Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Davitt, Michael

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DAVITT, MICHAEL (1846–1906), Irish revolutionary and labour agitator, born on 25 March 1846, at Straide, co. Mayo, came of a Roman catholic peasant stock, originally from Donegal. His father, who subsisted with his family on a small holding, was head of an agrarian secret society in his youth, and was evicted in 1852 during the clearances that followed the great Irish famine. He emigrated with his wife and children to Lancashire, and settled at Haslingden. Here the boy Michael, as soon as be was able to work, was sent to a cotton mill. Forced in 1857 to mind a machine ordinarily attended by a youth of eighteen, he was caught in the machinery, and his mangled right arm had to be amputated. Thus disabled before he was twelve, he was removed from the factory and sent to a Wesleyan school. While still a lad, he organised a band of youths to defend catholic churches at Rochdale, Bacup, and Haslingden, which were threatened with destruction in anti-catholic riots. On leaving school, at about fifteen, he became in 1861 printer's devil and newsboy with a printer, who was also postmaster at Haslingden; afterwards he worked as book-keeper and assistant letter-carrier in the same employment. In 1865 he joined the Fenian organisation, and soon became 'centre' of the local (Rossendale) 'circle.' In February 1867 he was one of those told off to attack Chester Castle and seize the arms there. He first showed his abilities in extricating himself and his comrades from this fiasco. In 1868 he was appointed organising secretary of the Irish Republican Brotherhood for England and Scotland, and left his employment at Haslingden to assume the role of a commercial traveller in firearms, as a cloak for his revolutionary work buying firearms and shipping them to Ireland. On 14 May 1870 he was arrested at Paddington while awaiting a consignment of arms from Birmingham. Tried at the Old Bailey by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn, he was sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude for treason-felony. The principal evidence against him was a letter which he had written to prevent a young Fenian (whose name Davitt never would reveal) from assassinating a supposed spy, but which bore on the face of it (as Davitt's aim in writing was to gain time for the interference of the heads of the organisation) an apparent approval of the deed. He spent over seven years in prison ten months in Millbank, and the remainder (except one month at Portsmouth in 1872) in Dartmoor. A pamphlet prepared by him in 1878, as the basis of his evidence (20 June 1878) before the royal commission on the working of the Penal Servitude Acts, gives a full account of what he endured, and how every prison rule was strained against him. On 19 Dec. 1877 he was released on ticket-of-leave, as a result of the exertions of Isaac Butt [q. v.] and the Amnesty Association. In prison he had thought out his plans for an Irish movement of a new kind, to blend revolutionary and constitutional methods, while abandoning secret conspiracy. He at once rejoined the Fenian movement, with the view of converting its heads to this plan. After lecturing for some months in Great Britain on behalf of the amnesty movement, he went in August 1878 to America, whither his family had emigrated. Here he met not only all the leaders of the constitutional and extreme Nationalists but also Henry George. The latter's land programme harmonised with and developed the views which Davitt had already formed independently in prison. Before leaving America, he made a speech at Boston, on 8 Dec. 1878, in which he outlined the new departure in Irish agitation. The essence of his suggestion was to bring the movement for Irish independence into close touch with the realities of life in Ireland by linking it up with the agrarian agitation, and to give the latter a wider scope by demanding the complete abolition of landlordism. On his return to Ireland he laid his plan before the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which rejected it. Davitt proceeded with the work on his own responsibility, enlisting the sympathy of most of the rank and file Fenians. He organised a meeting at Irishtown, Mayo, on 20 April 1879, when the new land programme was put forward. A second meeting, at Westport on 8 June, was attended by Charles Stewart Parnell [q. v.], whom Davitt had convinced of the possibilities of the new movement. The agitation rapidly spread through the west; in August Davitt grouped the various local committees into the 'Land League of Mayo.' The 'Land League of Ireland,' in which Parnell's influence was soon to clash with Davitt's, came into being in October. In November Davitt and others were arrested and tried at Sligo for their share in the movement; but the prosecutions were dropped early in 1880. After the general election of 1880, in which Davitt assisted to procure the successes of Parnell's party, he was expelled from the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; he remained an ordinary member of the body till 1882. In May 1880 Davitt went to America to organise the American Land League, and to raise funds. On his return he founded the Ladies' Land League, and devoted himself to the task of preventing outrages in connection with the policy of 'boycotting.' He also penetrated into Ulster, and addressed an enthusiastic meeting of Orangemen at Armagh on the land question. He urged the issue of the 'No Rent' manifesto in Feb. 1881 instead of later, but the Parliamentary section of the movement post-poned its publication till Oct., when the liberal government retorted by suppressing the Land League. Meanwhile Davitt had been arrested as a ticket-of-leave man on 3 Feb. 1881, and endured a second but milder term of penal servitude in Portland. While in prison he was elected to parliament for co. Meath (24 Feb. 1882), but was disqualified as a treason-felony prisoner. He was released on 6 May 1882, and forthwith learned from Parnell that he had concluded the 'Kilmainham Treaty' with the government, that the agitation was to be mitigated, and that the Ladies' Land League had been suppressed by Parnell for declining to accept the compromise. Davitt at once prepared to fight Parnell in favour of a resumption of the agitation; but the assassination of Lord Frederick Cavendish, which took place on the day of Davitt's release, threw him back into alliance with Parnell, whose proposed co-operation with liberalism was necessarily for the time at an end.

