Michael Davitt(1846-1906)


b. 25 March 1846, at Straide, Co. Mayo; family evicted and emigrated to Lancashire, where he lost an arm in factory accident, aged eleven; took courses at Wesleyan Mechanics’ Hall and emerged as typesetter, going on to learn French and Italian as well as Irish; defended a Catholic church against rioters with a revolver in the 1860s; worked as journalist; joined Irish Republican Brotherhood and served as Secretary; involved in raid on Chester Castle, 11 Feb. 1867; abhorred use of dynamite; acted as local secretary to IRB in 1868, and arms purchaser, 1870;
arrested with Matthew Harris and Thomas Brennan, and imprisoned with 15 year sentence as a Fenian gun-runner (‘incitement to murder’), 1870; studied socialism in prison; imprisoned in Dartmoor, released with ticket-of-leave, Dec. 1877; addressed audience of 2,500 London-Irish at Picadilly Sq., 9 March, 1878; met John Devoy in America, returning 1879; involved in land agitation in Mayo; organised mass meetings in Irishtown and Westport; fnd. Land League of Mayo; joined Parnell in New Departure;
inspired by James Fintan Lalor, he inaugurating the Land War by establishing the Irish National Land League, 21 Oct. 1879, with support of Devoy and Parnell; expelled from IRB Supreme Council, May 1880; imprisoned for Land League activities, 1881-82 and 1883, including a term with Parnell resulting in the Kilmainham Treaty (which Davitt repudiated as a ‘wrong turn’); released on 6 May 1882, and collected from prison by Parnell and Dillon; shocked by Phoenix Park Murders (‘My God, have got out of Portkaland for this? For the first time in my life I despair!’);
elected MP for Meath, 1882, unseated by special writ of House of Commons; his denunciation of the Phoenix Park murders marked his final disillusionment with physical force politics; fnd. The Irish World, London, 1890; sided against Parnell in the Split, calling for his resignation in article in Labour World (20 Nov. 1890); failed to organise agricultural workers in Irish Democratic Trade and Labour Union; supported Keir Hardie but prevented by commitment to Liberals from joining Labour Party; later served other constituencies (N. Meath, 1892, unseated; N. E. Cork, 1892, unopposed; E. Kerry and S. Mayo, 1895-99; gave 21-column maiden speech on Irish Reform Bill, 1893, called by Daily Chronicle ‘the most impressive voice of Irish nationalism since the days of O’Connell’;
conducted his own defence before the Parnell Commission and found to have expressed ‘bona-fide disapproval of crime and outrage’; his defence published as The Defence of the Land League (1895-99); visited of Australia and New Zealand to rapturous Irish welcome, delivering 70 public lectures, 1895; showed solidarity with world’s first Labour party in Australia, and identified with Aborigines, Maoris, Kanakas, and Chinese during tour; questioned exile of Arabi Pasha in Ceylon and Sun Yat-sen’s banishment from Hong Kong; condemned atrocities by Kitchener’s troops in Omdurman;
attacked by Unionist mob instigated by local landlord at Charleville; re-formed Land League as United Irish League with William O’Brien; resigned from House in protest against Chamblerain’s South African warmongering (‘When I go, I shall tell my boys, I have been some five years in this House, and the conclusion with which I leave it is that no cause, however just, will find support, no wrong, however pressing or apparent, will find redress here, unless backed up by force’); issued 2-page article, “What I think of the English”, in Birmingham Universal Magazine, July 1890;
resigned his seat in Parliament in protest against the Boer War, occasioning by-election in Mayo, whereupon John MacBride offered himself (unsuccessfully) as candidate; visited South Africa, publishing Boer Fight for Freedom (1904); supported non-denominational education; attacked by bishops Edward Thomas Dwyer (Limerick) and William Walsh (Dublin); his chief published works were Leaves from a Prison Diary (1884) and The Boer Fight for Freedom (1902); counted the Wyndham Act (1903) a conclusion to 24-year the Land War, though overly generous to landlords; went to meet Count Tolstoy on his visit to Russia in 1904;
d. 25 March; bur. at Straide; characterised as ‘the greatest Irishman of the nineteeth century’ by Francis Sheehy Skeffington; his papers are held in the Library of TCD; a Michael Davitt Commemorative Conference was held at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (DCU) in May and another at the Parnell Summer School, Avondale, Co. Wicklow, in August, 2006; there is a portrait by his friend Sarah Purser, first exhibited in London in 1892. ODNB JMC DIW DIH OCIL FDA
[ top ]

  • Leaves from a Prison Diary; Or, Lectures to a Solitary Audience (London: Chapman & Hall 1885), rep. with intro. by T. W. Moody (Shannon: IUP 1972);
  • Life and Progress in Australasia (London: Methuen & Co. 1898);
  • The Boer Fight for Freedom (NY: Funk & Wagnall 1902);
  • Some Suggestions for a Final Settlement of the Land Question (Dublin: Gill & Son 1902);
  • Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecution in Russia (London: Hurst & Blackett 1903);
  • The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (London: Chapman & Hall 1904) [var. London: Harper 1904, xviii, 750pp.];
  • Jottings in Solitary, ed. Carla King (Dublin: UCD Press 2004), 316pp.
Scholarly Editions
  • Carla King, ed. & intro., Michael Davitt: Collected Writings, 1868-1906 (Thoemmes Facs. Rep. [2000]) [infra];
  • John Devoy, Michael Davitt: From the Gaelic American, ed. Carla King & W. J. McCormack (UCD Press 2008), 73pp.

