by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
Many brave Irishmen died in May, from the heroes of Easter Week to the patriots in Long Kesh who hunger struck for their rights. Yet, one who is rarely remembered is in their company today along with all of Ireland’s heroes in Tir na nOg. His name is Michael Davitt. He was born in Straide, Co.Mayo on March 25, 1846, the second of five children. His parents, Martin and Sabina Davitt (nee Kielty), were tenants. As was the case for many tenants at the time, they were evicted for non-payment of an excessive rent when Michael was only six years old.
As Martin emigrated to England seeking employment, Sabina refused shelter in the workhouse, which would break up her family. They were given accommodation by the parish priest, Fr. John McHugh. In 1845, Sabina and the children joined Martin who found work in a small mill town in Lancashire. Martin was also a teacher of Irish music and language, so it was only natural that young Michael grew up an Irish speaker.
The family barely made ends meet and in 1856, at the age of 10, young Michael had to take a job in a nearby cotton mill operating heavy machinery. Hours were long, working conditions were atrocious, and worker’s safety was the last consideration of the mill owner. Consequently, at the age of 12, Michael was caught in the machine on which he was working and his right arm was severed. Unable to work any longer, he was dismissed with no compensation. He subsequently attended a Wesleyan school for two years, after which he worked for a printing firm.
To say that the young man was bitter about the treatment his family had received, and that he subsequently endured, would be an understatement. In 1865, he joined the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to removing the English collar from the neck of Ireland. Two years later he was its’ organizing secretary in Northern England and Scotland. He was arrested in London in 1870 while awaiting a delivery of arms and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He spent the next seven years in prison isolation, compelled to work under inhuman conditions. Intercession on his behalf by Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell of the Irish Parliamentary Party convinced the British that Davitt was effectively broken, and he was released on parole on December 19, 1877.
But Michael was not broken. He had too many reminders of oppression to ever forget, from the frail old man that had once been his father, to the prematurely old woman that had been his mother, to his own empty sleeve. He knew that the cause of his people’s troubles was that they were prohibited from owning land. He knew the landlord class for the leeches that they were, and was determined to undermine and eliminate them. After his release from prison, he toured America with the active assistance of the great Irish patriot John Devoy, gaining the support of Irish Americans for a policy called “The New Departure” which was based in the slogan “The Land for the People.” He proposed non-violent action and parliamentary reform to bring about changes in the law. This approach did not have the official approval of the Fenian leadership and many were against his methods. Nevertheless, he subsequently became a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB.
In early 1879, Davitt returned to an Ireland which was again experiencing near starvation. After a series of wet years, the potato crop had failed for a third successive year and the traditional escape route of emigration was virtually closed due to a world wide economic depression stretching from America to Europe. There was no choice but to stay at home and fight to change the system. Plans were made for a gathering at Irishtown on April 20, to demonstrate for reduced rents. The gathering was huge and the first target was land owned by a Canon Ulick Burke. The result was an astounding success when the Canon was forced to reduce rents by 25%. Davitt took his idea to Irish Parliamentary leader Charles Stewart Parnell and on August 16, 1879, the Land League of Mayo was formally founded in Castlebar. On October 21, the National Land League was formed in Dublin with Parnell as President, and Davitt as Secretary. From that time on, the Land War was fought in earnest. British Prime Minister Gladstone at first replied with coercion, but with financial and moral support from the American Irish, the Land League fought back. At one demonstration in 1881, they even added a new word to the dictionary when they defeated a landlord’s agent by ostracizing him from all services – his name was Captain Boycott.
The crown passed the Land Act of 1881 to defuse the situation. It promised fair rent, fixed tenure, and free sale, but the Land League wanted more. The government reacted by arresting the leaders in an attempt to suppress the organization, but they could not stop the momentum. Miss Anna Parnell formed the Ladies Land League and took over the agitation where the men left off. The leaders were soon released.
After his release Davitt traveled widely, campaigning ceaselessly and his power was such that in 1885, the British government began the process of eliminating the evils of landlordism. In 1892 Davitt was elected MP for Mayo but was impatient with Parliament’s unwillingness to right obvious injustices swiftly. He left the House of Commons in 1896 with the prophetic prediction that “no just cause could succeed there unless backed by physical force.” He had verified his beliefs that while force might be necessary to bring opposing parties to the table; it was only at the table that permanent changes could be made. It is a tribute to men like John Devoy, Charles Stewart Parnell, and most especially Michael Davitt, that these peaceful methods are again being tried – for these are the ways of civilized men, and the only ways that have ever worked.
Michael Davitt remained a fighter for justice until his death in Dublin on May 31, 1906. By that time, the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland had become a reality, and Michael himself had become an international champion of liberty. To mark the centenary of his birth in 1946, a major demonstrating was held in Straide, with an attendance of more than 12,000, included Eamonn De Valera. The occasion was even covered live by the BBC. In 1996, ground was broken for a new museum in Straide dedicated to the life and accomplishments of one of Mayo’s most historic and best loved figures. It is near the monument that covers his grave. Michael Davitt was the first to successfully rescue his people from tyranny, and set Ireland on the road to becoming the proud and accomplished member of the international community that she is today. For this, every Irish man owes him a debt of thanks.