Michael Davitt

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For the Irish poet, see Michael Davitt (poet).
Michael Davitt c. 1878

Michael Davitt (Irish: Mícheál Mac Dáibhéid; 25 March 1846 – 30 May 1906) was an Irish republican and nationalist agrarian agitator, an inspirer of Mahatma Gandhi, a social campaigner, labour leader, journalist, Home Rule constitutional politician and Member of Parliament (MP), who founded the Irish National Land League.[1]

Early years[edit]

Michael Davitt was born in Straide, County Mayo, Ireland, at the height of the Great Famine, the second of five children born to Martin and Catherine Davitt. They were of peasant origin, but Davitt's father had a good education and could speak English and Irish. In 1850, when Michael was four and a half years old, his family was evicted from their home in Straide due to arrears in rent. They entered a local workhouse but when Catherine discovered that male children over 3 years of age had to be separated from their mothers, she promptly decided her family should travel to England to find a better life, like many Irish people at this time. They travelled to Dublin with another local family and in November reached Liverpool, making the 77 kilometre journey to Haslingden, in East Lancashire, by foot. There they settled. Davitt was brought up in the closed world of a poor Irish immigrant community with strong nationalist feelings and, in his case, a deep hatred of landlordism.

Child labour[edit]

After attending infant school the young Davitt began working at the age of nine as a labourer in a cotton mill but a month later he left and spent a short period working for Lawrence Whitaker, one of the leading cotton manufacturers in the district, before taking a job in Stellfoxe's Victoria Mill, in Baxenden. Here he was put to operate a spinning machine. On 8 May 1857 his right arm was entangled in a cogwheel and mangled so badly it had to be amputated. He did not receive any compensation.

When he recovered from his operation, a local benefactor, John Dean, helped to send him to a Wesleyan school, which was connected to the Methodist Church and where he received a good education. Although he was an Irish Catholic emigrant, he did not suffer any form of sectarian abuse. In 1861, at the age of 15, he went to work in a local post office, owned by Henry Cockcroft, who also ran a printing business. In spite of his injury, he learned to be a typesetter. He was later promoted to letter carrier and book-keeper and worked there for five years.

Around that time, Davitt started night classes at the local Mechanics Institute and used its library. He became interested in Irish history and the contemporary Irish social situation after coming under the influence of Ernest Charles Jones, the veteran Chartist leader, and his radical views on land nationalisation and Irish independence.[2]

Fenians[edit]

In 1865, this interest led Davitt to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) which had strong support among working-class Irish immigrants. He soon became part of the inner circle of the local group. Two years later he left the printing firm to devote himself full-time to the IRB, as organising secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising arms smuggling to Ireland using his new job as "hawker" (travelling salesman) as cover for this activity.

Davitt was involved in a failed raid on Chester Castle to obtain arms on 11 February 1867 in advance of the Fenian Rising in Ireland, but evaded the law. In the Haslingden area he helped to organise the defence of Catholic churches against Protestant attack in 1868. Having come to the attention of the police he was arrested in Paddington Station in London on 14 May 1870 while awaiting a delivery of arms. He was convicted of treason felony and sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude in Dartmoor Prison; Davitt felt that he had not had a fair trial or the best of defence. The trial is documented online.[3]

He was kept in solitary confinement and received very harsh treatment during the un-remitted portion of his term. In prison he concluded that ownership of the land by the people was the only solution to Ireland's problems. He managed to get a covert contact to an Irish Parliamentary Party MP, John O'Connor Power, who began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners. He often read Davitt's letters in the House of Commons, with his Party pressing for an amnesty for Irish nationalist prisoners. Partially due to public furore over his treatment, Davitt was released (along with other political prisoners) on 19 December 1877, when he had served seven and half years, on a "ticket of leave". He and the other prisoners were given a hero's welcome on landing in Ireland.

Davitt rejoined the IRB and became a member of its Supreme Council. The British Government had introduced a concept of "fair rents" in 1870 as a part of the first of the Irish Land Acts, but he continued to hold that the common people of Ireland could not improve their lot without the ownership of their land, and frequently insisted at Fenian meetings that "the land question can be definitely settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors".

In 1873 while Davitt was imprisoned his mother and three sisters had settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1878 Davitt travelled to the United States in a lecture tour organised by John Devoy and the Fenians, hoping to gain the support of Irish-American communities for his new policy of "The Land for the People". He returned in 1879 to his native Mayo where he at once involved himself in land agitation.

