Michael Davitt was born in 1846, at the beginning of the most terrible years of famine, to an impoverished Mayo family, who were evicted from their home in 1852. They emigrated to Lancashire where Davitt obtained an education from his parents but also from the Protestant and Dissenting churches competing for followers in the local working class communities. It is perhaps from this experience that Davitt formed his life-long opposition to any form of religious sectarianism.
At the age of 11 Davitt went to work in a cotton mill. The Victorian cotton mills of Lancashire are now notorious for the callous indifference with which they used up the lives and limbs of their child workers. Within a year of starting work Davitt was a victim of the non-stop machinery, with his right arm being trapped and crushed. It was amputated near the shoulder. Determinedly he taught himself to write again, now with his left hand.
Davitt’s disability did not prevent him throwing himself wholeheartedly into political life. For someone without any formal schooling Davitt developed an astonishing skill with the written word, especially evident in his political writings. He joined the Fenians and participated in the 1867 Rising. By 1870 he was a key organiser of the scattered rebel movement but infiltration by British Intelligence led to his being arrested. Prison at that time was an ordeal designed to shatter body and spirit. Davitt was put to hard tasks, such as stone-breaking one-handed with a pick, or being strapped into a harness in order to haul a cart. Only after the harness wore away his shoulder stump did the prison authorities relent to the extent of making him instead pound rotten bones into manure.
The desperate conditions faced by Davitt were drawn attention to in Westminster and in 1877 he was paroled, on condition of good behaviour. Davitt soon recovered from his prison years and proved he was far from being broken. He emerged determined to implement a new course of action that embodied two fundamental organising principles: that political action had to be open and gain a popular following and that the way to stir the people of Ireland was to organise around the question that most materially affected their lives, which in the 1870’s and 1880’s was the question of tenant rights to land.
Davitt was the first I.R.B. member to conduct open political rallies and his new approach was supported by John Devoy in America. These two Fenians then sought for allies in the political elite of the national movement and found one in Parnell. The Land League was born of a fusion of two political traditions, those physical force nationalists willing to abandon conspiracy in favour of building a mass movement and those parliamentarians willing to sanction popular demonstrations and activity for the sake of revitalising support for Home Rule. Both wings had to face criticism from within their own ranks, but while the alliance lasted it was phenomenally successful.
Massive rallies took place across Ireland in 1879 and 1880, laying the basis for action. Landlords were to be stopped from making evictions by a tactic so successful that its implementation, first of all against Captain Boycott, gave a new term to the world. Landlords who attempted evictions were now met with a complete embargo. In Captain Boycott’s case he could get no one to work for him, no labourer, coachman, servant, stableman. No shopkeeper would serve him, even the twelve year old post boy would not deliver his mail. Although Boycott became a cause célèbre for loyalists, who raised funds and voluntary labour for him, Boycott was defeated by these means and left Ireland.
Michael Davitt was at the heart of the Land League, its tireless organiser. This was his greatest moment. The British Government’s response was to break the movement with the carrot and the stick, arresting Davitt in 1881 and imprisoning him without trial on the grounds of breach of his release conditions. A thousand other activists soon followed Davitt to jail, but at the same time a Land Act made considerable concessions to the demands of the movement.
Protest at Davitt’s arrest was massive, including tens of thousands marching in London, from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. In Parliament itself Parnell and his followers were expelled for their disruption to proceedings. But here the movement faltered and divided along its main fault line. Davitt urged the immediate calling of a complete rent strike across Ireland. At that moment such an act would have been immensely popular. The Irish parliamentarians hesitated, met together, and then came back to Westminster to make hot-tempered speeches to the kind of audience they were comfortable with. The alternative, to lead a truly huge mass campaign, frightened them. Their surrender of the initiative was an exact repetition of O’Connell’s cancellation of the 1843 rally at Clontarf.
By the time of Davitt’s release the energy had gone from the Land League, the reforms on offer being sufficient to fragment the enthusiasm of the tenant farmers as, piecemeal, they sought to obtain what they could from the new legislation. Davitt himself, however, was still hugely respected as a champion of the tenant farmer and Mayo returned him to Parliament in 1892.
It was in his second period of imprisonment that Davitt formulated the goal of nationalisation of the land. In theory, he argued, it should be done without compensation for the landlords, not even the cost of their ferry ticket to Holyhead. In practice it could be done by government purchase of the land, at a cost of £140 million, which while an immense sum, could be gradually repaid by a ten percent land tax; a tax which would leave the tenant paying only half the rents they were currently paying but with the security of knowing they now owned the land and therefore the incentive to improve it.
This idea was eminently practical but philosophically alien to both Irish and British politicians, committed as they were to private property. Davitt’s supporters in this idea were not to be found in Westminster but in the emerging socialist movement in Britain, so whom he now associated himself. Nor did political games among the British elite suit a man who had grown up in the harshest of conditions and who had built a movement that had awoken a country. Davitt resigned his seat in 1896 telling Parliament that ‘no just cause can succeed here unless backed by physical force.’ Until his death in 1906 he remained an ally of the Irish poor and British trade unions, although he did not live long enough to appreciate the revolutionary significance of the emerging Irish urban working class movement.
James Connolly summed up his view of the power of Davitt’s movement when he wrote that ‘the strength and power of the political agitation of the Land League lay in the fact that its representatives were the servants and mouthpieces of a class who were already organised and holding the means of production with a revolutionary intent. They were not asking government to give them possession, they were already in defiant possession and demanding that such possession be legalised. Their base of operation was secondarily at the election booth, primarily on the farm.’