"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Michael Davitt After the Land League, 1882-1906

Carla King
UCD Press
Michael Davitt After the Land League, 1882-1906 Jacket Image


From the Prologue

Michael Davitt was an attractive and symbolic figure for many of his contemporaries in late nineteenth-century Ireland and beyond. His story of suffering and self-sacrifice, of a childhood eviction and boyhood in industrial exile gave expression to the trials of many others who shared similar exp­eriences. His youthful radicalism, harsh imprisonment and eventual triumph over adversity to launch the Land League aimed at striking back at the land­lordism that had evicted his family three decades earlier, formed the basis for many commentaries in his day. This was a late nineteenth-century nationalist trope of suffering and redemption and it is in this way that he was remembered for many decades. But in this trope much of the real man, feisty, thoughtful, radical and deeply engaged with the issues of his day, was lost.

Davitt's early life and role in the Land League have been well-served by historians; however his mature years remain largely in the shade, although recent studies have thrown valuable light on aspects of them.1 The aim of this study is to examine Davitt's career in the 24 years between his Land League activism and his death in 1906 and to demonstrate that while the formation and leadership of the Land League were perhaps his most important contribu­tion in terms of its long-term effects, they were far from being his only legacy. This book will address his participation in various significant developments of his day: the burgeoning labour movement in Britain; his continuing involvement in the land question, including the Plan of Campaign, relief efforts in the west of Ireland and the United Irish League; his involvement as a leading nationalist figure in Anglo-Irish relations and efforts to secure Home Rule; his journalism and authorship of six books; travels abroad, to the United States, Western Europe and the Middle East, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Russia, and his ideas concerning issues in international affairs, such as Anglo-American relations, British imperialism and the Boer War and Russia's treatment of its Jewish population. It will discuss his problematic relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell, his role in defending the Irish movement in the Times Commission on Parnellism and Crime and his part in the Parnellite split. Davitt was, in this period, an important figure in nationalist politics and through his books, journalism and speeches, a significant public intellectual who participated in many of the major debates of his time, including questions relating to education, nationalism and democracy, the labour movement, prison reform, imperialism and the women's question, and his opinions will be addres­sed. Without attention to his later years, it may be argued that we fail to grasp the scale and range of his impact.

Davitt remains interesting today partly for ways in which he was not typical of the nationalist leaders of the period and also because in many respects his ideas and preoccupations were ahead of his time. Born in Straide, County Mayo, in 1846 at the commencement of the Great Famine, his early years were characterised by adversity, indeed the humble nature of his background set him apart from most of the leadership, though not the rank-and-file of the land and national movements. He was eventually to become an MP but his father, a small tenant farmer, would not have qualified for the vote. Nevertheless, the family had been fairly comfortable prior to the Famine, and he records that they had 'three or four milch cows, a male donkey, pig and some sheep' on their small holding. But unable to weather the sustained crisis, arrears remained unpaid and they were evicted. This event was a formative experience for the four-year-old Davitt, with the family and their furniture thrown out on the road and the house burned down, a fact, he later commented to the The Times Special Commission, 'not calculated to make me the friend of Irish landlord­ism'.2 Unable to find shelter and unwilling to remain in the Swinford workhouse which would have meant the mother's separation from her young son, his parents Martin and Catherine Davitt, nee Kielty, decided to emigrate. They made their way to Haslingden, an industrial town in Lancashire, where Davitt spent his childhood and youth among an Irish community in exile. He later described the small community of Mayo emigrants who inhabited the ten houses at Rockhall. Poor in material terms, they shared a rich traditional culture of song, story-telling and music and from these neighbours and his parents the young Davitt heard accounts of the Great Famine and learned to blame their dispossession and exile on landlordism.3 His hatred of landlord­ism was to remain implacable and explains his unyielding response to attempts at conciliation in the early twentieth century (see chapter 13 below).