[ top ]

Bibliographical details
Michael Davitt: Collected Writings, 1868-1906, ed. & intro., Carla King (London: Thoemmes Facs: Rep: [2000]), CONTENTS: VOLUMES 1 & 2: Pamphlets, Speeches and Articles, 1868-1906 [750pp.; Introduction by Carla King. 1: Poems (1868-9). 2: ‘A Statement by Mr Michael Davitt (ex-Political Prisoner) on Prison Treatment’ [1878?]; 3: Paudeen O’Rafferty on the Landlord’s Ten Commandments Dedicated to Exterminators and Rack-Renters as also to the People who Work: Creed of the right Hon: Lord Clan Rackrent, Earl of Idleness and Viscount Absentee (1880). 4: The Prison Life of Michael Davitt, Related by Himself, Together with his Evidence before the House of Lords Commission on Convict Prison Life (1882). 5: The Land League Proposal: a Statement for Honest and Thoughtful Men (1882). 6: The Castle Government of Ireland: a Lecture by Michael Davitt (1882). 7: Speech of Michael Davitt at the Meeting in Favour of Land Nationalisation held at St James’s Hall, 1883 (1883). 8: ‘The Irish Social Problem’, from Today, new series, Vol. 1, No. 4 (April 1884). 9: Land Nationalisation, or National Peasant Proprietary, Michael Davitt’s Lectures in Scotland: the Principles of Radical Reform in the Land Laws (1885). 10: ‘Irish Conservatism and its Outlooks’, from Dublin University Review (September 1885). 11: ‘Mr Giffen’s Proposed Solution of the Irish Question’, in the Contemporary Review, Vol. 49 (April 1886). 12: Home Rule: Speech at Glasgow, April 20, 1885, in support of Mr Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill 1886 (1886). 13: Reasons Why Home Rule Should Be Granted to Ireland: an Appeal to the Common Sense of the British Democracy (1886). 14: Landlordism, Low Wages and Strikes (1886). 15: Revival of the Irish Woollen Industry: Brief Historical Record: How England Endeavoured to Destroy Irish Manufacture: How Irish Leaders Propose to Accomplish its Revival (1887). 16: Mr Michael Davitt’s Reply to the Irish Chief Secretary’s Misstatements, Delivered on December 18th 1887 (1887). 17: ‘The Irish Landlords’ Appeal for Compensation’, from Contemporary Review, Vol. 53 (April 1888). 18: ‘Unionists’ Brought to Book: The Irish Question, No: 27’ (1888). 19: ‘The Report of the Parnell Commission’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 27 (March 1890). 20: ‘Retiring the Landlord Garrison: [Ireland, I]’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 27 (May 1890). 21: ‘Mr Parnell’s Position’, from Labour World (22 November 1890). 22: ‘The Latest Midlothian Campaign’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 28 (November 1890). 23: ‘Remedies for Irish Distress’, from Contemporary Review, Vol. 57 (November 1890). 24: ‘Impressions of the Canadian North-West’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 31 (April 1892). 25: ‘La Question d’Irlande’, from Revue de Famille (April 1892).: 26: ‘Le Caron’s (Re-published). Story’, from the Speaker (October 1892). 27: ‘The Priest in Politics’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 33 (January 1893). 28: The Settlement of the Irish Question: a Speech by Mr Michael Davitt M:P: on April 11th 1893, in the House of Commons on the Second Reading of the Home Rule Bill, 1893 (1893). 29: ‘Fabian Fustian’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 34 (December 1893). 30: ‘The Evicted Tenants Problem’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 35 (April 1894). 31: ‘Home Rule and Labour Representation’, from the Speaker (April 1894). 32: ‘Criminal and Prison Reform’, from Nineteenth Century, Vol. 36 (December 1894). 33: ‘The Crimes of Irish Landlordism’, from Irish Bits: a Journal of Irish Wit, Romance and Scenery, Vol. 4 (13 August 1898). 34: ‘Davitt’s Resignation Speech from the House of Commons, 25 Oct: 1899’, from Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 77, cols: 614-22 (1899). 35: ‘What I Think of the English’, from Universal Magazine, Vol. 1 (July 1900). 36: ‘Ireland’s Appeal to America: Address at Chicago, 1901’ [1902] 37: ‘Les États-Unis et l’Europe’, from Minerva: Revue des Lettres et des Arts (15 November 1902). 38: Some Suggestions for a Final Settlement of the Land Question (1902). 39: ‘The Irish National Assembly’, from Independent Review (April 1905). 40: ‘Mr Davitt and Irish Ireland’, from the Nationist (8 February 1906). 41: ‘Education - Denominational and National:’ Letter to the Editor of the Freeman’s Journal (2 March 1906). VOLUME 3: Leaves from a Prison Diary: or Lectures to a ‘Solitary’ Audience (1885), xv, 251pp./xi, 256pp. VOLUME 4: The ‘Times’-Parnell Commission: Speech Delivered by Michael Davitt in Defence of the Land League: Carefully revised (1890), 432pp VOLUME 5: Life and Progress in Australasia (1898), 494pp. VOLUME 6: The Boer Fight for Freedom (1902), 628pp. VOLUME 7: Within the Pale: the True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecution in Russia (1903), 318pp. VOLUME 8: The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland: or the Story of the Land League Revolution (1904), 774pp: [€1,190:00]

