Michael Davitt: A Brief History

Michael Davitt

Some feel that Michael Davitt achieved everything he did despite losing his right arm in an accident involving a spinning machine whilst working in a cotton mill at around eleven years of age. In truth, fate had played a cruel trick and Davitt almost certainly became the man he did because of the tragedy, rather than despite it.

Davitt was born on 25 March, 1846, in Straide, County Mayo, Ireland, in the midst of “The Great Hunger,” the disastrous famine which decimated Ireland and forever changed it.

Remains of a Haslingden Mill

An early memory for Davitt was the eviction of his family from their home. He was four. The family moved to England and came to settle in the Northern town of Haslingden. The North of England at this time was thriving and the mills were hungry for young, cheap workers. Michael Davitt joined their ranks at the tender age of 10.

Sometime after seeing a young friend killed in a mill accident, Davitt also fell victim to the dangers of the workplace. He survived, but his right arm had to be amputated, and the course of his life was from that point on dramatically altered.

Davitt spent the next four years in the Wesleyan School, learning that brains could be often put to better use than brawn, and his education, apart from leading to a good position with the local Post Office, had also broadened his mind and led to a growing interest in the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood).

An Irish Land League Poster dating from the 1880’s

From this point on, there was no turning back for the young but increasingly idealistic – and politically-minded – Davitt, and within a few years he had immersed himself in the cause, achieving the position of organizing secretary for Northern England and Scotland.

Trouble soon followed.

Dartmoor Prison

In 1870, Davitt was arrested in London on IRB business and sentenced to fifteen years in Dartmoor prison. He was released on a, “ticket of leave,” along with other prisoners, after seven years. But whilst suffering the harsh regime there, which gave no consideration to his physical disability, he continued developing both his political and his humanitarian thinking.

Whilst in prison, Davitt came to his oft quoted conclusion that, “the land question can be definitely settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors.” With that as the ultimate aim, the ‘Three F’s’ (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale), became the foundation of The Land League, and when Davitt returned to the country of his birth – the country he had been made to leave as a helpless child – it was as a force to be reckoned with.

A starving Irish family. Photo: The National Library of Ireland.

Davitt returned to his homeland to find it once again in the midst of a great famine. He wasted no time in getting involved in a ‘campaign of agitation,’ to reduce rents.

This met with success and in 1879 the Land League of Mayo was founded, with the full support of the powerful Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and, at the time, Chief Campaigner for Home Rule.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Parnell later became President of the national Land League, a brilliant tactical move that united all land agitators and made The Land League a true political force in Ireland. One of their most famous successes was the infamous ostracizing of the land agent Captain Charles Boycott, ending with Boycott abandoning Ireland and leading to the coining of the phrase, “to boycott.”

But much progress was due to Davitt’s relentless campaigns and fearlessly outspoken speeches, which led to his imprisonment, release, and re-arrest, all of which failed to subdue him. Finally, in 1881, opposition crumbled and the Land Act finally granted the ‘three F’s.’

More progress was made with the Wyndham’s Land Purchase Act which gave financial encouragement to landlords to sell their estates, for which ownership would ultimately be transferred to the tenants. Davitt, however, opposed this, feeling strongly that landlords should receive no compensation for land that belonged rightly to the state. Davitt had also become a staunch advocate of Home Rule.

Mrs. Mary Davitt & Children 1905. Photo: The Michael Davitt Museum, Mayo.

Earlier, in the late 1870’s Davitt had traveled to the United States, where his mother and three sisters had settled. He had gone planning to win US support for his ‘The Land For The People,’ policy, but at least one American, Mary Yore of Oakland, California, had ideas of her own, and Davitt fell in love.

Once married, they moved to Ireland, where the people gave them The Land League cottage in Ballybrack, Dalkey, County Dublin, as a wedding present.

Photo: The Micheal Davitt Museum, Mayo.

In November, 1890, Captain William O’Shea divorced his wife Katherine, citing Parnell as corespondent. The Catholic Church and the establishment demanded Parnell’s retirement. The scandal was seismic, splitting the cause down the middle into those either for or against Parnell. Davitt stood against.

Much has been made of this, but the only sacrifice Davitt could have made on behalf of Parnell would have been to sacrifice the cause itself in a toeto- toe fight with establishment, church, and the moral standards of the people.

Parnell – as brilliant and politically aware as he was – had all but handed their enemies the ammunition they needed to wreak destruction. And they did. Davitt didn’t flinch. His priority was the cause, and the protection of its reputation.

The years that followed held both triumph and tragedy for Davitt. Having been denied the position of MP in the past (due to his being in prison), he finally became MP for West Mayo. In 1895, one of Michael and Mary’s five children (three boys, two girls), Kathleen, died of tuberculosis, aged 7.

Aside from the fact that he is credited as one of the founders of the British Labour Party, Davitt also helped William O’Brien in the creation of his United Irish League.

Davitt died in Elphis Hospital, Dublin, of septic poisoning in 1906. He was sixty. Although his family had planned a private funeral, some 20,000 people came to see the coffin and show their final respects.

He had traveled extensively in his lifetime, fighting for the cause of the poor and oppressed the world over, regardless of race or religion. His influence was profound. Years later no-less a figure than Mahatama Ghanadi cited Davitt and The Land League movement as a major influence in the creation of his own peaceful resistance movement.


The wider world apart, the small Northern town of Haslingden has never forgotten Michael Davitt, and Davitt’s family have likewise never forgotten the town. In 1946, Davitt’s birth centenary, his son, Dr. Robert Davitt, came to mark the occasion. In 1996, his grandson, Fr. Thomas Davitt, CM, preached a homily at the local St. Mary’s Church before a packed congregation and a special envoy from the Irish Government.

Written for thelandleague.org by Pat Brien
Author of The Breaking News

For more history about the club and it’s Irish heritage see:
The Irish Heritage In Haslingden Committee