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.

James Connolly

On June 5, 1868, a boy was born of Irish parents in the section of Edinburgh, Scotland known as Little Ireland. That boy would become one of the most beloved leaders of his time, and one of Ireland’s greatest patriots; his name was James Connolly.

The drastic class distinction and poverty caused by anti-Irish discrimination in 19th century Scotland was a heavy influence on young James. Working as an apprentice printer at the age of 10, he became an avid reader, and by the time he was 14 had read most of the literature of Michael Davitt’s Land League on its war against the landlords in Ireland. It is no surprise that he grew extremely nationalistic, and citing the Fenian example of enlisting to learn military tactics, he joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment. He was sent to serve in Ireland which was then entering the Gaelic Revival and there was no shortage of historical and nationalist oriented material for Connolly’s hungry young eyes. Stationed in Dublin, he became aware of the close parallel between his Edinburgh environment and the pitiful conditions of the Dublin working class. Taking a note from history, he swore that as the Land League had successfully organized farmers against landlords, he would organize workers against the managers of industry.

After his discharge, he returned to Edinburgh, and began organizing labor. He was eventually blacklisted in Scotland, and was invited to be a labor organizer in Ireland where his knowledge of Irish history made him one of the most popular speakers of the Gaelic Revival. His popularity was so great he was invited on speaking tours of Scotland and England, and in 1902 was invited to America. He toured the U.S. lecturing labor unions and rally’s, and eventually settled in Troy, New York. He started a monthly paper called The Harp to enlist Irish-American support for the labor movement, and filled its pages with news from Ireland. This news brought Connolly closer to Irish affairs, and he realized where his heart had always been. He returned to Ireland, and settled in Belfast in 1910 to help organize the Irish Transport Workers Union.

In August, 1912 Connolly was called to Dublin where one of the greatest labor struggles in the history of western Europe – the Great Dublin Lockout – had begun. Management, in an attempt to break the union, locked the workers out of their jobs. Violence was rampant, and Connolly was instrumental in forming a force to protect the workers from management-controlled police; thus the Irish Citizen Army was born. Though the lockout ended in favor of management, the workers had made it so costly that it would never again be used against organized labor.

Convinced that ties with England were hampering the labor movement, Connolly began to preach open rebellion. Unknown to him, Padraic Pearse and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) were already planning such action. Connolly’s newspaper articles were so militant that IRB leader Tom Clarke was afraid Connolly would unknowingly tip their hand. On Jan 19, Connolly left for lunch and disappeared. For 3 days his kidnapping so infuriated the labor movement that his followers almost started a rebellion without him. On the third day, Connolly returned, and remained silent concerning his whereabouts. It was later said that he had been taken by the IRB to be briefed on the coming rising; Connolly was now a member of the IRB Military Council.

He had pledged the support of the Irish Citizen Army, and was thereafter a leading figure in the march toward rebellion. When the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was drawn up, it was Connolly who made the final revision, and it was Connolly who had it printed in the basement of Liberty Hall – his union headquarters. On Easter Monday 1916, Connolly addressed his Citizen Army for the last time. “There is no longer a Citizen Army and a Volunteer Force,” he said, “there is now only the Army of the Irish Republic.”

The date of the Rising was set, and despite several mishaps during the week prior, like the capture of Roger Casement, the loss of an arms shipment, and Volunteer leader Eoin MacNeill’s cancellation of mobilization orders, Connolly was determined to prevail. Yet, when William Smith O’Brien asked Connolly, as they left Liberty Hall on that fateful morning, “Is there any chance of success?” Connolly replied, “None whatever.”  At 11:35 AM he led his men into the streets of Dublin, and the pages of history. In one bloody week it was over.

Despite a wounded shoulder and a shattered ankle, Connolly remained (in Pearse’s words) “the guiding brain of our resistance to the end.”  With the Irish surrender, Connolly was taken to Dublin Castle as the executions of the leaders began. Day by day, one by one, the noblest men in Ireland were murdered by an English firing squad. On May 12, after 13 had been killed, Connolly was brought into the stonebreaker’s yard at Kilmainham Jail to face the firing squad. In death Connolly would become an even greater inspiration than he had been in life. Within two months, he and the other leaders would take their place with Tone and Emmet; and the Irish people, their fury finally aroused, would pick up the cause left to them, and carry it through the War of Independence. In her book The Fractured Emerald, author Emily Hahn wrote, “It was probably the manner of Connolly’s death that at last nauseated the public: his wound had been allowed to gangrene and he was in such a bad way that the soldiers had to carry him out on a stretcher and prop him up to receive the bullets.”