[ top ]

  • D[enis] B. Cashman, The Life of Michael Davitt: Founder of the Land League; to which is added the Secret History of the Land League, by Michael Davitt (London: Washbourne 1923) [note];
  • Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Michael Davitt, Revolutionary, Agitator, and Labour Leader, intro. by Justin McCarthy (London: T Fisher Unwin 1908), 291pp. [see extract];
  • J. W. Good, Michael Davitt (Dublin: Cumann Leigheacht an Phobail 1921-22);
  • Thomas P. O’Neill, ‘Michael Davitt’, in Thomas Davis Lectures, ed. J. W. Boyle (Cork 1966);
  • B. E. Kunina, Maikl Davitt (Moscow Mysl 1973);
  • T. W. Moody, Davitt and the Irish Revolution 1846-1882 (OUP 1981; 1983);
  • Laurence Marley, Michael Davitt: Freelance Radical and Frondeur (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2007), 314pp., ill. [8 pp. photos].; Do. [pb. edn.] (2010), 328pp., ill.
  • Carla King, Michael Davitt [Life and Times Ser.] (UCD Press 2009), 144pp.;
  • Fintan Lane & Andrew G. Newby, Michael Davitt: New Perspectives (Dublin: IAP 2009), 224pp.

[ top ]


W. B. Yeats: ‘[...] I had merely preferred Parnell, then at the height of his career, to Michael Davitt, who had wrecked his Irish influence through international politics.’ (“Four Years: 1887-1891”, Book I: “The Trembling of the Veil”, [Sect.] XII, in Autobiographies (Macmillan 1955), p.140.

Francis Sheey Skeffington, Michael Davitt, Revolutionary, Agitator, and Labour Leader, intro. Justin M’Carthy [McCarthy] (London: T Fisher Unwin 1908), 291pp., incl. index epigraphs, 1) ‘the land league represented the triumph of what was forgiving obver what was revengeful in my Celtic temperament.’ 2) ‘I would not purchase liberty for Ireland at the price of giving one vote against the liberty of the Republics of South Africa’. 3) ‘Make no mistake about it, my Lord Bishop of Limerick [O’Brien], Democracy is going to rule in these countries.’ Justin McCarthy speaks of his friendship with Davitt, and identifies his policy as ‘the restoration of the Irish people to the right of national self-government as a will partner in the Imperial confederation’ [xix]. Skeffingon quotes Davitt in a letter to The Nationalist, 1 Feb [1905], ‘The corollary of an Irish Ireland, in your sense [eds.] is an English England, a French France, and an American America; all economically secluded from each other’s markets, and living an existence of racial and commercial isolation [the equivalent would be] a family in Dublin resolving to be Murphyist [?sic], determining to grow their own tea, sow and reap their own grain [&c]. // My idea of an Irish Ireland is an Ireland as politically independent as we can make it; with all her people well educated, in Gaelic and in English, and in as many other languages as they wish to learn; cultivating every available acre of the Irish soil, and exporting millions of what we can spare from our own needs to England … receiving in economic exchange all the useful and needful articles we require … our harbours crowded with ships - English or any other nation’s ships; filled with whatever would tend to make our people and country more prosperous and persevering … &c.’ [Available at Internet Archive - online.]

                 “Michael Davitt

Farewell, great rebel, all the glorious ghosts
Of all who loved and died for Ireland stand
About your sepulchre, an angel band;
llie great, whose names are blown about the coasts
Of the world’s glory, and the noble hosts
Of nameless martyrs for their Motherland,
Who gave green Erin heart and brain and hand,
The captains and the soldiers at their posts.
Rest, brother, in content, whose mortal eyes
Saw, ere they slept, the triumph half achieved,
And freedom nearer on a flowing tide;
For the long warfare wear the victor’s prize -
No lovelier life for Ireland ever lived.
No happier death for Ireland ever died.


Justin Huntly McCarthy.
31st May 1906.

Prefaced to Francis Sheehy-Skeffington's Michael Davitt (Fisher Unwin 1908)

[ top ]

T. W. Moody, ‘Anna Parnell and the Land League’, Hermathena CXVII, Summer 1974writes, ‘It is true that Davitt, an agrarian revolutionary, was the founder, inspiring genius, and principal organiser of the Land League, but Parnell was its supreme commander and statesman.’ (p.7.)

