Michael Davitt (1846-1906) is one of the most important figures of modern Irish history. A member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians) from the 1860s, Davitt went on to play a leading role in the Land War of the 1880s that helped break the power of the landlords in Ireland and eventually led to the transfer of the ownership of the land of Ireland to the people. Thereafter, he advocated socialism. His success came from mixing direct struggle by the people for social justice with political action, writes Ultán Gillen.
Davitt was born in Straide, County Mayo in 1846. The Great Famine was devastating Ireland’s poor. Between 1845 and 1851, the population fell by 2 million through death and emigration. A culture of emigration took hold that lasted for over a century, and which is now raising its head once more. Many landlords took advantage of the Famine to evict tenants to make greater profits. Davitt’s family was evicted, and soon emigrated to Lancashire. The atrocious conditions of the working class there, including the Irish emigrants, were recorded by Frederick Engels in his famous The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844). Aged only 10, Davitt began working in one of the area’s “dark satanic mills”, and lost an arm in an accident at 11. From birth, Davitt suffered the problems that have plagued modern Ireland – the poverty and emigration caused by inequality, and by government in the interest of a few and not the many. He experienced the worst effects of capitalism on both town and country. These experiences radicalised him.
In 1865, Davitt joined the IRB. The Fenians aimed to establish a democratic, secular republic by revolutionary means. Many Fenians were urban working class radicals, and they had links with Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association, the First International. Their secularism and their social radicalism made them enemies not just in the government but also in the Catholic Church, which excommunicated them. After the failed revolution of 1867, Davitt and others continued their struggle. Arrested in London in 1870 and jailed until 1877, he then emigrated to America.
The New Departure
In jail, Davitt’s belief that Irish political independence meant little without social change grew. He was both part of the early European socialist movement, and building on ideas that had been part of Ireland’s revolutionary tradition since the United Irishmen. He saw that the major problem facing the Irish people was the landholding system. Davitt and others persuaded the Fenians that social agitation was essential to gaining popular support. The other important change the New Departure brought about in republican thinking was a willingness to forge an alliance with Parnell’s Home Rule party, and to mix pressure inside and outside Parliament to bring about real change.
Davitt returned from America in 1879. The potato crop had failed again, and Famine once more threatened the poor farmers of the west. Tenants simply couldn’t meet the rents demanded by landlords. Mass resistance was organised until fair rents were agreed. Davitt and the agrarian radicals saw their chance. On 16th August 1879, the National Land League of Mayo was formed. On October 21st the Irish National Land League was founded in Dublin. Parnell was President and Davitt as one of the Secretaries. A national campaign of withholding rents, social and political agitation, and Parliamentary action began. Davitt himself was elected to Westminster. During the three years of the Land War, despite the jailing of Davitt and others, the Land League secured the “Three F’s” – Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure (the right not to be easily evicted), and Free Sale.
The Land Leaguers had demonstrated the power of the united action of the poor to achieve real change that improved their lives. They blended familiar methods with new strategies and ways of thinking, and broke the dominance of the landlords. Davitt later wrote the history of the Land League revolution. He called it, The Fall of Feudalism (1904). After the Land War, the transfer of the land to the people was inevitable; this social revolution created the conditions for the struggle of 1916-1921.
The Cause of Labour
Davitt saw that inequality would not disappear with the disappearance of the landlords. He advocated land nationalisation, and set about organising workers in both town and countryside. He established the Irish Democratic Labour Federation in 1890, and contributed greatly to the formation of the British Labour Party. Like the United Irishmen before him, Davitt saw the struggle for true democracy and social justice in Ireland as part of an international revolutionary movement. Like James Connolly after him, he believed that painting the postboxes green was not enough – real freedom meant freedom from starvation and poverty, as well as independence. Davitt moved the Fenians away from narrow militarism to a truly revolutionary programme that embraced political struggle to put real power in the hands of the plain people of Ireland. His legacy is his example.