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Michael Davitt (Irish: Mícheál Mac Dáibhéid;[1] 25 March 1846 – 30 May 1906) was an Irish republican, agrarian socialist and co-founder of the Irish National Land League. He was also a journalist and Member of Parliament (MP) for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). He campaigned for Home Rule and was a close ally of Charles Stuart Parnell, the leader of the IPP, until the party split over Parnell's divorce and Davitt joined the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation.

Michael Davitt
Mícheál Mac Dáibhéid
Michael davitt.jpg
Michael Davitt c. 1878
Member of Parliament for North-East Cork
In office
Feb. 1893 – 9 May 1893
Preceded byWilliam O'Brien
Succeeded byWilliam Abraham
Member of Parliament for Kerry East
In office
1895 – 26 October 1899
Preceded byJeremiah Daniel Sheehan
Succeeded byJames Boothby Burke Roche
Personal details
Born(1846-03-25)25 March 1846
Straide, County Mayo, Ireland
Died30 May 1906(1906-05-30) (aged 60)
Elphis Hospital, Dublin
Cause of deathSepsis
Political partyIrish Parliamentary Party
Irish National Federation
Occupationwriter, lecturer, and journalist
Known forIrish Land League activism

Early yearsEdit

Lazybeds for potato cultivation, County Mayo

Michael Davitt was born in Straide, County Mayo, Ireland, during the Great Famine, the third of five children born to Martin and Catherine Davitt. They were of poor farming origin, but Davitt's father had a good education and could speak English and Irish.[2] Irish was the household language, and Davitt used it much later in life on a short visit to Australia.[3]

In 1850, when Michael was four-and-a-half years old, his family was evicted from their home in Straide[2] due to arrears in rent,[citation needed] an event that Davitt later claimed to remember.[2] They entered a local workhouse, but when Catherine discovered that male children over three years of age had to be separated from their mothers, she decided her family should emigrate to England, like many Irish people at this time. They travelled to Dublin with another local family and in November reached Liverpool, walking 77 kilometres (48 mi) to Haslingden, in East Lancashire.

Davitt began working at the age of nine as a labourer in a cotton mill,[2] but a month later he left and spent a short period working for Lawrence Whitaker, one of the leading cotton manufacturers in the district, before taking a job in Stellfoxe's Victoria Mill in Baxenden. Here he was put to operate a spinning machine. On 8 May 1857 his right arm was entangled in a cogwheel and mangled so badly it had to be amputated. He did not receive any compensation.

Interior of a nineteenth-century cotton mill

When he recovered from his operation, a local benefactor, John Dean, helped to send him to a Wesleyan school, which was connected to the Methodist Church, and here he received a good education. In 1861, at the age of 15, he went to work in a local post office, owned by Henry Cockcroft, who also ran a printing business. Despite his injury, he learned to be a typesetter. He was later promoted to letter carrier and bookkeeper and worked in the printing office for five years.

Irish Republican BrotherhoodEdit

In 1865, this interest led Davitt to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an organization popular among working-class Irish emigrants which promoted the use of violence to end British rule in Ireland. He soon became part of the inner circle of the local Rossendale group. Davitt was involved in a failed raid on Chester Castle to obtain arms on 11 February 1867 for the planned Fenian Rising that took place later that year. In 1868, he left the printing firm to devote himself full-time to the IRB, as organising secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising arms smuggling to Ireland, posing as a travelling salesman as cover. Although he was wanted by the authorities from 1867, it was not until 14 May 1870 that was arrested, at Paddington Station in London, while awaiting a delivery of arms. After a trial in which he believed that he had had neither fair hearing nor adequate defence counsel, Davitt was convicted of treason felony and sentenced to fifteen years of penal servitude.[2]