Desmond Fennell, “Irish Socialist Thought”, in Richard Kearney, ed., The Irish Mind (1985), p.195ff., remarks and quotes: [Davitt] spent seven years in jail for his activities on behalf of the brotherhood [IRB]; released in 1877; by the time he was returned to jail in 1881 - together with Parnell and other leaders of the Land League - he had moved, ideologically, to a socialist position; in Leaves from a Prison Journal, sketched out during his fifteen months imprisonment, Davitt argued for land nationalisation, coperative production, state “regulation and organisation of labour”, and a labour party in the House of Commons; argu[ed] that the real relations between labour and land, and between land monopoly and poverty, could best be discerned in Ireland where there was no abundance of industry to obscure the matter; Land and labour are “absolutely essential to one another”; “land is valueless without labour”; Davitt envisaged taking all land into public ownership and “taxing it, exclusive of improvements, up to its full value”, meaning by improvements “such erections or qualities as can be clearly shown to be the results of the labour of those now in occupation or enjoyment of the land or their predecessors”; this land would be available to “every individual worker would be in a position to command exactly that share of the wealth produced which he had by his labour created; while the community at large would be in possession of that part of the wealth produced of which it was the sole creator”; he argued that “increasing the number of those holding private property in land”, far from being a rememdy “to the evils of land monopoly”, would be “simply landlordism in another form”, and that Peasant proprietorship is “simply landlordism in another form” since “a million proprietors, or petty landlords, would act together as cordially as the present landlord party in the three kingdoms”; to increase that party with public money would be “suicidal” for “popular liberty”; moreover, peasant proprietorship “excludes the (agricultural) labourers from all hope of being able to elevate themselves from their present degraded condition”; industry must be cooperative, on the “basis of joint ownership of capital and absolute contraol on the apart of the worker”; at this period Davitt envisaged Irish self-government on the Canadian dominion model, not the republican model of the IRB, speaking of “as far as practicable, a self-governing community”. Leaves from a Prison Journal provides the only comprehensive statement of Davitt”s socialist beliefs.’

Joseph Lee, The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918 (Cambridge UP 1973): Michael Davitt, b. Straide, moved to Lancashire with his evicted family at the age of six; found grass roots sentiment far ahead of him when, in 1878, he toured Mayo preaching a straight separatist gospel [71]; The man in the field decisively rejected [Davitt’s] land nationalisation. Davitt’s politically fatuous proposal diverted attention from the more realistic redistribution programme, which might have dramatically altered the pattern of land holding, and condemned him to a career of relative ineffectuality. [88]; The League … pioneered on a mass basis a technique destined to become indispensable in nationalist agitation, the appeal to spurious historic rights. Celtic Ireland had been an intensely hierarchical society, the bulk of the people possessing only a tenuous and ill-defined share in the property for which the leading families contended. The information available to late 19th c. commentators did suggest that something like genuine communal property rights may have existed, and Michael Davitt devoted his preamble to the constitution of the Land League of May to an exposition of the historic rights of the cultivators in Celtic Ireland. But if modernisation of tenurial systems was wrapped in the swaddling clothes of historical reincarnation, Davitt soon found himself out-manoeuvred by more astute historiographical tacticians, and the ‘land for the people’ acquired the distinctly contemporary connotation of individual instead of communal proprietorship. [95].

K. Theodore Hoppen, Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity (London: Longman 1989): [on the Famine]: Although the original revisionists painted the social, economic and political activities of the landed community in unduly roseate hues, we are still left with a more complex and ambiguous picture than was once the case.’ (p.44.) ‘The Land War and the Land League formally inaugurated in Oct. 1879 by Davitt and Parnell, were, despite their internal contradictions and jealousies phenomena of comparative coherence.’ (Ibid., p.65.) ‘[During the Land War] literacy levels rose everywhere, as did the numbers attending school. And it was this increasingly Anglicised and literate society whcih provided a growing audience for newspapers of all kinds and for a new natioanl literature encompassing both the revolutionary and constitutional traditions.’ (ibid., p.105.) Hoppen also notes the role of land league ladies in smuggling the printers’ plates in their voluminous skirts‘. (idem.)

[ top ]

‘[The Celts have] a persistency of purpose and a continuity of racial aim not associated by English or other foreign critics of Celtic charcer, with the alleged mercurial spirit and disposition of the Irish people’ (Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, 1904, p.xiii; cited in Chris Morash, ‘Ever Under Some Unnatural Condition: Bram Stoker and the Colonial Fantastic’, in Morash, ed., Literature and the Supernatural, Lilliput 1996, pp.95-117; p.103.]

[ top ]

Speech of June 1879: Davitt denounces ‘landlord garrison established by England in this country, centuries ago’. ‘[It was] as true to the object of its foundation, and as alien to themoral instincts of our people, as when it was first expected to drive the Celtic race “to hell of Connaught”. It is the bastard offspring of force and usury, the Ishmael of the social commonwealth, and every man’s hand should be against what has proved itself to be the scourge of our race since it first made ireland a land of misery and poverty.’ (Quoted in P. S. O’Hegarty, Ireland Since the Union, p.489; quoted in D. George Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, London 1982; 1991, p.213.)

