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The Irish Question and the Great Famine

The Irish Question

In 1844 the future British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli defined what he called the “Irish question:” That dense population, in extreme distress who inhabit an island where there is an established church that is not their church alongside a territorial aristocracy the richest whom live in foreign capitals. Thus you have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien church and in addition the weakest executive in the world.

The Great Famine

In 1845 an incurable fungal disease from Europe decimated the staple foodstuff, the potato. Relief was inadequate and tens of thousands died annually from malnutrition and epidemic disease. One million people died of which 40% came from the province of Connacht. County Mayo was particularly hard hit by the disaster with poor land and poor tenant farmers. The Great Famine 1845-1849 had a dramatic and long-lasting impact on the whole of Ireland when death and emigration reduced the population of the island from 8.5 million to 6.5 million people.

Michael Davitt's Early Life

Birth and Eviction

A study of the 1851 Census revealed that 550 people of Irish descent lived in Haslingden. Amongst that number was a five-year-old boy, Michael Davitt, who had suffered the indignation of eviction from his home in Straide County Mayo during the Great Famine, and at the age of eleven was to have his right arm amputated following an accident at a mill. That boy went on to change the course of Irish History.

Davitt was born on March 25th, 1846, the second child of Catherine (nee Kielty) and Martin Davitt. In 1850 as tenants on the John Knox estate they were evicted from their cottage for non-payment of rent. The cottage was then deliberately destroyed leaving them with no other option but to try and gain access to the workhouse at Swinford. At the workhouse, Catherine, who had refused to be separated from her son, decided then to seek passage to Liverpool. From there they walked to Haslingden, a distance of almost 50 miles. The indignity of the eviction had a profound effect on the whole family.

Life in Haslingden

The mills and stone quarries of the area had flourished and from being a village of 4,000 in 1801 Haslingden had become a town of 10,000 by the time the Davitts arrived. Initially, the Irish immigrants had suffered from the prejudice of the locals, who were afraid that they would be prepared to work for lower wages. Signs displayed on some boarding house doors stated, “No hawkers, no dogs and no Irish”, in that order.

During the journey to Haslingden, Michael had contracted measles, which at that time was considered extremely infectious and in some cases fatal. In Haslingden, the family were asked to leave their lodging house for fear of infection, forcing them to set up a makeshift shelter Higher Lane. When James Bonner, a tin plate worker from County Tyrone heard about their situation he quickly invited them to stay with his family in spite of the risk of infection to his own small children.

Early Education and Work

The 1861 Census shows the Davitt family at Rock Hall at the top of the town, where the housing was basic and cheap. Davitt’s parents supported the family by hawking fruit, until Martin Davitt became an agent for the Friendly Society of St Patrick. Martin was literate in English and he set up a school in his home teaching people to read and write. Michael was age eight when a Catholic day school was opened on Wilkinson Street, which he attended until aged nine, until he started to work part-time as a bobbin tenter to a mule spinner at Parkinsons cotton mill Ewood Bridge. He only stayed four weeks at the mill as the spinner spent the wages owed to him on beer. His next period of employment was at a mill owned by Lawrence Whittaker, however, when his friend, John Ginty was killed in an accident at the works his parents insisted that he found alternative employment at John Stelfox’s Alliance Mill, Baxenden.

Tragedy and Political Awakening

Mill Accident

Tragedy struck when aged eleven his right arm was crushed in a machine. The arm had to be amputated close to the socket ten days later. No longer able to work his plight was brought to the attention of John Deane a leading Wesleyan and mill proprietor, who sponsored him, allowing him to attend Haslingden Methodist school, where he received an excellent education. The Accident although tragic saved him from a life of mill drudgery. In 1861 Michael began working for Henry Cockcroft at Haslingden post office as a typesetter, where he was able to work faster with one arm than a person with two.

Influences and Education

One frequent visitor to the post office was Dr John Binns, an energetic promoter of reform. He had been a Chartist and was to dedicate an increasing amount of his time to other causes notably factory reform, co-operation and education. Binns set about resuscitating the Mechanics Institute and was instrumental in the construction of a new Institute building on Deardengate, consisting of a library, lecture hall and classrooms. The Institute was opened in 1860 and it was here Davitt first read the history of Ireland, and where he attended a speech delivered by the Chartist Ernest Jones who was the first person after his father to denounce Landlordism.