Imprisoned at Millbank, Dartmoor, and Portsmouth, Davitt frequently broke the prison rules. His main objection was that he was treated the same as criminals even though he considered himself a political prisoner. In 1872, he smuggled a letter out of the prison which was published in several newspapers and led to an inquiry by the Home Secretary into his allegations. Davitt was released on 19 December 1877, having served seven-and-a-half years, on a "ticket of leave", following pressure from the Home Rule League for an amnesty for all Irish political prisoners. He and other freed prisoners returned to a "heroes' welcome" in Ireland. Davitt published a book about his prison experience, rejoined the IRB, and became a member of its Supreme Council.[2] In 1873, while Davitt was imprisoned, his mother and three sisters had settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1878 Davitt travelled to the United States in a lecture tour organised by John Devoy and the IRB, hoping to gain the support of Irish Americans for his new policy of "The Land for the People". He returned in 1879 to his native Mayo where he at once involved himself in land agitation.

The Land WarEdit

A Land League poster from the early 1880s

In the 1880s, many people in the West of Ireland were suffering from the effects of the 1879 famine; 1879 was one of the wettest years on record and the potato crop failed for a third successive year. Davitt organised a large meeting that attracted (by varying accounts) 4,000 to 13,000 people in Irishtown, County Mayo on 20 April. Davitt himself did not attend the meeting, presumably because he was on ticket-of-leave and could not risk being sent back to prison in England. He made plans for a huge campaign of agitation to reduce rents. The local target was a Roman Catholic priest, Canon Ulick Burke, who had threatened to evict his tenants. A campaign of non-payment pressured him to cancel the evictions and reduce his rents by 25%.

On 16 August 1879, the Land League of Mayo was formally founded in Castlebar, with the active support of Charles Stewart Parnell. On 21 October it was superseded by the Irish National Land League. Parnell was made its president and Davitt was one of its secretaries. This group united practically all the different strands of land agitation and land movements since the Tenant Right League of the 1850s under a single organisation, and from then until 1882, the "Land War" in pursuance of the "Three Fs" (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) was fought in earnest. The League organised resistance to evictions and reductions in rents, as well as aiding the work of relief agencies. Landlords' attempts to evict tenants led to violence, but the Land League denounced this.

One of the actions the Land League took during this period was the campaign of ostracism against the land agent Captain Charles Boycott in Lough Mask House outside Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, in the autumn of 1880. This campaign led to Boycott abandoning Ireland in December and coined the word boycott, which quickly spread across the world and through many languages. In 1881 Davitt was again imprisoned for his outspoken speeches after he accused the Chief Secretary for Ireland, W. E. Forster of "infamous lying". His ticket of leave was revoked and he was sent back to Portland Prison. Parnell protested in the House of Commons and the Irish members generally protested so strongly that they were ejected from the House. The government passed the Protection of Persons and Property Act 1881, allowing for internment without trial of those suspected of involvement in the Land War in Ireland, the latest in a series of around 105 suppressive laws designed to shut down protests in Ireland. Davitt was released from prison in May 1882, following the agreement of the Kilmainham Treaty, which promised to release imprisoned Land League members.

Davitt was a friend and mentor of Anna Parnell, founder of the Ladies' Land League and sister of Charles Stewart Parnell.[4]

Travels and marriageEdit

Davitt c. 1882. The sign reads, "Land League, The Land for the People"

In an 1882 by-election Davitt was elected Member of Parliament for County Meath but was disqualified because he was in prison. On his release in 1882 he travelled to the United States with William Redmond to collect funds for the Land League, then campaigned for land nationalisation and an alliance between the British working class, Irish labourers and tenant farmers. This alienated Parnell and even many of the tenants, but after a meeting with Parnell at Parnell's house, Avondale, in September 1882 he agreed to co-operate with Parnell and set aside his plans for land nationalisation.

Davitt's support of the Irish National League, now under Parnell's and the Party's control, earned him a final spell in prison in 1883, and by 1885 his health had broken. Although only in his forties, he had become a post-revolutionary figure, and lectured on humanitarian issues in extended tours which included Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, South Africa, Palestine, South America, Russia and most of continental Europe, as well as almost every part of Ireland and of Britain.

