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.
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, near 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 for them 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.
In 1865, this interest led Davitt to join the Irish Reublican Brotherhood (IRB) which had strong support among working-class Irish 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 a 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.
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 MP member of the Irish Parliamentry Party, 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 the year of his arrest, 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.
Davitt found that the West of Ireland was once again suffering near famine conditions. It was one of the wettest years on record and potato crop had failed for the third successive year. Davitt organized 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 October 21 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 organization 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 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.
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. 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.
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, for North East Cork in 1893 and for South Mayo in the 1895 general election. He welcomed Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill as a “pact of peace” between England and Ireland . 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.
Davitt left the Commons in 1896 with a prediction that no just cause could succeed there unless backed by massed agitation.. 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 1904.
Davitt’s ambition that the ownership of the land would be transferred from the landlords to the tenants finally materialised under O’Brien’s Wyndham Land 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.
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.
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 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. 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.
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 centre-turf at Celtic Park at the time of the football club’s inauguration in 1888. 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’. 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.
Extracts from an article to mark the centenary of Michael Davitt’s death:
|“||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 excorciated 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.||”|
At Straide, Davitts birthplace is now a museum taht commemorates his life and works, A life-sized bronze statue stands before it. Over Davitt’s grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words “Blessed is he who hungers and thorst 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.