Irish Republican Brotherhood

After such a tempestuous childhood the 1860s found him acutely politically aware. Most evenings would be spent in the houses of the Timlin, Madden, and Cartin families discussing the issue of Home rule and an independent Ireland. Age 19 Davitt like many of his Irish contemporaries joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret oath-bound fraternal Fenian organisation fighting for freedom from the British empire. Fenian organisations were established in Britain, North America, Australia, and Canada. The organisation was divided into regiments, with the Rossendale regiment; of which Davitt was one of the main agitators consisting of around 50 members.

Fenian Activities and Imprisonment

Fenian Activities

In February 1867 Davitt was involved in a failed attack on Chester castle in order to secure arms for a planned Fenian rising. He had learned that the police were lying in wait and managed to escape with his men. Later in the same year the Fenians succeeded in freeing some of their leaders from a prison van in Manchester but in the attempt, a police officer was killed. Inevitably there were angry reactions in England at these audacious acts perpetrated by the Fenians.

Anti-Irish Sentiment

This anti-Irish sentiment played into the hands of a group of extreme Protestant lecturers led by William Murphy. The “Murphyites” maintained a conspiracy between the Roman Catholic Church and the Fenians to take over the UK. Murphy argued that only when the Irish had been repatriated and the Catholic Churches closed would the kingdom be made safe from subversion. A hostile demonstration took place on Pleasant Street Haslingden, following a Murphyite lecture when a mob supposedly making for St Mary’s Catholic Church was only deflected from their purpose when shots were fired over their heads. Davitt was reputedly the man who fired the gun.


In 1868 Michael left Cockcroft’s printers to work full time as an activist for the I.R.B as organising secretary and arms agent for England and Scotland, posing as a travelling salesman as cover. Members of his family had emigrated to the United States several months earlier and his visits to Haslingden became less frequent as his Fenian responsibilities increased. Although he was wanted by the authorities from 1867 it was not until 1870 that he was arrested at Paddington station while awaiting a delivery of arms. Tried at the Old Bailey he was convicted of treason felony and waging war on Her Majesty, Queen Victoria and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

Prison Conditions and Release

Prison Conditions

A convict’s sentence at that time was in three parts: A short period of solitary confinement followed by a longer period of hard labour, and a final period on a ticket of leave on probation back into society. The first part of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement at Millbank prison. The cell was furnished with a plank bed, wooden platter and spoon, pint tin and chamber pot. A bucket fitted with a lid, served the dual purpose of water holder and seat, on which he sat for ten hours a day picking Oakum, so that the fibres could be sold (money for old rope). Davitt had to use his teeth to separate the fibres due to his disability.

Hard Labour

After ten months of solitary confinement he was transferred to Dartmoor prison for the hard labour section of his sentence, where he was tasked with breaking up rocks using a heavy hammer. His hand became so blistered that he was transferred to a gang engaged in hauling carts about the prison, but after a few months, the harness he wore made his stump bleed. In April 1872 he was given indoor work – pounding bones for manure – a task he loathed on account of the stench of the putrefying bones, aggravated by the proximity of the bone shed to the prison cesspool. All communication between convicts, except what was indispensable to their work, was strictly forbidden. Their food rations were so poor that prisoners ate candles to supplement their diet. Every prisoner was searched four times a day, and was liable, at the discretion of the warder, to be stripped and searched. Davitt was released on a “ticket of leave” in 1877 having served 7 years and 7 months.

The Land War of 1879-1882


The hinge on which Irish history turns is the ‘Land War’ of 1879-1882.During the famine the poorest cottiers and agricultural labourers died or were forced to emigrate,freeing up land that was then purchased and enclosed by larger farmer’s and subsequently re-let and in some cases further subdivided and re-let.In 1878 just 3.700 landowners owned 89% of the land, many of them absent landlords.Half of the tenants rented farms under 15 acres.Some tenants only had a yearly lease and therefore little in the way of security.On his release from prison,Davitt embarked on a series of speaking tours across the country and the United States promoting the issue of land ownership in Ireland.Whilst in America he met John Devoy, a lifelong republican who after a series of plots against the British was exiled.Devoy worked with Davitt on his ‘New departure’; a fresh approach which would see Fenians work alongside Home Rule MP,s. They also discussed non-violent agrarian action on the issue of land ownership.