In 1886 Davitt married an American, Mary Yore (b. 1861), daughter of John Yore of St. Joseph, Michigan. In 1887 he visited Wales to support land agitation.[5] The couple returned to Ireland and lived for a while in a Land League cottage in Ballybrack, County Dublin that was presented to them as a wedding gift by the people of Ireland. They had five children – three boys and two girls, one of whom, Kathleen, died of tuberculosis aged seven in 1895. One of their sons, Robert Davitt, became a TD, while another, Cahir Davitt, became President of the High Court.[6]

Davitt was a strong supporter of the alliance between the Liberal Party and the Irish Parliamentary Party and maintained this position in 1890 when the party split over Parnell's divorce case. Davitt, however, sided with the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation faction in the House of Commons at Westminster, where he became hostile towards Parnell and was one of Parnell's most vociferous critics. He also became increasingly impatient with what he saw as the inability or unwillingness of the British parliament to right injustice.[citation needed]

Labour Federation, journalistic career, and deathEdit

To further those ends he founded and edited a journal, Labour World, in September 1890, then initiated in January 1891 in Cork the Irish Democratic Labour Federation, an organisation which adopted an advanced social programme including proposals for free education, land settlement, worker housing, reduced working hours, labour political representation and universal suffrage. The Federation reflected his conviction, to which he adhered to all his life, that farmers' land proprietorship must go hand in hand with land nationalisation.[citation needed]

Davitt made his income from journalism[7] and covered several noteworthy events, including the 1903 Kishinev pogrom and the. arrival of Paul Kruger, the former president of the Transvaal Republic, to France following his defeat in the Second Boer War.[8]

Davitt was subsequently elected for North Meath in the 1892 general election,[9] but his election was overturned on petition.[clarification needed][10] However he was promptly elected unopposed for North East Cork at a by-election in February 1893,[10] but resigned from the Commons on 9 May of that year.[11] At the next general election, in 1895, he stood in South Mayo, where he was returned unopposed.[12] He welcomed Gladstone's Second Home Rule Bill as a "pact of peace" between England and Ireland.[5] He supported the British Labour leader Keir Hardie and favoured the foundation of a Labour Party, but his commitment to the Liberal Party for the sake of Home Rule prevented him joining the new party – resulting in a breach with Hardie lasting until 1905.[13]

Portrait of Davitt by William Orpen, c. 1906

Davitt resigned from the Commons again on 26 October 1899[11] with a prediction that no just cause could succeed there unless backed by massed agitation.[citation needed] Parliament alleviated this need by granting full democratic control of all local affairs, a form of "grass roots home rule", to County and District Councils under the 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act. Davitt then co-founded in 1898 together with William O'Brien the United Irish League and organised it in Mayo and beyond. In 1899 he left his seat in parliament for good in protest against the Boer War, visiting South Africa to lend support to the Boer cause. His experiences inspired his Boer fight for Freedom, published in 1902.[14]

Davitt's ambition that the ownership of the land would be transferred from the landlords to the tenants finally materialised after the 1902 Land Conference under O'Brien's Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act (1903), but not as he had campaigned for. He condemned the act that offered generous inducement to the landlords to sell their estates to the tenants, the Irish Land Commission mediating to then collect land annuities instead of rents, on the grounds that landlords should not receive any compensation for land which Davitt felt belonged to the state. He never gave up his adherence to land nationalisation. Later in 1906 after the Liberal Party came to power, his open support for their policy of state control of schooling, rather than denominational education, merged into a major conflict between Davitt and the Irish Catholic Church.[15]

