Michael Davitt

In 1996, ground was broken for a new museum in the west of Ireland – in Straide, Co. Mayo, to be precise.  It is a museum dedicated to the life and accomplishments of one of Mayo’s most historic and best loved figures.  His name was Michael Davitt and he was born in Straide on March 25, 1846, as the second of five children. His parents, Martin and Sabina Davitt (nee Kielty), were tenants and the Davitt family was evicted by the landlord 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 Haslingden a mill town in Lancashire.  Martin was also a teacher of Irish music and language, so it was only natural that young Michael grew up as a native 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, two years later, 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 in the mill 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 IRB or Fenian Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to Irish independence.  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 a ticket of leave (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, many of whom were openly hostile to his methods.  Nevertheless, he subsequently became a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB.

In early 1879,  Davitt returned home to a country which was again experiencing near starvation. It was one of the wettest years on record, 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.  At a meeting in Claremorris, plans were made for a gathering at Irishtown on April 20, to demonstrate for reduced rents.  The meeting 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 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 by ostracizing his agent from all services in a dispute over evictions – 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 deemed it insufficient.  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 released.

After his release Davitt traveled widely campaigning ceaselessly for oppressed people everywhere.  He was becoming an international hero 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, 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 the time of his death at age 60, 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.

Today, near the monument that covers his grave, is a  museum to his memory and to his accomplishments – not the least of which was to 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 a debt of thanks to a man named Davitt from Mayo.

Katty

He called her Katty. That was the name Thomas J Clarke had for Kathleen Daly, niece of a fellow prisoner with whom he had been incarcerated for Fenian activities against England. She was a member of an Irish nationalist family, niece of patriot John Daly and sister of executed 1916 leader Edward Daly. She later became the wife of Tom Clarke and guardian of the dreams and plans held sacred by a whole generation of Irish patriots. This is her story.

She was born on April 11, 1878. By the time her uncle John was released from British prison in 1895, 17-year old Kathleen already knew the man she would marry, though they had never met. She knew him through her uncle’s letters praising the courage, determination, and tenacity of his fellow prisoner, Tom Clarke. When Clarke was released three years later, he came to the Daly home in Limerick to recuperate. Little did her uncle realize the awe in which young Kathleen held his old friend, until years’ end when they announced their engagement. Tom left for New York in 1900 to secure a job, and in 1901, his Katty joined him there. They married, and settled in the Bronx. A year later, they moved to Brooklyn, and eventually bought a farm in Manorville, Long Island.

When war between England and Germany seemed inevitable, Tom and other high-ranking members of Clan na Gael felt that Ireland’s day of liberation was at hand. He was asked to return to Ireland and reorganize the outdated and inactive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), but Katty would not hear of it. She remembered the frail and battered figure that had limped to her home in 1898, nearly dead from starvation and torture. She pleaded that he had done as much as any man could be expected to do for his country, and reminded him that he was still a parolee, subject to arrest if the authorities even suspected what he was up to.

Tom, reminded her of the premature death of her father, the torture endured by her uncle, and the grief imposed on her mother and grandmother by a cruel and reckless alien force in their homeland. In his own persuasive way, Tom had fanned the smoldering coals of Katty’s nationalist soul, and rekindled her passion for Ireland. Together,they sailed to Ireland,and into the pages of Irish history.

Kathleen’s strong nationalist sentiment made her invaluable to Tom’s re-organizing activities. Together, they started a nationalist newspaper, and, as Tom organized the men of Ireland into the Irish Volunteers, Katty joined the Daughters of Ireland, and Cumann na mBan – the ladies auxiliary to the Volunteers – and did likewise with the women. Together,they prepared an army of men and women to strike at Easter, 1916, for Ireland’s freedom. Her patriotism, as well as that of her family was well known to the IRB Supreme Council. As evidence of their confidence in her, Kathleen was chosen to safeguard the details of the entire Volunteer network with the names of secondary and tertiary leaders throughout the country. She was also entrusted with the plans, property and funds of the organization with the instructions that if they were arrested after the rising, she was to pass them on to an individual of her choosing who could organize a new generation of leaders and fulfill their dream of a free Ireland. “It was to my mind great foresight on the part of the IRB to have done this,” she said, “as I was in a position after the Rising, when all the key men whose names I had were arrested, of knowing where to take hold and keep things going.”

Thus it was, that when Tom Clarke and the other leaders were executed after the 1916 Easter Rising, their dream did not die with them. After the Rising, England rounded up and interned many of Ireland’s men of military age, whether they were members of the Volunteers or not. Katty Clarke used the funds left her to set up an Irish Republican Prisoners Dependant’s Fund with offices around the country, based on the Volunteers Network the IRB had given her. She staffed them primarily with women of Cumann na mBan, which grew from 63 to 800 branches nationwide by 1921. These offices cared for the families of the men who were interned until they were released in December for lack of evidence. Later, those offices helped settle returning prisoners, many of whom had not been active Volunteers when they were incarcerated, but who certainly were upon release. She interviewed many of the returning men and decided who would be the new leader; it was a wise decision when she turned over the organization’s files and assets to Michael Collins. Collins used the network of offices set up by Katty Clarke to reorganize a national liberation force and began the War of Independence that fought England to the Treaty table in 1921 and the ultimate creation of the Republic of Ireland.

Through the War of Independence, into the years of the Irish Free State and to the creation of the Republic of Ireland, Mrs. Tom Clarke, as she preferred to be called, served her country as no other woman had. In addition to being a loyal wife and mother, she had been prisoner, Judge, Deputy Minister, Senator, and became the first woman Lord Mayor in Irish history as Lord Mayor of Dublin. After her death at 94 in 1972, she received the rare honor of a state funeral.

Remembered for her many deeds, she is perhaps best remembered for her statement to Cumann na mBan after the execution of her husband Thomas J. Clarke. She said, “Without the efforts of the women of Cumann na mBan, the Rising would have been for nothing.” She told them, “Our men are nearly all in prison, some are dead, and it is up to us to carry on their work . . . Let us show our enemy what Irish women can do!”