Formation of the Land League

Later that year, Davitt and a number of other former Fenian prisoners returned to Ireland. They were greeted by large crowds headed by Charles Stewart Parnell, the rising star of the Irish Parliamentary Party. When Davitt arrived in Castlebar, he was met by James Daly, editor of the Connaught Telegraph, who championed the cause of the small farmers of Mayo. It was Daly who uttered the phrase that would soon become the slogan for the entire land agitation: “The land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.”

The Land League and its Impact


The Land League of Mayo was formed on August 16th, 1879, to defend the interests of tenant farmers, initially demanding the three F’s: Fair rent, Fixity of tenure, and Free sale. The aim was to defend tenants’ rights against landlords and to bring about change using collective nonviolent action, such as withholding rents during disputes. Davitt urged tenants not to pay rent where there was no profit from farming.

Growth and Influence

In October 1879, Davitt, Daly, and Parnell established the National Land League of Ireland, with Parnell as President and Davitt as one of the secretaries. Encouraged by mass meetings at Westport and Irishtown, which showed the power of mass demonstrations, Fenians and politicians realized that the “Land Question” could be a stepping stone to independence. The Land League’s actions aimed for a real and lasting improvement in tenants’ lives.

The Origins of “Boycott”

The term “boycott” originates from the case of Captain Charles Boycott, a land agent acting on behalf of an absent landlord. Boycott illegally evicted three tenants, prompting the Land League to run a campaign to exclude him. Local workers refused to work on his lands, shops refused to supply food, and servants left their roles until the evictions were overturned. This action led to the term “boycott” entering the lexicon.

Government Response and Davitt's Imprisonment

Coercion Bill and “Moonlighting”

The British government responded harshly to the activities of the Land League. The Coercion Bill of 1881 gave them the right to arrest and imprison without trial. In response, the Land League employed a tactic known as ‘Moonlighting’. They would conduct mock funerals at the homes of those not supportive of the league, symbolising social ostracism within the community.

Davitt’s Imprisonment

Davitt had his ticket of leave revoked again in the spring of 1881 and was imprisoned again in Portland Prison. This time, as a political prisoner, he was treated less harshly than other convicts. In October 1881, Parnell and other Land League leaders were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. At Davitt’s suggestion, a ladies’ Land League had been set up primarily to take over the functions of the Land League while its leadership was imprisoned.

Legislative Changes and Kilmainham Treaty

Land Act of 1881

Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone brought in a Land Act of 1881, granting Ireland the three F’s: Fair rent, Fixity of tenure, and Free sale. The Act also allowed tenants to sell their interest and any improvements to their holdings without landlord interference.

The Settled Land Act and Kilmainham Treaty

In 1882, as part of the ‘Kilmainham Treaty’ agreed with Parnell, the Settled Land Act was brought in. This act allowed poor tenants to have their arrears quashed and apply to the land court to have a fair rent fixed. For Parnell, these changes were enough to call off the land war and disband the children’s and ladies’ Land League. Parnell then directed efforts towards achieving Home Rule.

Davitt's Political Career and Legacy

Davitt’s Parliamentary Role

The Kilmainham treaty marked a new era in Davitt’s life. He returned to Irish politics and served as an MP for various constituencies. Davitt supported Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill while advocating for prison reform and presenting reports on the administration of law.

Contributions and Recognition

Davitt was admired for his contributions to various movements, including support for Indian nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji and his involvement in the crofters’ struggles in Scotland. He played a significant role in the nascent English Labour Party and was involved in political meetings supporting Irish freedom.

Legacy and Death

Davitt’s death in 1906 marked the end of an era. He was acknowledged as the founder of the Land League and a supporter of the nascent labor movement. Despite not living to see Ireland regain independence, Davitt’s legacy endured through his contributions to social and political reform.


Following Davitt’s death, efforts were made to memorialize his legacy, including fundraisers and the unveiling of memorials in Haslingden, where he was born. In 2006, a centenary tribute was organized, culminating in a visit from the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese.