Michael attended St Mary’s Roman Catholic primary school in Haslingden until he reached the age of ten. Like so many children of that time he was anxious to quit school and become a wage earner. He had no problem finding work as textile factories were plentiful and in need of cheap child labor. While operating a spinning machine at one of these factories near Baxenden his right arm got caught in a cogwheel and had to be amputated.
That tragic event proved to be a turning point in Davitt's life. Due to the generosity of an anonymous benefactor he attended the local Wesleyan school until age fourteen. Afterwards he attended evening classes in the Mechanics’ Institute where he was learned a number of skills including typesetting. He also embarked on a course of self education studying a number of European languages including French and Italian. By the time he finished he was fluent in French and Italian as well as English and Irish the languages he grew up with.
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. He spent five years in that business working a number of different jobs including typesetting, bookkeeping and mail delivery.
In 1865, Davitt joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) which had strong support among working-class Irish immigrants . He took part in the unsuccessful attack on Chester Castle in February of 1867. In 1868, he was made organizing secretary of the IRB in Scotland and England and was their chief arms purchaser. In order to cover up his revolutionary activities, he became a firearms salesman. In 1870 he was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in Dartmoor prison on a charge of treason. He was released on ‘ticket of leave’ after seven years due to the efforts the Amnesty Association.
After his release Davitt rejoined the IRB and became a member of its Supreme Council.
By 1870 the British Government had passed the first of the Irish Land Acts which included a provision dealing with "fair rents". Despite that concession Davitt continued to believe that the common people of Ireland could not improve their lot without the ownership of their land, and frequently insisted at IRB meetings that "the land question could be settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors".
His father is buried in Scranton. In 1878 Davitt embarked on his first of many visits to the United States. During that first visit he participated in a lecture tour organized by John Devoy and the Fenians designed to garner the support of Irish-Americans for his new policy of "The Land for the People". Davitt had close ties to the United States as a result of his family having moved there in 1873 while he was in prison.
After his return to Ireland in 1879 Davitt founded the Land League of Mayo to organize and direct agrarian agitation. Davitt’s role was vital and the leadership he offered in directing agrarian agitation, (the Land War) was of profound importance. He believed that the Land War would result in the abolition of landlordism and that republicans and nationalists alike would support his efforts in that regard. He adopted the slogan; ‘the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’.
In October of 1879 the Land League of Mayo was superseded by the Irish National Land League with Parnell its first president and Davitt its secretary. It was Davitt, however, who had promoted this development that had IRB, Clann na Gael and widespread popular support.
After a meeting between Devoy, Michael Davitt Charles Kickham and John O'Leary in 1879 an informal agreement was reached dubbed the “New Departure,” ostensibly to create a united front that would include a combination of physical force, agrarian agitation and constitutional nationalism. In 1880, in support of that agreement, Devoy together with Parnell and Davitt embarked on a tour of the United States to raise awareness and funds for the suffering tenant farmers and the poor in Ireland.
From 1880 through 1882 at the height of the Land War the Land League organized resistance to evictions, agitated for reductions in rents and supported relief agencies set up to provide food and shelter to evicted tenants. Landlords' attempts to evict tenants led to widespread violence and a campaign of ostracism by the Land League against landlords and their local agents. The most notable of these campaign was directed against Charles Boycott the local agent for Lord Erne; a landowner in the Lough Mask area in Mayo. The local labor required to save the harvest on Lord Erne's estate was withheld, neighbors would not talk to him, shops would not serve him, local tradesmen refused to tend his house and the postman refused to deliver his mail. In December of 1880 he left Ireland a defeated icon of landlordism.
In 1881 Davitt's "ticket of leave" was revoked and he was sent to Portland jail for his outspoken speeches in which he had accused the chief secretary of Ireland of "infamous lying". While in prison the British government passed legislation that met many of the Land League’s demands including fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom of sale.
In an 1882 by-election, Davitt was elected Member of Parliament for Co. Meath but was disqualified because he was in prison. Upon his release in 1882 he travelled to the United States with William Redmond to collect funds for the Land League.
Davitt was elected to parliament four time, but was only allowed to take his seat 1895 as the MP for South Mayo.
Davitt’s continued support of the Irish National League earned him a third term in prison in 1883. The harsh treatment he received in prison took a tool on his health. After his release he travelled widely campaigning for the oppressed everywhere including the Boers in South Africa, the Jews in Russia, the working class in Britain and his own people in Ireland.
In 1886 Davitt married an American, Mary Yore from Michigan, When Davitt and his wife returned to Ireland they were given a house in Ballybrack in Dublin, which became known as the ‘Land League Cottage’ as a mark of appreciation by people of Ireland. for his life-long work fighting for tenants’ rights. The Davitt's had five children, three boys and two girls.
Davitt’s final years, following his resignation from Westminster in 1899 were occupied with journalism. His books deal with subjects ranging from Anti-Semitism in Russia to convict life in Britain. He commanded great respect and affection among the majority of Irish people as the ‘father of the Land League’.
Michael Davitt died in Elphis Hospital, Dublin on May 30th 1906 at the age of sixty of acute septic poisoning. Davitt's body was brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary, Clarendon Street, Dublin. Despite his wishes for the simplest possible ceremony over 20,000 people filed past his coffin the next day. His remains brought by train to Foxford in Mayo.
A huge crowd attended his funeral in the grounds of Straide Abbey, in the shadow of the church where he was baptized.
By the time of his death the land for the people had largely become a reality, prison reform had begun, and he himself had become and international champion of liberty.
Extracts from Davitt's will :
Should I die in Ireland, I would wish to be buried at Straide, County Mayo, without any funeral demonstration. If I die in America I must be buried in my mothers grave at Manayunk, near Philadelphia, and on no account brought back to Ireland.
If in any other country
(outside of Great Britain)
to be buried in the nearest
graveyard to where I die,
with the simplest possible
Should I die in Great Britain, I must be buried at Straide, County Mayo. My diaries are not to be published as such, and in no instance without my wife's permission ; but on no account must anything harsh or censorious writ/ten in said diaries by me about any person, dead or alive, who has ever worked for Ireland, be printed, published, or used so as to give pain to any friend or relative.
To all my friends I leave kind thoughts ; to my enemies the 'fullest possible forgiveness ; and to Ireland the undying prayer for the absolute freedom and independence which it was my life's ambition to try and obtain for her.'
Contributed by; Tomás Ó Coısdealha
Cemetery AND grave location
Name: Grounds of Straide Abbey PHONE NO. 011 353 94 903 1022
ADDRESS: Straide, Foxford Co. Mayo, Ireland
Back to Biographies Posted 9/25/2011