Davitt died in Elpis Hospital, Dublin on 30 May 1906, aged 60, from blood poisoning. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland attended the funeral, a public indication of the dramatic political journey this former Fenian prisoner had taken. The plan had been not to have a public funeral, and hence Davitt's body was brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary in Clarendon Street, Dublin. However, the next day over 20,000 people filed past his coffin. His remains were then taken by train to Foxford, County Mayo, and buried in the grounds of Straide Abbey at Straide (near Foxford), where he was baptized.[16]


In his politics, Davitt was more radical than Parnell and this brought them into conflict. Parnell saw land agitation primarily as a way to politicize Irish peasants, increase the popularity of the IPP, and advance the cause of Home Rule. In contrast, Davitt was more concerned with returning the land to the people and improving the lot of Irish farmers, especially the poorest. In addition, Parnell was a gifted politician, but Davitt excelled as an organizer and activist.[17]

Davitt's brand of Irish republicanism was heavily influenced by Chartism. For example, his 1878 manifesto had three main planks, the right to bear arms, self-government, and land reform to bring about "a system of small proprietorship similar to what at present obtains in France, Belgium, and Prussia". All three issues were advocated by Chartism.[18]

Initially, Davitt was focused on achieving autonomy for Ireland. Later in his life, Davitt focused more on economic issues.[19] Partly this was based on the premise that Ireland could only achieve independence with the support of the British working class.[13] Davitt pioneered a line of argument aimed at the British working classes which claimed that Home Rule for Ireland, by improving conditions there, would reduce Irish emigration to Britain and economic competition with British workers.[20]


Davitt was a frequent visitor to Scotland where he was closely associated with the crofters' struggles in the Highlands and Islands. He also urged the Irish immigrant population to integrate into the politics of their adopted country and in particular the infant Labour movement rather than to pursue a particularly Irish agenda. Davitt worked closely with John Ferguson, the Irish leader in Glasgow who had been involved in the Crofters' War agitation by Highland tenant farmers in the early 1880s and later in the Irish-Radical political alliance that was the forerunner of the Scottish Labour Party.[21] Davitt made successful tours of Scotland in 1882 in 1887 denouncing landlordism. He had a major impact on Scottish Agrarianism, and movements for land reform, as well as on the Scottish labour movements. His Fenian past, prison record, and his personal story of overcoming eviction, exile, and physical disability won the attention of the Irish in Scotland. In turn Scotland helped broaden his political viewpoint, thanks to his association with Scottish nationalist and land reformer John Murdoch. These contacts led to a pan-Celtic solidarity with liberal radicalism and drew him to the radical movements in Scotland. He worked with Glasgow Irishmen Edward McHugh and Richard McGhee, which led him to the land philosophy of Henry George and provided him a political base in Glasgow.[22]

Another line of argument aimed at moderate Home Rule supporters was that the "real" purpose of land agitation was to demonstrate that the British constitution was not followed in Ireland, as the Coercion Acts' restrictions on political activity hampered freedom of speech.[19]


Rumblings in the 1880s indicated that agrarian unrest was a distinct possibility in Wales. David Lloyd George and T. E. Ellis brought Davitt to Wales in 1886 to campaign for reforms. Welsh reformers often compared their plight to Ireland, even though their situation was much better. Incomes were higher in Wales, and the relationships between tenant and landowner were generally friendly. There was no question of a tension between politically deprived Catholic tenants and privileged Protestant landowners. Reform languished in Wales as farmers showed little enthusiasm; reformers were divided among themselves; economic conditions improved in the 1890s, and a few moderate reforms satisfied the Land League.[23]

