Micheal Davitt 1846-1906

Originally published for the 2006 CIF programme

Few have experienced a life of such adversity as Michael Davitt, born at Straide, County Mayo in March 1846. In 1850, his family were evicted from their smallholding and emigrated to Hasilden, Lancashire. Whilst working in a Cotton Mill aged eleven, young Michael lost his right arm but received no compensation. A local businessman, John Dean, took pity on Michael and saw that he received a good education courtesy of a nearby Wesleyan school.

By his early twenties, Davitt was a senior member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was engaged in the procurement and transporting of firearms to Ireland. As a result he had come to the notice of the authorities and, in 1870, was convicted of supplying arms to Fenians in Ireland and sentenced to 15 years hard labour. Prison conditions were harsh. When his work was done, prisoners returned to cells so deficient in ventilation that it was necessary to place his face at the bottom of the door to gain sufficient air with which to breath properly. Davitt served seven years and when released he was determined to improve conditions of prisoners, political or otherwise.

When he returned to Ireland in 1878 Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell worked together in establishing the Land League whose long-term objective was to secure for the tenant farmer the ownership of the land on which he toiled. Given the prevailing wisdom of the time, the notion of “peasant ownership” in Ireland was a distinctly revolutionary one. Indeed their tireless devotion to the aims of the Land League would result in the two men being imprisoned in 1881.

Following the demise of the Land League in the early 1880s Davitt supported Parnell in advocating the policy of Home Rule by which Ireland would be granted its own Parliament. The 1890s saw Davitt at various times elected to the House of Commons for three different Irish constituencies to further the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. A prolific writer for most of his life, Davitt reported for American newspapers on both the Boar War and the terrible persecutions suffered by the Jewish people in Russia.

Davitt had been a life long supporter of the labour movement in both Britain and Ireland and in the General Election of 1906 he campaigned vigorously for the fledgling British Labour Party. Davitt died in Dublin, May 1906, and is buried at Straide, County Mayo.