Michael Davitt, Founder of the Land League

Michael Davitt: Early life in Mayo

Michael Davitt was an Irish republican, born in Straide, County Mayo in 1846 as the Great Famine ravaged Ireland. The Davitt family were of peasant origin and were evicted from their home when Michael was just four because they could not pay rent.

The family entered a workhouse but as they were going to be separated Michael’s mother decided to leave and set out for England and a new life. They settled in Liverpool amidst a small community of poor Irish immigrants where nationalist sentiments and resentment towards landlords were the norm.

Michael Davitt: Child labour and education

Davitt began working as a labourer at the age of nine after attending an infant school. He worked in a number of cotton mills before an accident that was a turning point in his life. While he was working at a spinning machine his right arm became entangled in a cogwheel. His arm was injured to such an extent that it had to be amputated.

When he recoverd a local benefactor helped send Davitt to a school where he received a good education. Upon leaving in 1861 he took a job at the local post office, the owner of which also ran a printing business. He became a typesetter and later a letter carrier and book keeper.

At this time he also started taking night classes at a local Institute and became interested in Irish history and the Irish social situation through the library. He also came under the influence of Ernest Charles Jones who had radical views on Irish independence.

Michael Davitt in the IRB

His interest soon became a passion and in 1865 he joined the revolutionary group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was well supported by Irish immigrants. It did not take him long to become part of the inner circle and within two years he left his job and became organising secretary. This involved smuggling arms while masquerading as a travelling salesman.

Davitt evaded capture following a failed arms raid in 1867 but, having become a wanted man, was arrested in 1870 and convicted of treason felony.

Sentenced to fifteen years, in what he felt was an unfair trial, Davitt was kept in solitary confinement and treated badly in prison, as were other Irish prisoners.

He managed to contact a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and following campaigning he was released after seven and a half years, receiving a hero’s welcome along with a number of fellow ex-prisoners upon returning home to Ireland.

Davitt and the Land War

Davitt saw that Mayo people were suffering because of the potato crop failure and many were facing eviction by Canon Ulick Burke. A public meeting was called and a plan of agitation was put in place. Davitt himself did not attend for fear of being arrested again but he did orchestrate the campaign of non-payment that forced Burke to cancel evictions and reduce rents.

Later that year Davitt founded the Land League of Mayo with help of Charles Stewart Parnell. This was followed by the Irish National Land League which united the various land movements and agitators as one entity seeking the ‘Three Fs’; Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale.

The League worked tirelessly against evictions and for rent reductions. One campaign involved ostracising the land agent Captain Boycott, and this was so successful that the Captain left Ireland and 'boycott' entered the English language.

After another spell in prison, an overturned election victory and a resignation, Davitt was elected for South Mayo in 1895. His campaigning continued but he resigned for good in 1899. He passed away in 1906 from blood poisoning.

Michael Davitt's Legacy

Davitt laid the groundwork for the Irish Land Acts, was the driving force in campaigns that stopped evictions and saw rents reduced and was a rolemodel for those who sought Republican goals through non violent protest.