Jews and ZionismEdit

In 1903, Davitt traveled to Kishinev, Bessarabia in the Russian Empire as "special commissioner to investigate the massacres of the Jews" on behalf of William Randolph Hearst's New York American, becoming one of the first foreign journalists to report on the Kishinev pogrom.[24] In his notes, Davitt recorded sharp criticism of what he saw as Jewish failure to defend themselves, given that there were many more Jews in the city than pogromists, but did not mention this aspect in his writings.[25] In his subsequent book, Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia (1903), Davitt declared his support for Zionism, believing that political independence was the only solution to the "Jewish Question" just as it was for the "Irish Question".[26] In 1898 at a meeting in Tonypandy, Davitt launched an "anti-Semitic tirade" against George Goschen, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, arguing that he "represented that class of bond-holders, and usurers, and mostly money-lenders for whom that infamous Egyptian war was waged".[27] Davitt was a vocal opponent of the 1904 Limerick boycott organised by the Redemptorist priest John Creagh.[28][29]

While opposing "cowardly racial warfare" such as the Kishinev pogrom, Davitt announced that he was "resolutely in line with... [the] spirit and programme" of antisemitism when it stood "against the engineers of a sordid war in South Africa, or as the assailant of the economic evils of unscrupulous capitalism anywhere".[30][29] He reportedly believed that Russia would be better off without any Jews.[29] Although Davitt recognized that Jews' business activity was related to their exclusion from many occupations, he nevertheless endorsed racial theories asserting that Jews were predisposed to "unscrupulous capitalism".[30][29] According to Irish historian Aidan Beatty, Davitt was not an antisemite, because his anti-Jewish statements coexisted with others which were supportive of Jews.[31] According to Stanford University historian Steven Zipperstein, Davitt "emerged as a folk hero among Jews" following his writings on Kishinev, with plays written about him in English and Yiddish.[32]


Statue of Davitt at Straide Abbey

The American abolitionist James Redpath considered Davitt "the William Lloyd Garrison of the anti-landlord movement".[33]

In an Irish Independent article to mark the centenary of Michael Davitt's death, John Cooney wrote that "Insufficient attention has been paid to Davitt's role as an ex-Fenian who took the road of peaceful, democratic politics by renouncing his Fenian oath and taking a seat in the House of Commons at Westminster."[34] One of Michael Davitt's biographers, Professor Moody, remarked in 1982 that Davitt's habit of "reinterpreting his past actions and attitudes in accordance with altered conditions was partly the outcome of a longing for integrity in his political conduct".[35]

On 29 May 2019, Dearcán Media's Irish-language documentary, Michael Davitt: Radacach (Michael Davitt: Radical) premiered on TG4.[36]

He particularly acted as an inspiration for many others, such as for D. D. Sheehan's Irish Land and Labour Association (ILLA), and years later Mahatma Gandhi who attributed the origin of his own mass movement of peaceful resistance in India to Davitt and the Land League.[37]


Over Davitt's grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words "Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it." At Straide, the Davitt family church is now a museum that commemorates his life and works. A life-sized bronze statue stands before it.[16]

The bridge from Achill Island to the mainland is named after him. The town of Haslingden, Lancashire, England has also commemorated Davitt's link with it through a public monument erected in the presence of Davitt's son.

The centenary of Davitt's death also saw the unveiling of a plaque at the Portree Hotel, Portree, Isle of Skye, commemorating his role in the Highland land agitation of the 1880s. The unveiling was carried out by his grandson, Fr. Tom Davitt.[38]