The Land War[edit]

A Land League poster from the early 1880s

Many people in the West of Ireland were suffering from the 1879 famine. It was one of the wettest years on record and the potato crop had failed for the third successive year. Davitt organised a large meeting that attracted (by varying accounts) 4,000 to 13,000 people in Irishtown, County Mayo on 20 April. Davitt himself did not attend the meeting, presumably because he was on ticket-of-leave and did not want to risk being sent back to prison in England. He made plans for a huge campaign of agitation to reduce rents. The local target was a Roman Catholic priest, Canon Ulick Burke, who had threatened to evict his tenants. A campaign of non-payment pressured him to cancel the evictions and reduce his rents by 25%.

On 16 August 1879, the Land League of Mayo was formally founded in Castlebar, with the active support of Charles Stewart Parnell. Meetings were every Sunday. On 21 October it was superseded by the Irish National Land League. Parnell was made its President and Davitt was one of the secretaries. This united practically all the different strands of land agitation and land movements since the Tenant Right League of the 1850s under a single organisation and, from then until 1882, the "Land War" in pursuance of the "Three Fs" (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) was fought in earnest. The League organised resistance to evictions and reductions in rents, as well as aiding the work of relief agencies. Landlords' attempts to evict tenants led to violence, but the Land League denounced it.

One of the actions the Land League took during this period was the campaign of ostracism against the land agent Captain Charles Boycott in the autumn of 1880. This incident led to Boycott abandoning Ireland in December and coined the word boycott. In 1881 Davitt was again imprisoned for his outspoken speeches when he had accused the chief secretary of Ireland W. E. Forster of "infamous lying". His ticket of leave was revoked and he was sent to Portland jail. Parnell protested loudly in the House of Commons and the Irish members protested so strongly that they were ejected from the House. The government passed the Irish Coercion Bill.

Travels and marriage[edit]

In an 1882 by-election Davitt was elected Member of Parliament for County Meath but was disqualified because he was in prison, where he had developed the theory that land nationalisation, and not peasant proprietorship, was the key to Ireland's prosperity. Upon his release in 1882 he travelled to the United States with William Redmond to collect funds for the Land League, then campaigned for land nationalisation and an alliance between the British working class, Irish labourers and tenant farmers. This alienated Parnell and even many of the tenants, but after a meeting with Parnell at his house, Avondale, in September 1882 he agreed to co-operate with Parnell and set aside his plans for land nationalisation.

Davitt's support of the Irish National League, now under Parnell's and the Party's control, earned him a final spell in prison in 1883, and by 1885 his health had broken. Although only in his forties he had become a post-revolutionary figure and began lecturing on humanitarian issues in extended tours which included Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, South Africa, the Holy Land, South America, Russia and most of continental Europe including almost every part of Ireland and Britain. In 1886 Davitt married Mary (b. 1861), daughter of John Yore of St. Joseph, Michigan, United States. In 1887 he then visited Wales to support land agitation.[2] The couple returned to Ireland and lived for a while in the Land League Cottage in Ballybrack, County Dublin that was given to them as a wedding gift by the people of Ireland. They had five children, three boys and two girls, though one, Kathleen, died of tuberculosis aged seven, in 1895. One son, Robert Davitt, became a TD, while another, Cahir Davitt, became President of the High Court.

Despite his differences with Parnell on the land question, he was a strong supporter of the alliance between the Liberal Party and the Irish Parliamentary Party and maintained this position in 1890 when the party split over Parnell's divorce case. Davitt, however, sided with the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation faction in the House of Commons at Westminster, where he became very hostile towards Parnell and was one of his most vociferous critics. He also became increasingly impatient with what he saw as the inability or unwillingness of Parliament to right injustice.

Labour Federation[edit]

To further those ends he founded and edited a journal, Labour World, in September 1890, then initiated in January 1891 in Cork the Irish Democratic Labour Federation, an organisation which adopted an advanced social programme including proposals for free education, land settlement, worker housing, reduced working hours, labour political representation and universal suffrage. The Federation reflected his conviction, to which he adhered to all his life, that peasant land proprietorship must go hand in hand with land nationalisation.