“How the Anglo-Irish Problem Could be Solved” (from Leaves from a Prison Diary, 1884)

 The question is frequently asked, “What will satisfy the Irish people? “ And the answer is as frequently volunteered, [883] “Nothing. Nothing will satisfy them but total separation - and that they won’t get”. It is an illogical way of answering sach a question, but pardonable in an Englishman; and the impatience which it manifests is also strikingly characteristic. Your ordinary Englishman entertains the pretty conceit that English rule is of such a beneficent character that any people who do not tamely submit to it are to be pitied and dragooned. While in particular, the Irish people, for their obstinacy in refusing to see any virtue in English rule in Ireland, “must be clearly made to understand,” and “must be told once for all,” that England will maintain her hold upon Ireland at all costs.
 All this talk is indulged in really for the sake of con- cealing the chagrin which England experiences in consequence of the fact, revealed in recent years, that the people of Ireland have discovered how to make it more difficult for England to rule Ireland, than to govern all the rest of her vast empire put together. English statesmen, even now, are devising a middle course between things as they are, and total separation. They are casting about for a scheme which will combine the characteristics of modern statesmanship - a scheme, for example, which will involve as small a concession as possible to the demand of the people concerned, and have a fair chance of passing the House of Lords. Eminent statesmen have more than once challenged Irish public men to say what they want, but the required answer has not been forthcoming. There have been answers, but they have been too reasonable. English statesmen have not been able to offer upon them the comment, “We told you so, the thing demanded is utterly out of the range of practical politics, and, in point of fact, is absolutely out of the question.” The answer really required is such a one as English statesmen can meet with a non possumus. And for this reason, English statesmen, I repeat, know that a substantial concession will have to be made to the genius of Irish nationality within the next few years. The demand for it is too strong to be resisted; for the Irish race have to be dealt with now.
 If at home on Irish soil the people can “make the ruling powers uneasy” to such an extent as I have indicated, in [834] Westminster their representatives can clog the wheels of legislation and endanger the very existence of government by parliamentary methods; while abroad, in Great Britain, America, Australia, Canada, the exiled Irish have discovered how to operate on the flank, so to speak, by elevating tbe Irish question into the position of a national or colonial issue. Further, England’s guilt towards Ireland is Itnown and commented on all over the world. Further still, the real people of England - the working men of Englaud - have of late been asking for the reasons why Ireland should be perpetually discontented, and the answers they have received, to the credit of their common sense, be it said, do not appear to have satisfied them. Respectable England is very angry; and, to conceal their annoyance at the inevitable, and to pave the way for a concession, English statesmen ask the question of Irish public men - “What do you want?” and require an answer to which they may return an emphatic “impossible.” But this is only diplomacy. They only desire us to say how much we want, in order to say in reply how little they will give. They ask us to “formulate our demand,” that they, in formulating their concession, may assure their opponents of its comparative innocence. Responsible Irish public men have declined to fall into the trap. And they have acted very wisely. For why should Irish public men show their hand rather than English Prime Ministers?
 Apart altogether from considerations of this character, however, there are others of a distinctly Irish nature which the leaders of the National movement in Ireland have to take into account. The varying shades of National sentiment may not be ignored. Let us therefore analyze the degrees of intensity of Irish Nationalist aspirations.
 We have first, the Extremists, those who believe that total separation from England is the only thing that would satisfy Irish genius or develop it properly. These include the most self-sacrificing Irishmen. They represent, in their aspirations for Irish liberty, those who have made the most illustrious names in Ireland’s history. They include many cultured men, especially among the expatriated portion of the race, but their main strength is in the working classes. Patriotism is purer among the industrial [836] order because less modified by mercenary motives and less liable to corrupting influences. But the Extremists or Separatists are divided among themselves upon the qoestion of method. There are Separatists who advocate physical force, believing moral force, that is, constitution-al means, ineffectual and demoralizing. This section includes men who have never tried moral force and who believe solely either in “honorable warfare” or “dynamite.” It also includes those who have tried moral force and given it up in despair. Then there are the Separatists who, with the experiences of ’48 and ’67 before their minds, rely upon constitutional action alone.
 Next in importance to the Extremists come the Home Rulers, or Federalists, who may be divided into those who disbelieve in the possibility of Separation and those who do not see its necessity. This section of the National party includes some of the ablest and most earnest men in Ireland. Their methods, I need hardly eay, are strictly constitutional.
 No Irish leader can afford to ignore either of these two principal phases of Irish National sentiment. Were such a man to commit himself to a definite scheme, at the mere invitation of an English Minister, he would run the risk of alienating that section of his supporters whose views were not represented in his proposals. It is an obvious remark that such a contingency would not be unwelcome to English statesmen. From what I have just said, it will be readily perceived how difficult is the task to which Irish popular leaders are asked to address themselves.
 Nevertheless, I shall venture to outline a scheme of local and National self-government which, I believe, would command the support of the majority of the Irish people at home and abroad, and which would probably receive a fair trial at the hands of the Extremists, though its operation would undoubtedly be watched with a jealous eye.
 In the first place, there should be established in Ireland a system of county government, by means of Elective Boards, to take the place of the existing unrepresentative and practically irresponsible Grand Jury system. The functions of such Boards should be more comprehensive than those exercised by the Grand Juries. For example, in addition to the duty of administeriug purely county [836] business, these Boards should be permitted to initiate measares of general application; such as schemes of arterial drainage, tramways, railways, canals, docks, harbors, and similar enterprises, which would be of more than local importance and character. Such schemes, after being fully discussed by these elective bodies, would be submitted to the National Assembly to be subsequently described. Then the County Boards should control the police within the county, and appoint the magistrates, and be entirely responsible for the preservation of law and order.
 Further, should the land problem be justly and satisfactorily solved on the lines of national proprietary, the duty of assessing and collecting the land-tax would naturally devolve upon the County Boards, which, deducting what was necessary for the expenses of county government, would remit the balance to the National Exchequer. In fact the object of such a system should be to constitute each county, as far as practicable, a self-governing community.
 Manifestly any system of local self-government for Ireland involves a corresponding one of National self-government as its natural and inevitable complement. To extend the principle of local self-government at all in Ireland, without radically changing the system of Castle rule, would only have the effect of increasing the friction already existing between the people and their rulers. Hence, it is absolutely necessary that legislation for National self-government should go hand in hand with any scheme for the creation of Elective County Boards. I am well aware that the hope is indulged, in some quarters that the inclusion of Ireland in a general measure of county government, with the sop of an Irish Parliamentary Grand Committee, thrown in, will suffice to choke off the demand for Irish legislative independence; but English statesmen need not delude themselves with the idea that any such Westminster expedient will satisfy the genius of Irish Nationality.
 There could be established in Dublin a National Assembly, composed of elected members from the constitnencies of Ireland, who should proceed to the administration of all Irish affairs, in the manner which obtains in Colonial par- liaments, excepting the substitution of one for two Chambers, [837] here proposed. That is to say, the Representatives of the Crown in Ireland would call upon some member of the National Assembly to form a government, the different members of which should be constituted the heads of the various Boards, which at present are practically irresponsible bureaucracies; but which, under the system here pro- posed, would become departments of a popular government, and open to the supervision of the people through the National Assembly. Such a government, subject to the control of the governed through their elected representatives, would be the practical solution of the Anglo-Irish difficulty. It would be but the common definition of constitutional rule carried into practice. It would, as already remarked, be the application to misgoverned and unfortunate Ireland of a constitution kindred to that which British statesmanship has long since granted, wisely and well, to a consequently peaceful and contented Canada.
 Certainly if a similar act of political justice and sound policy does not solve the Irish difficulty, nothing less will. What possible danger could England run from such an application of constitutional rule to a country much nearer to the center of Imperial power than Canada? But what a beneficent change for Ireland - nay, what a relief to England herself - would be involved in such an act of simple political justice!

