when his son was born with Down’s syndrome that he might never speak.

“But here we are. James not only speaks, once he started speaking he hasn’t shut up since,” Ivan Martin told BBC News NI, just hours after the Oscar win.

And what a journey it’s been for the former pupil of Harberton Special School in Belfast.

Martin got the acting bug after joining the Belfast-based Babosh theatre company, which was set up about 20 years ago for children with learning disabilities.

In 2020, he told the Disability Horizons newsletter that he had agreed to give it a go at the theatre group.

“I’m very glad I went, as I got to meet Breige Hawkins and her staff,” he told the newsletter.

“Breige was a great teacher who knew her stuff and inspired us all to improve our acting skills. We did all types of shows and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

James Martin was in festive mode jamming on his harmonica in an Irish pub in LA

From treading the boards in Belfast, Martin landed the lead role in the BBC drama Ups and Downs, alongside actress Susan Lynch.

Written and directed by fellow Irishman Eoin Cleland, who has a sister with Down’s syndrome, the film focuses on the story of a young man with Down’s Syndrome wanting his own independence.

He wants to get his voice to be heard,” Martin told BBC News NI at the time.

“It makes him more open and honest with his family and that’s good too.”

Martin then went on to get a part in the ITV and Netflix drama Marcella.

But arguably his most high-profile acting job to date, certainly the one that has garnered the most publicity, is An Irish Goodbye.

James Martin's father Ivan at home in Belfast with a miniature Oscar statuette
Image caption, James Martin’s father Ivan celebrated at home in Belfast with a miniature Oscar statuette

Directed and written by Ross White and Tom Berkeley, it tells the story of two estranged brothers who came together after their mother’s death.

The black comedy, set on a rural farm, stars Martin as Lorcan, alongside Seamus O’Hara who plays his older brother Turlough.

Ivan Martin said that everyone involved in the film had “every right to be proud of themselves”.

“It’s won an Oscar not because James has Down’s Syndrome – it’s a damn good film and they all acted their socks off in it. Deservedly it’s been recognised,” he told the Press Association.

Ahead of the ceremony, James Martin showed up in a Los Angeles pub – playing his harmonica for a rendition of Dirty Old Town in a jam session.

Mencap ambassador

Martin is also a Mencap ambassador in Northern Ireland and has previously said that having Down’s syndrome “doesn’t really hold me back”.

Martin told the BBC’s Today programme on Monday morning: “It doesn’t matter if you have Down’s syndrome, as long as you’re doing what you do. I do what I can to be funny.

“I’m the first person with Down’s Syndrome not just getting a Bafta but also getting an Oscar, especially in the time of my birthday – it’s just fantastic.”

His girlfriend, Barbara Norris, who is also a Mencap ambassador, told BBC News NI’s Talkback programme it was a magical moment and “the icing on his birthday cake”.

“It shows to everyone that it’s changing your mindset on how people with disabilities can achieve as much as everyone else can,” she added.

Martin is a keen runner and has previously taken part in park runs with The Falcons – a group of young adults with learning difficulties, who are part of the Queen’s parkrun community.

He can also be spotted at Irish league grounds on the weekend – often accompanied by his dad.

The day job

Martin’s day job for the past 10 years has been at Starbucks in Castle Lane and Victoria Square as well as Scalini restaurant in south Belfast.

His work colleagues are said to be very proud of his acting success, with good-luck posters adorning the walls of the coffee chain’s city stores.

James Martin
Image caption, An Irish Goodbye sees two brothers reunite as they try to come to terms with their mum’s death

But having traded his green apron of Starbucks for a swanky leopard-skin jacket at the Oscars, will he be swapping the kitchen for the stage permanently?

His dad said despite the fame, he couldn’t see his son leaving his jobs “any time soon”.

And Ivan Martin couldn’t be more proud.

“What an achievement, I’m just delighted,” he told BBC News NI.

“I haven’t been able to get him – he was at the Elton John After Party.

He said his son tackles everything with great gusto – and that has now paid off.

“He loves the acting, he’s loved this ride with the Oscars and the Baftas,” said Ivan.

“All I ever wanted for James was that he’d be happy; I’ll tell you what, he’s happy now.”


County Tyrone model and actress Kate Grant, who became the first model with Down’s syndrome to take part in Belfast Fashion Week in 2017, was delighted with Martin’s win.

“When I saw him – I thought: ‘Wow. You have done incredibly – everything is possible’.

“It gives hope for everyone else,” she told Talkback.

Kate Grant in 2017
Image caption, Kate Grant, pictured in 2017

Her mother Deirdre said Martin’s win was “a representation of what people with disabilities can do”.

“All people with disabilities have dreams, hopes and aspirations too. It is an iconic moment,” she said.

“James will inspire so many people coming behind and give so much hope.”

Source: British Broadcasting Corporation

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