After another visit to America, in June 1882, Davitt induced Parnell to found the National League, successor of the suppressed Land League; the programme of the new organisation, however, marked the triumph of parliamentarianism over the more revolutionary ideas of Davitt. He declined office in the National League, but spoke regularly on its platforms. In 1883 (Jan. to May) he was imprisoned on a charge of sedition for a further period of four months in Richmond Bridewell, Dublin. Between 1882 and 1885 he devoted much of his time to advocating land nationalisation, lecturing throughout Great Britain, either alone or in company with Henry George, who was touring in the United Kingdom. He brought George to Ireland, and spoke with him at a meeting in Dublin, on 9 April 1884. This brought on him a categorical repudiation of land nationalisation by Parnell. In 1885, his health having broken down, Davitt visited Italy, Palestine, and Egypt. He opposed the policy adopted by Parnell at the general election of that year, of throwing the Irish vote in England for the conservatives. In 1886 he again visited America, and married Miss Mary Yore, of Michigan. As a token of national regard, his wife was presented with a house, known as Land League Cottage, at Ballybrack, co. Dublin. This was the only occasion on which Davitt accepted any material gift from the Irish people; he always refused to assent to any public testimonial, supporting himself, often with great difficulty, by his labours as a journalist. It was not till near the close of his life (1901) that a legacy from a relative of his wife relieved him of financial anxiety.