Davitt was subsequently elected for North Meath in the 1892 general election,[4] but his election was overturned on petition.[5] However he was promptly elected unopposed for North East Cork at a by-election in February 1893,[5] but resigned from the Commons on 9 May 1893.[6] At the next general election, in 1895, he stood in South Mayo, where he was returned unopposed.[7] He welcomed Gladstone's Second Home Rule Bill as a "pact of peace" between England and Ireland.[2] He supported the British Labour leader Keir Hardie and favoured the foundation of a Labour Party, but his commitment to the Liberal Party for the sake of Home Rule prevented him joining the new party – resulting in a breach with Hardie lasting until 1905.[8]

Davitt resigned from the Commons again on 26 October 1899[6] with a prediction that no just cause could succeed there unless backed by massed agitation.[citation needed] Parliament alleviated this need by granting full democratic control of all local affairs, a form of "grass roots home rule", to County and District Councils under the 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act. Davitt then co-founded in 1898 together with William O'Brien the United Irish League and organised it in Mayo and beyond. In 1899 he left his seat in parliament for good in protest against the Boer War, visiting South Africa to lend support to the Boer cause. His experiences inspired his Boer fight for Freedom, published in 1902.[9]

Davitt's ambition that the ownership of the land would be transferred from the landlords to the tenants finally materialised after the 1902 Land Conference under O'Brien's Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act (1903), but not as he had campaigned for. He condemned the act that offered generous inducement to the landlords to sell their estates to the tenants, the Irish Land Commission mediating to then collect land annuities instead of rents, on the grounds that landlords should not receive any compensation for land which Davitt felt belonged to the state. He never gave up his adherence to land nationalisation. Later in 1906 after the Liberal Party came to power, his open support for their policy of state control of schooling, rather than denominational education, merged into a major conflict between Davitt and the Irish Catholic Church.[10]

Davitt died in Elphis Hospital, Dublin on 30 May 1906, aged 60, from blood poisoning. The fact that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland attended the funeral was a public indication of the dramatic political journey this former Fenian prisoner had taken. The plan had been not to have a public funeral, and hence Davitt's body was brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary, Clarendon Street, Dublin. However, the next day over 20,000 people filed past his coffin. His remains were then taken by train to Foxford, County Mayo, and buried in the grounds of Straide Abbey at Straide (near Foxford), near where he was born.

Achievements[edit]

Michael Davitt's unceasing efforts were instrumental to future Irish Land Acts after the Gladstone First Land Act of 1870. The most important of these was the Land Act of 1881, which finally granted "the three Fs" under Davitt's "Irish Democratic Land Federation". The next stage was the 'Ashbourn Act (1885)'. The Ashbourne Act was the most effective land act as it offered tenants the choice to purchase their land from the government with a fixed rate, easy to pay back loan. Vast tracts of land were bought up by the government to be sold to tenants. This Act was passed by the Conservatives as an attempt to appease the Home Rule Party, although it failed to do so.

Davitt is commonly regarded[citation needed] as one of the founders of the British Labour Party; his support for socialism in his latter years was based on the premise that Ireland could only achieve independence with the support of the British working class. This, along with his call for land nationalisation, often made him much misunderstood in Ireland.[8] But he remained an inspiration for many others, such as for D. D. Sheehan's Irish Land and Labour Association (ILLA), and years later Mahatma Gandhi attributed the origin of his own mass movement of peaceful resistance in India to Davitt and the Land League.[1]

Davitt was a frequent visitor to Scotland where he was closely associated with the crofters' struggles in the Highlands and Islands. He also urged the Irish immigrant population to integrate into the politics of their adopted country and in particular the infant Labour Movement rather than to pursue a particularly Irish agenda. In Glasgow, where he had a strong following, Davitt's prestige was attested to by the fact that he was invited to lay the first turf of the stadium of Celtic Football Club in 1892. The turf was stolen overnight giving rise to a poem which began: "The curse of Cromwell blast the hand that stole the sod that Michael cut; May all his praties turn to sand – the crawling, thieving scut"!

Davitt was a brave and proud man; an ascetic who accepted no tribute for his work; on occasions impatient with those who disagreed with him; sometimes expecting too much from the farmers, as in 1885 when he described them responding in 'self-interest' rather than 'self-sacrifice’.[2] He supported himself with writing and lectures and as a journalist defended the underprivileged, in 1903 publishing the book Within the pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia. This was based on reports made by him to an American newspaper in 1903 on anti-Semitic outrages in Russia and travel to Russia to investigate the incident. A pogrom was initiated in the town of Kishinev in the Russian province of Bessarabia, resulting in 51 people being killed and over 500 injured, see the Kishinev pogrom.