—Given in Irish Literature, gen. ed. Justin McCarthy (Washington 1904), pp.822-37; available at Internet Archive - online.
“Despair and Hope in Prison” (from Leaves from a Prison Diary, 1884).

It is true the deepest sorrow and most acute pains of life are often hid from the mockery of human pity away in the recesses of the sufferer’s breast j and that therefore the smiling face and cheerful conversation are not to be relied upon as sure indications of a contented or happy ex- istence. Yet a constant and familiar observation of men of all ages, possessing the strongest of human passions, while being subject to disciplinary restraints that have no parallel in the daily annoyance or troubles of outside life, would be almost certain to detect any tendency to- wards despair or severe heart-suffering on the part of men who should succumb to their fate or surroundings. It is also certain that numbers of prisoners having comforta- ble homes in the outer world must often indulge in sad regrets for what has lost them their enjoyment, and allow their minds to dwell on the painful contrast between the, perhaps, happy influence and remembrance of the one, and the cheerless and weary aspect of the other mode of life.
  But these feelings are seldom or never exhibited in the general behavior or talk of four-fifths of the inmates of a convict prison; and happy, indeed, is it for all concerned in their custody that it is so; as such a mass of bridled passions, if maddened by ever-present thoughts of famfly, home, and former pleasures (while mind and body are made conscious every hour in every day of the terrible penalties which crime has purchased), would become as unmanageable and dangerously restless as a thousand caged hyenas.
 The first two years of penal servitude are the hardest to bear, and test mental endurance more than the whole of the remainder of an ordinary sentence. Liberty has only just been parted with. The picture of the outside world is still imprinted upon the memory, and home and friends, with perhaps a dearer object still, are made to haunt the recollection whenever the association of ideas recalls some incidents of happier days. Of these two years the heaviest portion is comprised within the nine or ten months which must be spent in what is termed “probation” - solitary confinement in Millbank or Pentonville; and while "solitary" is not much dreaded by ordinary prisoners at a later stage of penal existence, it is truly a terrible ordeal to undergo at the commencement. In Millbank this is specially so. The prison is but a few hundred yards west of Westminster Palace, from whence comes, every quarter of an hour, the voice of Big Ben, telling the listening inmates of the penitentiary that another fifteen minutes of their sentences have gone by! What horrible punishment has not that clock added to many an unfortunate wretch’s fate, by counting for him the minutes during which stone walls and iron bars will a prison make! [...]

—Given in Irish Literature, gen. ed. Justin McCarthy (Washington 1904), pp.822-37; available at Internet Archive - online.

[ top ]

What I think of the English” (Birmingham Universal Magazine, July 1900): ‘The English are not a modest race. They preach liberty to the world and practise despotism in India: talk civilisationi in their Press and Parliament and shock even the savages of West Africa with their disregard of truth, honesty and the obligations of their written word. Conquest, trade and money make the trinity of England’s materialistic creed […]’. (Quoted in Noel McLachlan, ‘Michael Davitt and Passive Resistance’ [Commentary], Times Literary Supplement, 12 Feb. 1999, p.14.)

America ties: ‘All my ties except that of birth and my political work … are American. My mother and father were buried in America. My mother’s uncle died high in the service of the United States navy, and my wife is American. My children are now in America, and my only regret is that my two boys are not old enough to fight for Old Glory.’ (To New York Herald, 1898; quoted in McLachlan, op. cit., supra, p.14.) ‘The dynamite theory is the very abnegation of mind, the surrender of reason to rage, of judgement to blind, unthinking recklessness.’ (1883; idem.)

