As plans are being made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth in Straide of Land League founder, Michael Davitt, it is appropriate to take a look at the career of one of the West's most referred historical figures.
Michael Davitt was born in Straide on March 25th, 1846, the second of five children. When Michael was six years old, his parents, Martin and Sabina Davitt (nee Kielty), were evicted. Martin travelled to find work in England and settled down in Lancashire, while his wife and family, refusing shelter in the workhouse, were offered accommodation by the parish priest in Straide, Fr. John McHugh.
In 1845 Mrs. Davitt and her children joined her husband in the industrial town of Haslingden in Lancashire. In the unlikely environment of the Lancashire mill-town Martin Davitt earned a reputation as a teacher of both Irish music and the language, so it was only natural that Michael Davitt should grow up as a native speaker.
In 1856, at the age of 10, he began work in a cotton mill but two years later had his right arm amputated in an accident. He subsequently attended a Wesleyan school for two years, after which he worked for a printing firm.
In 1865, he joined the IRB and two years later gave up his job to become organising secretary of the Fenians in Norther England and Scotland.
He was arrested in London in 1870 while awaiting a delivery of arms, and was sentenced to 15 years hard labour. The next seven years were spent in complete isolation in prison, where he was compelled to work in inhuman conditions.
With other political prisoners he was released on ticket of leave on December 19th, 1877. Michael Davitt subsequently became a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB.
Later he toured America with the active assistance of John Devoy, gaining the support of Irish Americans for his policy which was founded in the slogan "The Land for the People." His activities did not have the official approval of the Fenian leadership, many of whom were in fact openly hostile to his methods.
Early in 1879 Davitt returned home to a country which was once again experiencing near Famine conditions. It was one of there wettest years on record, the potato crop had failed for the third successive year, and the traditional escape route of emigration was virtually closed due to a world wide economic depression stretching from America across England as far as Eastern Europe. At a large meeting attended by Davitt in Claremorris, plans were made for a huge gathering at Irishtown as part of agitation to reduce rents.
The first target was land owned by a Canon Ulick Burke, and the result was an astounding success when the Canon was forced to reduce rents by 25%. This Irishtown meeting on April 20th, 1879, was largely the outcome of organisational work initiated and led by James Daly, Editor of the Connaught Telegraph.
On August 16th, 1879, the Land League of Mayo was formally founded in Castlebar, with the active support of Charles Stewart Parnell. On October 21st, 1879, the National Land League was formed in Dublin with Parnell as President, and Davitt as one of the secretaries. From that time right on to 1882 the Land War was fought in earnest.- British Prime Minister Gladstone at first replied with coercion, but was finally forced into making important concessions.
In 1882 Michael Davitt was rearrested. On his release he travelled widely campaigning ceaselessly for the oppressed everywhere, whether the Boers in South Africa, the Jews in Russia, the working class in Britain or his own people in Ireland. In 1892 he was elected MP for Mayo but disliked the Institution of Parliament and became increasingly impatient with the inability or unwillingness to right injustice.
He left the House of Commons in 1896 with the prophetic prediction that
"no just cause could succeed there unless backed by physical force."
Davitt died in Dublin in 1906. By the time of his death at the age of 60, the land for the people had largely become a reality, prison reform had begun, and he himself had become and international champion of liberty.
To mark the centenary of his birth in 1946 a major demonstrating was held in Straide, primarily at the request of a personal friend and executor of his will, Mr. Dennis O'Rourke of Dublin.
An attendance of over 12,000 included Eamonn De Valera, Hugh Delargy, M.P. as well as surviving members of the Davitt family, Dr. Robert Davitt and Miss Eileen Davitt.
The occasion was even covered live by the BBC.