Legacy[edit]

Extracts from an article to mark the centenary of Michael Davitt's death:[11]

He was only 24 years when he was imprisoned as a convicted felon for terrorist activities. Yet, Davitt learned from such adversity while in prison. He came to the conclusion, as he records in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, that violence was self defeating, and that membership of an underground, armed conspiracy merely invited the counter-productive attention of State agents infiltrating the movement and recruiting informers.

These insights became the bedrock of Davitt's conviction to become an apostle of non-violence, though he could use incendiary language on occasion and in further brushes with the law. Lastingly, however, he emerged as a symbol of human solidarity.

Pertinently, the historian Carla King, in her forward to Davitt's Collected Writings 1868–1906, Edition Synapse, remarked that during seven years of a brutal prison regime, Davitt turned, with a greatness of soul and a power to forgive reminiscent of Nelson Mandela a century later, from physical force terrorist to a constitutional politician. Davitt inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his campaign against the British Empire.

Indeed, Davitt, the one-armed Irishman who spoke with a pronounced Lancashire accent, is best remembered in history books as a leading figure in the 19th century Home Rule movement, and especially for his role as a revolutionary founder of the Land League. Successive Land Acts passed by the House of Commons gave Irish tenants not just Davitt's three Fs – fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale – but allowed them to buy their land from oppressive, but mainly absentee landlords . That class was worn down by 'Captain Boycott'.
While Parnell was venerated posthumously as a martyr, Davitt was excoriated as a Judas. Remarkably, by 1916, just 10 years after his death, Davitt had been deliberately air-brushed out of the script for Irish freedom. 'Republican' Ireland declined to acknowledge him as among 'the Greats'. Pearse did not assign Davitt a place in the Republican pantheon of Theobald Wolfe Tone, John Mitchel, Fintan Lalor – or even Parnell.

Insufficient attention has been paid to Davitt's role as an ex-Fenian who took the road of peaceful, democratic politics by renouncing his Fenian oath and taking a seat in the House of Commons at Westminster. He (would have) totally excluded violence as a means of advancing Irish unification.

Memory[edit]

At Straide, Davitt's birthplace is now a museum that commemorates his life and works. A life-sized bronze statue stands before it. The bridge from Achill Island to the mainland is named after him. Over Davitt's grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words '’Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it'’.

The town of Haslingden has also commemorated Davitt's link with it through a public monument erected in the presence of Davitt's son. The inscription reads as follows:

"This memorial has been erected to perpetuate the memory of Michael Davitt with the town of Haslingden. It marks the site of the home of Michael Davitt, Irish patriot, who resided in Haslingden from 1853 to 1867. / He became a great world figure in the cause of freedom and raised his voice and pen on behalf of the oppressed, irrespective of race or creed, that serfdom be transformed to citizenship and that man be given the opportunity to display his God given talents for the betterment of mankind. / Born 1846, died 1906. / Erected by the Irish Democratic League Club, Haslingden (Davitt Branch)."

Haslingden also organised a 'Exile & Exiles' Festival in 2006 which did much to celebrate the life of Michael Davitt, as well as place it in the context of other immigrants to the community. This included 'The Jail Bird', a performance about Davitt, created by Horse and Bamboo Theatre with local school students.

Of the people cited as inspirations by northwest Mayo's Shell to Sea campaign, such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, Davitt is the sole Irish person. On their release from prison, the Rossport Five laid a wreath at his grave in Straide.

A debate has also started on the extent to which Davitt altered his recall of the events in his remarkable life. One of Michael Davitt's biographers, Professor Moody, remarked in 1982 that Davitt's habit of: "..reinterpreting his past actions and attitudes in accordance with altered conditions was partly the outcome of a longing for integrity in his political conduct".[12]

Popular culture[edit]