Principles of reform intelligently and fearlessly propagated are far more destructive to unjust and worn-out systems that dynamite bombs, which only kill individuals or knock down buildings but do no injury to oppressive institutions … The dynamite theory is the very abnegation of mind, the surrender of reason to rage, of judgement to blind, unthinking recklessness.’ (Davitt, in Glasgow Herald [?letter], 25 March 1883; quoted in T. W. Moody, Davitt and Irish Revolution 1846-82, Oxford: Clarendon 1982, p.552).

Daniel O’Connell: ‘Ireland has never produced a greater man than O’Connell, and Europe very few that can truly be called his equal in the work of uplifting a people from the degrading status of religious and political serfdom to conditions of national life which necessarily created changes and chances of progress that were bound to lead on to the gain of further liberty.’ (Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, London 1904, p.35; quoted in Fergus O’Ferrall, ‘Liberty and Catholic Politics 1790-1990’, in Daniel O’Connell, Political Pioneer, ed. Maurice R O’Connell, 1991, pp.35-56, p.49).

[ top ]

Justin McCarthy, gen. ed., Irish Literature (Washington: University of America 1904), selects extracts from Leaves from a Prison Diary [‘… all this talk is indulged in really for the sake of concealing the chagrin which England experiences in consequence of the fact revealed in recent years, that the people of Ireland have discovered how to make it more difficult for England to rule Ireland, than to govern all the rest of her vast empire put together’; goes on to distinguish the Extremists fro the Home Rulers or Federalists, ‘No Irish leader can afford to ignore either of these two principle phases of Irish National sentiment’]

[ top ]

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2. selects from The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, ‘The Great Famine and the Young Irelanders’ [198-202], ‘Home Rule and Land Reform’, ‘The New Departure’, and ‘A Future Racial Programme’ [275-80], and ‘Samson Agonistes’ (his account of the Parnell Split in which he blames the IPP for re-electing Parnell, 25 Nov 1890, and Parnell for ignoring Morley’s advice to resign) [320-22]; Some Suggestions for a Final Settlement of the Land Questions [280]. Remarks at 119 [compared with Lalor on opposition to peasant proprietorship, Deane, ed.]; it was Davitt who sustained the alliance between land agitation and political nationalism until the fall of Parnell, linking Lalor’s ideas to the Home Rome question, and giving Lalor a centrality which nationalists later reassigned to Davis [ed.], 120; Davitt, a Lalor convert [ed.], 165; [in Feudalism &c., Davitt follows Mitchel in quoting the Times announcement of the extinction of the Celts], 178n; William Edward Foster, 1818-86, hated by Davitt and others for his coercion measures against Land League, 197; Davitt explains failure of 1848 in terms of the effects of the Famine [ed.], 211; wanted to stimulate in the Irish a sense of the land as a communal possession, 212; [vide Butt (RX supra), 224]; supported by Devoy, 265; 528n.

Emerald Isle Books (1995) lists D. B. Cashman, The Life of Michael Davitt: Founder of the Land League; [and] the Secret History of the Land League by Michael Davitt (Glasgow c.1900), 256pp. [

De Burca Books, Catalogue 44 (1997) lists The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, or the Story of the Land League Revolution. London, Harper, 1904. Pages, xviii, 750pp. [£135].

[ top ]

Portrait, Michael Davitt, port., by William Orpen, Municipal Gallery; in FSL Lyons, John Dillon (1968), pp.228 facing; [?]another held in National Gallery noted in Anne Crookshank, Portraits of Great Irish Men and Women, Ulster Mus. 1965 and W B Yeats, A Centenary Exhibition (Nat. Gallery of Ireland 1965).

An Oscar: Davitt was the recipient of letters from Oscar Wilde, following the latter’s letters to the Daily Chronicle demanding reform of the prison system and Davitt’s support in that cause - saying, ‘No one knows better than yourself how terrible life in an English prison is, and what cruelty can result from the stupidity of officialdom’.

Passive resistance’, a term coined by Walter Scott in Ivanhoe to describe Isaac’s ‘humour of passive resistance’ in his dungeon, was employed by Davitt with rare sarcasm in 1897 when describing the failure of young men at Coolgrany, Wexford, to prevent the eviction of Widow Darcy, writing that they deserved to be send to prison under the Coercion Act ‘for the splendid “passive resistance” they had shown to the Emergency brigade.’

Ballad hero: ‘One day as I went on my rambles / from Swinford to sweet Ballinalee / I met a young maid on my rambles / And her name was Mary Magee / She sighed for the rights of her country / Michael Davitt her true Irish Boy / Who is now in the Prison in Portland / Far from the lovely green banks of the Moy.’ (Quoted by Kevin Myers, The Irish Times, 25 March 1996.)

[ top ]

Boer War: Michael Davitt condemned the Boer War in Parliament as ‘the meanest and most mercenary of ends and aims which ever prompted conquest or aggression, and it will rank in history as the greatest crime of the 19th century.’ (Quoted in Thomas Kettle, ed., Irish Orators and Oratory; also cited by Stephen Watts in Joyce, O’Casey, and the Irish Popular Theater, 1991).

Pamphleteer: purportedly Davitt was the author of the pamphlet attacking John MacBride and his Westport family when the latter offered himself as a candidate in the 1900 Mayo by-election occasioned by Davitt’s resignation of his seat in protest against the Boer War. The pamphlet was produced by Frank Hugh O’Donnell. (See Anthony J. Jordan, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, Westport 2000, p.145, n.)

Count Tolstoy (1): Davitt made two journeys to Russia, visiting Leo Tolstoy on one occasion; MSS journals in TCD Library; ‘I have come from a journey through the Jewish Pale a convinced believer in the remedy of Zionism’ (TCD MS 9651, pp. 44-45; cited in Library of Trinity College [Handbook; q.d.]).

[ top ]

Count Tolstoy (2): ‘On his first visit to Russia, in 1904, Davitt went to see Tolstoy. Initially their meeting did not go well. When Tolstoy adverted to what he supposed was Davitt’s Englishness he was firmly rebuked - “Oh no I am Irish, not English in any sense”. One of the points of mutual interest was the work of Henry George. Tolstoy had read George’s Progress and Poverty, some ideas from which, on the question of land nationalisation, found their way into Tolstoy’s 1899 novel, Resurrection. They also discussed the plight of political prisoners in Russia and in the UK, with Davitt recording how astonished Tolstoy was to learn that Britain had political prisoners. He also took the opportunity to acquaint Tolstoy with the general outline of Irish history and in particular with the issue of resurgent nationalism. He pleaded with the great writer, whom he said had the ear of the reading world, to “say a word for Ireland’s right to rule herself whenever you can”.’ (Oliver Rafferty, ‘Much more than an Irish nationalist’, review of Laurence Marley, Michael Davitt: Freelance Radical and Frondeur, in The Irish Times, 21 July 2007, Weekend.)

Standish James O’Grady took a side-swipe at Davitt’s nationalisation programme in Ulrick the Ready (1899).

[ top ]

Liam O’Flaherty gives Davitt a brief appearance in Land, where he orates from a platform: ‘To confiscate the land of a subjugated people’, Davitt cried passionately, as he gesticulated with his solitary arm, ‘and bestow it on adventurers is the first act of unrighteous conquest, the preliminary step to the extermination of servitude of an opponent race [sic]. The landlord garrison that England established in this country centuries ago is today as true to the object of its foundation as when it first cursed our soil.’ (Random House ed. 1946, p.175-76). (Quoted in James Cahalan, Great Hatred, Little Room, The Irish Historical Novel, 1983, p.45.]

Denis Ireland, An Ulster Protestant looks At his World (1930), quotes Sheehy Skeffington Michael Davitt), accrediting Davitt with defeating the Anglo-American Alliance [67]

[ top ]

Denis Cashman, the author of the first life of Mitchell (1923), acted as head of the Waterford Fenian ring and was arrested in Jan. 1867 and afterwards convicted of felony treason before being imprisoned in Kilmainham and then transferred to Millbank Prison (London), from whence in Sept. 1867 he was transported to Australia aboard the Hougoumont; pardoned in 1869, he settled in Boston, rejoining his wife and children; died in Boston, 1897; took prominent part in planning the Catalpa expedition to liberate other Irish political convicts in Australia; shared his journey of transportation with John Boyle O’Reilly, John Flood, John Casey, and others; edited The Wild Goose with others; kept a diary of the voyage. (Information supplied by C. W. Sullivan III, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC 27858-4358.)

[ top ]

Michael Davitt Commemorative Conference held at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (DCU), May 2006, with speakers: Joe Lee (‘historical perspective’), Paul Bew (‘agrarian radical tradition’), Brendan Deacy (‘life in images’), Hasai Diner (‘Kishinev & the American Jewish community), John Dunleavy (‘Lancashire apprenticeship’), Anthony Jordan (‘Boer War’), Fintan Lane (‘Irish working-class 1879-1906’), Laurence Marley (‘international radicalism’), W. J. McCormack (‘Irish literary revival’), Laura McNeill (‘[ab]using the memory of a great Irishman’), Andrew Newby (‘loyal opposition in Scotland 1879-1887’), Máirtín Ó Catháin (‘historical memory’), Alan O’Day (‘Butt, Parnell & Davitt’) and Pauric Travers (‘Davitt & education’).

Forgotten Hero: “Michael Davitt and Irish Democracy”, a conference of the Parnell Summer School, Avondale, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow, 13-18 August 2006, exploring his career as a Fenian, Home Ruler, parliamentarian, social and educational reformer, labour leader, pioneering journalist, inveterate traveller, suffragist and feminist and above all, social democrat. Speakers incl. Brendan Deacy, John Horgan, Carla King, Bill [W. J.] McCormack, Donal Maguire, Martin Mansergh, Alan O’Day, and Trevor Sargent [TD]. (See History Ireland, May/June 2006.)

Casus belli: Michael Newton remarks that it is unclear to historians whether the Land League membership was formed out of self-protection or political motivation. (See Newton, The Age of Assassins: A History of Conspiracy and Political Violence 1865-1981, Faber 2012, c.p.164.) [Incls. chapter on Ireland, Fenians, Land League and Parnell - 136-97.]

[ top ]