His father, whom Davitt refers to as having received 'a tolerably good education for a working man in Ireland in his day', a strong nationalist well read in ancient Irish and American history, was a storyteller or seanchai, and ran a night school in the house, in addition to helping neighbours by writing their letters.4 He was atypical of the Irish community of the town in being literate and moreover the possessor of six books, including McHale's catechism. Davitt later recalled the night school, some 20 or so young men ranged in rows 'under the raftered roof of our house in a room lit with two farthing candles, both of which I sometimes held, while my father in front, book in hand, patiently tried to improve the spelling and reading of his giant pupils'.5 John Dunleavy has surmised that he is likely to have received some home tutoring from his father prior to his enrollment in what he later called 'Bourke's spelling purgatory' in 1854.6 His mother, Catherine, whom T. W. Moody suggests was the dominant partner, is described by Davitt as 'a woman of great natural intel­ligence' with 'a remarkably accurate memory, great discernment of character and unremitting industry', although unable to read or write.7 Her black hair and handsome bearing, he recalls, attracted attention. He inherited the dark features and capacity for hard work of both parents, and his mother's resolute and passionate nature.

Like many working-class children of his day, Davitt left school at the age of nine after only a few months of formal education and entered employment at Parkinson's cotton mill at Elwood Bridge, close to Haslingden. Two years later, while tending a machine at Stelfox's Victoria Mill8 at Baxenden, his right arm was caught and crushed, necessitating its amputation a week later. The accident might have meant a life of penury but instead, with the help of a philanthropic manufacturer, John Dean, the boy was sent to a local Wesleyan school and given a good education for a further four years.9 This provided a foundation on which he continued to build throughout his life, becoming a wide and voracious reader. Davitt referred very little to his disability. He later noted:

Accidents were a common occurrence, and one could not walk down a single street in a manufacturing town fifty years ago, without seeing men in early life, and boys, maimed in arm or leg as a result of the extent to which mere industrial human nature had been subordinated ... to the property of the capitalist millionaire.10

Nevertheless, it must have made life very difficult for him at times. Friends recalled how self-sufficient he was and that he had taught himself to tie his shoe-laces and knot his tie with one hand.11 Nor did his disability prevent him from travelling on horseback or handling a camera.

After finding work in Haslingden's post office, the young Davitt con­tinued to read and study at night at the Haslingden Mechanics' Institute. Indeed, although largely self-taught he was undoubtedly better-read than most of his nationalist colleagues. His literary interests ranged very widely, including history and literature, even some science, but the main focus of his reading was practical - the various ills of society and how to remedy them.12 Intellectually curious, he was influenced in his youth by Chartist ideas, which had been strong in Lancashire in the 1830s and 1840s and still retained adherents when he was becoming politically aware in the 1860s. Chartism provided him with a solid grounding in working-class radicalism and left him with a life­long commitment to its democratic principles. He was a keen reader of Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper, the leading radical newspaper of the post-Chartist era, an awkward ally for mainstream Irish nationalists, as it combined support for Irish nationalism with determined secularism and anti-clericalism. The other formative influence in the development of his political ideology was Fenianism. Davitt recalled that his father was prominently involved in a secret society in the 1830s and had to flee to Britain to avoid prosecution. He also hints at his father's connections in a secret organisation in Haslingden in the 1850s: 'Once a month or so some mysterious visitor would call upon him at Rockhall, and it usually followed that the school on the evenings of such a visit was a little later in breaking up for the night.'13 So his parents probably were not surprised by their son's involvement in the Fenians a decade later. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had been founded by James Stephens in Dublin in 1858, while its American counterpart was established in New York by John O'Mahony the following year. By the mid-i86os it was strongly established among the youth in Ireland and Irish communities in Britain and Frank Haran, a contemporary fellow-Fenian related that in Haslingden at that time 'every smart respectable young fellow was sworn in'.14 Davitt was enrolled in 1865, at the age of 19 and rose rapidly in its ranks, becoming 'centre' for the Rossindale 'circle' of around 50 members, from which he led a detachment in the ill-conceived attack on Chester Castle February 1867, the plan being to procure arms for a planned uprising in Dublin.15 The project had been informed upon and the police were lying in wait for the attackers, although on discovering the situation Davitt was able to withdraw his men and allow them to return to their homes undetected. The following year he was appointed organising secretary and arms agent for England and Scodand, which required him to resign his post in Haslingden and travel around disguised as a hawker, meeting with other Fenians and organising arms ship­ments to Ireland. He was unaware that from February 1867, there had been a police file on him in Dublin Castle, although his importance in the movement was not realised until later.16 Davitt was to part company with the IRB in 1880 and resolutely abandoned its conspiratorial approach, as well as its focus on armed rebellion. Nonetheless, he retained many of its ideas and principles -the ultimate aim of a sovereign republic, its commitment to egalitarianism and non-sectarianism, which served, as will be seen, to distance him from the mainstream of nationalism as it was to develop in his day.