  1. ^ de Vál 2006, p. 113.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Boyce 2004.
  3. ^ Val Noone (2012), Hidden Ireland in Victoria, Ballarat Heritage Services, p. 103. ISBN 978-1-876478-83-4
  4. ^ Patricia Groves, "Petticoat Rebellion, The Anna Parnell Story," Mercer History, 2009.
  5. ^ a b Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004)
  6. ^ Ruadhán Mac Cormaic,The Supreme Court, Penguin Ireland, 2016.
  7. ^ Zipperstein 2015, p. 372.
  8. ^ King, Carla (4 December 2016). "Land League founder Davitt exposed Russian pogroms". The Irish Independent. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  9. ^ Brian M. Walker, ed. (1978). Parliamentary election results in Ireland 1801–1922. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. p. 148. ISBN 0-901714-12-7.
  10. ^ a b Walker, op. cit., page 150
  11. ^ a b Department of Information Services (9 June 2009). "Appointments to the Chiltern Hundreds and Manor of Northstead Stewardships since 1850" (PDF). House of Commons Library. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 June 2010. Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  12. ^ Walker, op. cit., page 155
  13. ^ a b A New Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, p.105-105, D. J. Hickey & J. E. Doherty, Gill & MacMillan (2003) ISBN 0-7171-2520-3
  14. ^ Michael Davitt (1902). The Boer Fight for Freedom. Funk & Wagnalls.
  15. ^ Biography "The long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891–1918" pps. 83, 225, Patrick Maume (1999)
  16. ^ a b Michael Davitt Museum, Straide, County Mayo,
  17. ^ Janis 2015, p. 52–53.
  18. ^ Biagini 2007, p. 31.
  19. ^ a b McBride 2006, p. 422.
  20. ^ Biagini 2007, p. 71.
  21. ^ McBride 2006, p. 421.
  22. ^ Ó Catháin, Máirtín (2000). "Michael Davitt and Scotland". Saothar. Irish Labour History Society. 25: 19–26. JSTOR 23198960.
  23. ^ J. Graham Jones, "Michael Davitt, David Lloyd George and T.E Ellis: The Welsh Experience." Welsh History Review Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru 18#3 (1997): 450-82.
  24. ^ Beatty 2017, p. 125.
  25. ^ Zipperstein 2015, p. 369.
  26. ^ Beatty 2017, pp. 126, 131.
  27. ^ Biagini 2007, p. 73.
  28. ^ Beatty 2017, p. 132.
  29. ^ a b c d Zipperstein 2015, p. 371.
  30. ^ a b Beatty 2017, p. 128.
  31. ^ Beatty 2017, pp. 129–130.
  32. ^ Zipperstein 2015, p. 368.
  33. ^ Janis 2015, p. 50.
  34. ^ Michael Davitt: Still in the shadow of the gunmen, John Cooney, Irish Independent, 27 May 2006
  35. ^ Moody TW "Davitt and the Irish Revolution" (Oxford 1982) page 552.
  36. ^ "Michael Davitt: Radacach, TG4, Wednesday 29 May at 9.30pm". Northern Ireland Screen. 23 May 2019. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
  37. ^ Dailey, Lucia (17 March 2013). "Irish patriot left worldwide mark". Scranton, Pa. Scranton Times Tribune. Archived from the original on 17 October 2014. Retrieved 14 May 2013.
  38. ^ Kenefick, William. "Cruelty, Grievance, Denial". Dublin Review of Books. Retrieved 11 October 2019.

Print sourcesEdit

Web sourcesEdit


Further readingEdit


Journal articlesEdit

  • Moody, Theodore W. (1953). "Michael Davitt and the British Labour Movement 1882-1906". Transactions of the Royal Historical Society: 53–76. JSTOR 3678709.
  • Cahalan, James M. "Michael Davitt: The'Preacher of Ideas,'1881-1906." Éire-Ireland 11.1 (1976): 13-33.
  • Jordan, Donald E. "Michael Davitt: Activist Historian." New Hibernia Review 5.1 (2001): 141-145. online

External linksEdit

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Alexander Martin Sullivan
Robert Henry Metge
Member of Parliament for Meath
With: Robert Henry Metge
Succeeded by
Edward Sheil
Robert Henry Metge
Preceded by
Pierce Mahony
Member of Parliament for Meath North
Succeeded by
James Gibney
Preceded by
William O'Brien
Member of Parliament for Cork North-East
Feb. 1893 – May 1893
Succeeded by
William Abraham
Preceded by
Jeremiah Daniel Sheehan
Member of Parliament for Kerry East
Succeeded by
James Boothby Burke Roche
Preceded by
James Francis Xavier O'Brien
Member of Parliament for Mayo South
Succeeded by
John O'Donnell