In 1887-8-9 Davitt was engrossed in the work involved by 'The Times' commission [see Parnell, Charles Stewart], which was appointed to investigate the charges brought by 'The Times' against Parnell and others, namely, that their real aim was to bring about the total independence of Ireland, that they had instigated assassination and other outrages, and that they had accepted money and other assistance from open advocates of crime and dynamite. Davitt was not originally included in these charges, but on his presenting himself before the tribunal, 'The Times' repeated the same charges against him, with two additional ones, namely, that he had been a convicted Fenian, and that he had brought about the alliance between the Parnellite home rule party in Ireland and the party of violence in America both of which were undenied facts. The chief labour of the defence fell on him, as the link between the constitutional and extreme nationalists, between the Irish and American branches of the movement. It was Davitt who first suspected Richard Pigott [q. v.], and he, by the aid of a volunteer secret service, countered every move of 'The Times' in the collection of evidence (Fall of Feudalism, ch. 44-49). When Parnell and the other Nationalists withdrew from the proceedings of the commission, as a protest against the refusal of the judges to order the production of the books of the 'Loyal and Patriotic Union,' Davitt dissented from this course, and continued to appear. Conducting his own case, he made a five-days' speech before the tribunal (Oct. 24-31, 1889), afterwards published as 'The Defence of the Land League,' a book which contains the best record of Davitt's life and work up to that time. In the report of the commission, the chief findings relating to Davitt were that he had entered the agrarian movement with the intention of bringing about the absolute independence of Ireland, and that he had in a special manner denounced crime and outrage. Immediately after the commission's attack had failed, came the proceedings in the divorce court against Parnell. Davitt had been led by Parnell to believe that the suit brought by William Henry O'Shea [q. v. Suppl. II] was another conspiracy, destined to the same collapse as the Pigott forgeries. He resented Parnell's mis-representation, and immediately flung himself into the campaign against Parnell's leadership. He had just started 'The Labour World' (first number, 21 Sept. 1890) to be the organ of the labour movement in Great Britain, which was on a fair way to success, but was ruined by Davitt's attitude towards Parnell, and by his personal absorption in the political struggle. The paper lived only till May 1891. Davitt had many times declined a seat in parliament, but he now yielded to the urgencies and needs of the anti-Parnellite party, and in the end of 1891 contested Waterford City against Mr. John Redmond, the leader of the Parnellites after Parnell's death. Defeated here, he was elected for North Meath at the general election of 1892, and was promptly unseated on petition, owing to the use in his favour of clerical influences which he had done his best to stop. The priests whose conduct had led to the petition made no attempt to save him from the consequences, and Davitt became bankrupt. In 1895 he went on a lecturing tour in Australia, and returned home to find himself M.P. for two constituencies, East Kerry and South Mayo; he chose to sit for South Mayo. He was not a parliamentary success, but was always listened to with respect, especially on prison reform, a subject he had long made his own. In 1897 he visited the United States to stop the projected Anglo-American Alliance; his active work was mainly responsible for the rejection of that year's Anglo-American Arbitration Treaty by the United States Senate. In 1898 he helped Mr. William O'Brien to found the United Irish League, an organisation which brought about the reunion of the Parnellite and anti-Parnellite sections. On 25 Oct. 1899 he dramatically withdrew from parliament as a protest against the Boer War. Early in 1900 he went to South Africa in a capacity partly journalistic and partly diplomatic; he held the threads of a plot to bring about European intervention on behalf of the Boers a plot which broke down because of the hesitancy at a critical moment, and the subsequent death, of Colonel de Villebois Mareuil, who was to have led the French contingent. Davitt fiercely attacked the Dunraven conference report on the land question (1903) and the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of the same year, the purchase terms of which he regarded as a surrender of much that had been gained by the twenty-five years' agitation that he had started. Temporarily overborne by Mr. William O'Brien, he had the satisfaction of seeing, in little over a year, a complete revulsion of feeling in the Nationalist party with regard to Mr. O'Brien's policy. In 1903-4-5 he paid, mainly as the representative of American journals, three visits to Russia, where his sympathies were with the revolutionary party. At the general election of 1906 he devoted himself to supporting the labour party in England, and helped to secure many of their notable victories. The last months of his life were occupied with a struggle over the English education bill, on which he fell foul of the catholic clergy. The Irish Press having been closed to his letters advocating secular education, he was contemplating the establishment of a weekly paper, to express strongly democratic as well as nationalist views, when he caught cold after a dental operation. Blood poisoning set in, and he died in Dublin on 31 May 1906. He was buried in Straide, co. Mayo, where the 'Davitt Memorial Church' has been erected. His wife survived him with five sons and one daughter. A portrait by William Orpen is in the Dublin Gallery of Modern Art. Another was painted by Mr. H. J. Thaddeus.

Davitt stood for the reconciliation of extreme and constitutional nationalism; although he never wavered, as his latest writings show, from the ultimate idea of an independent Ireland he abandoned at an early stage all belief in those methods of secret conspiracy and armed rebellion which are generally associated with the separatist ideal. His notions of constitutional agitation were, however, always permeated by the vigour of his early revolutionary plans. He also stood for the harmonising of democracy and nationality. With his whole-hearted nationalism he combined from early life a growing conviction that any thoroughgoing regeneration of government and society in Ireland, and indeed throughout the world, must rest on a socialistic basis. In his collectivist, as in his anti-clerical, views he differed from most of the Irishmen with whom he was politically associated. His political affinities inclined to industrial and secularist democracy. Hie strength of character, disinterestedness, and steadiness of purpose won him the personal respect even of those who held his doctrines to be erroneous or pernicious. Davitt's principal published works are:

  1. 'Leaves from a Prison Diary,' 1884 (to be distinguished from the pamphlet on his experiences in Dartmoor, mentioned above).
  2. 'The Defence of the Land League,' 1891.
  3. 'Life and Progress in Australasia,' 1898.
  4. 'The Boer Fight for Freedom,' 1902.
  5. 'Within the Pale' (a study of anti-semitism in Russia), 1903.
  6. 'The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland' (a history of the land agitation), 1904.

He also wrote many pamphlets and a mass of uncollected journalistic work.

[Davitt's own books, especially The Defence of the Land League and The Fall of Feudalism; Michael Davitt: Revolutionary, Agitator, and Labour Leader, by F. Sheehy Skeffington, 1908; see also Cashman's Life, 1882; R. Barry O'Brien's Life of Parnell, 1898; Life of Henry George, 1900; D' Alton, History of Ireland, vol. iii. 1910.]

F. S. S.