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.



When I first began researching the roots of the AOH, I found many groups in Ireland dedicated to opposing the landlord’s oppressive tactics over the years.  The groups ranged from small local bands to regional alliances and although different in their methods, their common denominator was a passion for independence from foreign rule and the courage to stand up for that independence in spite of threatened dispossession, dungeon and death.

In 1776, the English traveler, Arthur Young, had observed:  “A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order, which a servant, labourer or cotter dare refuse to execute. Nothing satisfied him but an unlimited submission. Disrespect or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horse-whip with the most perfect security; a poor man would have his bones broke if he offered to lift his hand in his own defence. . . . Landlords of consequence have assured me, that many of their cotters would think themselves honoured by having their wives or daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live.”

Some of these defensive groups, because of their size, have been remembered in the annals of history like the Whiteboys, Defenders, United Irishmen and Ribbonmen, but what of the others?  What of the Whitefeet, Lady Clares, Terry Alts, Rockites and others who were not recorded by the British historian’s pen.  They were no less courageous, opposed colonial aggression and deserve to be remembered.  Take the Rockites, for example.

In the south-west of Ireland during 1821- 1824 there arose a movement, whose leader was a mysterious ‘Captain Rock’.  The Rockites caused a serious insurrection in January, 1822, in Limerick, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary. It was determined so serious that five regular regiments were sent from England to reinforce the local regiments.  An Insurrection Act, with curfew and trial without jury, was proclaimed  and 1,500 Munster men were immediately arrested, more than 200 transported to the Penal Colonies and 36 executed in February, 1822, alone. But raids and ambushes continued.  Obviously the Rockites were  a considerable size, but what did they hope to achieve?

The movement started, like other Irish agrarian movements, as a reaction to landlord’s abusive power in Ireland.  Between 1728 and 1845 the colonial landlord system caused 28 artificial famines which laid millions of Irish men, women and children in their graves while the landlords sent off rich harvests and herds to the English markets.  Then, in 1822 a major artificial famine threatened.  Noted journalist, William Cobbett, wrote against the treatment of the Irish poor and painted a horrendous picture of people starving in the midst of plenty in that year.  In June, 1822, in Cork alone, 122,000 were on the verge of starvation and existing on charity. How many people died is hard to say. A minimum figure of 100,000 has been proposed; most likely it was around 250,000. At the same time, landowners were able to ship 7 million pounds (weight) of grain and countless herds of cattle, sheep and swine to the markets in England.

Some of the Rockite leaders posted notices around Mallow bearing the signature of “John Rock, Commander-in-chief of the United Irishmen”.  That would seem to indicate that the Rockites had inherited the United Irishman philosophy.  One informer said that ‘Captain Rock’ was, in fact, the son of Arthur O’Connor, former United Irishman and later a general in Napoleon’s army, who fled to France after 1798.  John Hickey of Doneraile, another whom  the English suspected of being ‘Captain Rock’, also used United Irishman rhetoric and resurrected the old promise  of French aid.  He also noted that one of the Rockite aims was placing “Catholics upon a level with Protestants”.

The movement started gaining ground back in July, 1821, when a particularly cruel landlord’s son, Thomas Hoskins, was assassinated. The assassin called himself ‘Captain Rock’. His real name was Patrick Dillane.  Troops were called out to search for the assassin and cottages were broken into, doors smashed with sledge hammers and the people ill-treated. In reaction, rural workers began to organize and raid for arms were made not only in Limerick but also in north Co. Cork.  Between October, 1821, and April, 1822, it was recorded that 223 raids for arms and ammunition had occurred in Co. Cork alone. Raids were also occurring in Limerick and Kerry.

On September 15, 1821, a local magistrate, wrote to Chief Secretary Charles Grant (Lord Glenrig): “this insurrection will turn out more serious than any which has occurred in the south of Ireland for some years past.”  Patrick Dillane had gathered a band of followers in the isolated uplands on the Limerick, Kerry and Cork borders.   As the movement grew, Dillane handed his leadership to an elected body. Secret committees were organized with delegates sent to a central committee meeting in Mallow.  In December, 1821, British magistrates in Duhallow discovered a Rockite oath: “I will plant the Tree of Liberty in as many hearts as I can depend my life upon“.  They also found evidence of a widespread organization with co-ordinated groups through the southern counties.  By early 1822, the mountains of west Muskerry had become the central guerrilla base.

The insurrection started on January 24, 1822. The first major engagement between the Rockites and companies of Yeomanry troops, commanded by Lord Bantry, took place when Bantry, led his troops to the Pass of Keimaneigh. He was ambushed and several of his men were killed before he could retreat.  That same day Lt. Colonel Mitchell, commanding the garrison at Macroom, reported that hundreds of men armed mainly with pikes had surrounded the town, attacked and stopped the mail-coach from Cork City. The Rockites fought with “presumption and boldness although so badly armed”.  It was reported that upwards of 5,000 ‘rebels’ had surrounded the town and many houses of loyalists between Inchigeelagh and Macroom were destroyed. The local Millstreet magistrate, E McCarty, added: “The people are all risen with what arms they possess and crown all the heights close to the town ……” Cork City and Tralee were cut off for two days before troops fought their way through.  Reports of battles between the insurgents and troops were growing.

It would seem that according to the local newspapers and military reports, many thousands of people from Limerick, Kerry, Cork and Tipperary were being mobilized by express orders to report to certain rallying points at certain times. That shows an organization at a time when we are told that the United Irishmen had ceased to exist and agrarian unrest was confined to small groups of ‘disturbers’ from isolated communities rising without co-ordination against local landlords.

The so-called Rockite movement was more than just agrarian unrest.  It was trying to give birth to another national uprising. The mobiliztion of such diverse bodies of people, from such a large area, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that there was a directing committee with a premeditated plan for insurrection.  However, it was another example of pikes against cannon and the main bodies of insurgents had few weapons.  Rev. J. Orpen wrote in February, 1822. “by far the greater part were totally unarmed, driven like sheep to a slaughter house.”

On January 25, came the main British victory and the Rockite movement weakened when agricultural prices rose in 1824, allowing rural workers to return to a bearable level of subsistence.  Many insurgents called on magistrates for pardon, surrendering what arms they had and accepting a new oath of allegiance to the Crown. This opened the way for the introduction of more repressive policies by England.  An Insurrection Act was hurriedly passed and a new special police force set up in north Co. Cork where a chain of military posts, and two extra regiments to man them, were established.

However, this did not mean that the Rockites had gone away. In the following two years there were over 300 attacks in which arms were either taken or the produce of the great estates.  If the produce could not be distributed to the starving people then it was destroyed to prevent it being shipped to English markets for sale.  The remnants of the Rockites kept the tradition of opposition alive and passed it to the next generation where it became a building block for a future organization called the Ancient Order of Hibernians.