  • Fenian author William C. Upton dedicated his 1882 novel Uncle Pat's Cabin to Davitt: "Noble Felon! with the fire of past events yet burning, and my pen dipped deep into the bosom of that spirit of which you are the embodiment, allow me to dedicate (this novel) to your enduring memory."
  • Irish folk musician Andy Irvine's 1996 Patrick Street song, "Forgotten Hero", is a tribute to Davitt. In addition, Irish-born musician Donal Maguire has recorded an album of songs based on Davitt's life, entitled Michael Davitt: The Forgotten Hero?.
  • He is mentioned in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Dailey, Lucia (17 March 2013). "Irish patriot left worldwide mark". Scranton, Pa. Scranton Times Tribune. Retrieved 14 May 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004)
  3. ^ http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/search.jsp?form=searchHomePage&_divs_fulltext=&_persNames_surname=davitt&_persNames_given=&_persNames_alias=&_offences_offenceCategory_offenceSubcategory=&_verdicts_verdictCategory_verdictSubcategory=&_punishments_punishmentCategory_punishmentSubcategory=&_divs_div0Type_div1Type=&fromMonth=&fromYear=&toMonth=&toYear=&ref=&submit.x=58&submit.y=21
  4. ^ Brian M. Walker, ed. (1978). Parliamentary election results in Ireland 1801–1922. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. p. 148. ISBN 0-901714-12-7. 
  5. ^ a b Walker, op. cit., page 150
  6. ^ a b Department of Information Services (9 June 2009). "Appointments to the Chiltern Hundreds and Manor of Northstead Stewardships since 1850". House of Commons Library. Retrieved 30 November 2009. 
  7. ^ Walker, op. cit., page 155
  8. ^ a b A New Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, p.105-105, D. J. Hickey & J. E. Doherty , Gill & MacMillan (2003) ISBN 0-7171-2520-3
  9. ^ Davitt, Michael: The Boer Fight for Freedom, New York, London 1902. http://books.google.com/books?id=nqNH-neQG8kC&dq=editions:PDU0ktSxAGAC&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eE2SUoSRB8mZtAaatIGwBA&ved=0CDsQ6AEwAw
  10. ^ Biography "The long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891–1918" pps. 83, 225, Patrick Maume (1999)
  11. ^ Michael Davitt: Still in the shadow of the gunmen, John Cooney, Irish Independent, 27 May 2006
  12. ^ Moody TW "Davitt and the Irish Revolution" (Oxford 1982) page 552.

Works[edit]

  • Michael Davitt, The Prison Life of Michael Davitt (1878)
  • Davitt, Michael (1882). The land league proposal. Glasgow: Cameron & Ferguson. 
  • Michael Davitt, Leaves from a Prison Diary (2 vols) (1885)
  • Michael Davitt, Defence of the Land League (1891)
  • Michael Davitt, Life and Progress in Australasia (1898)
  • Michael Davitt, Within the Pale, The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia (1903)
  • Michael Davitt, Boer fight for freedom (1904)
  • Michael Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904) ISBN 1-59107-031-7
  • Michael Davitt, Collected Writings, 1868–1906 Carla King (2001) ISBN 1-85506-648-3
  • Michael Davitt, The "Times"-Parnell Commission: Speech delivered by Michael Davitt in defence of the Land League (1890)
  • Irish Political Prisoners, Speeches of John O'Connor Power M.P., in the House of Commons on the Subject of Amnesty, etc., and a Statement by Mr Michael Davitt, (ex-political prisoner) on Prison Treatment (March 1878)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Bernard O'Hara: Davitt: Irish Patriot and Father of the Land League, Tudor Gate Press (2009) ISBN 978-0-9801660-1-9
  • Bernard O'Hara: Michael Davitt Remembered, The Michael Davitt National Memorial Association (1984) ASIN B0019R83VG
  • D.B. Cashman and Michael Davitt, The Life of Michael Davitt and the Secret History of The Land League (1881)
  • Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Michael Davitt : revolutionary, agitator and labour leader (1908, etc.)
  • M.M. O'Hara, Chief and Tribune: Parnell and Davitt (1919)
  • Carla King: Michael Davitt, Dundalk (1999)
  • Fintan Lane and Andrew Newby (eds), Michael Davitt: New Perspectives, Dublin (2009)
  • T. W. Moody: Davitt and Irish Revolution 1846–82, Oxford (1981)
  • Kevin Haddick Flynn: Davitt – Land Warrior (History Today May 2006)
  • Laurence Marley: Michael Davitt Four Courts Press (2007) ISBN 978-1-84682-066-3
  • Jane Stanford, 'That Irishman The Life and Times of John O'Connor Power', The History Press Ireland, 2011

External links[edit]

Institutions[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Alexander Martin Sullivan
Robert Henry Metge
Member of Parliament for Meath
1882
With: Robert Henry Metge
Succeeded by
Edward Sheil
Robert Henry Metge
Preceded by
Pierce Mahony
Member of Parliament for Meath North
1892
Succeeded by
James Gibney
Preceded by
William O'Brien
Member of Parliament for Cork North-East
Feb. 1893 – May 1893
Succeeded by
William Abraham
Preceded by
Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan
Member of Parliament for Kerry East
1895
Succeeded by
James Boothby Burke Roche
Preceded by
James Francis Xavier O'Brien
Member of Parliament for Mayo South
1895–1899
Succeeded by
John O'Donnell