Michael Davitt: Forgotten Hero?

Michael Davitt…Forgotten Hero (as the Andy Irvine song suggests)?
Am I recalling accurately that in school history, Michael Davitt was merely the footnote…the Land League man…in our history text books.

Yet he was so much more. Born into Famine Years Ireland and migrating to Lancashire with his family to work in cotton mills as a child. Losing a hand in an industrial accident, becoming a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Imprisoned in England.
A Fenian. A Parnellite Member of Paraliament.
But the curious thing for me is that he is only given proper recognition in the past few years.
Never quite a real Parnellite, he was not totally embedded in Parliament.
And yet going into Parliament was enough to have him marginalised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Of course he died a good decade before the Easter Rising. Maybe he was too much of a socialist for post-independent Ireland. Maybe it was the English accent.
He ticks a lot of boxes as a national hero, without ever being put in a single box himself.

A few years ago I visited the Davitt Museum at the small village of Straide in County Mayo. Interesting piece of (almost) trivia that Michael Davitt had the honour of laying the first turf at Celtic Park in Glasgow.
Talking to a guide at the museum, I discovered that the most frequently asked question at the museum is “Do you know that a hand is missing from the statue outside?”
That perhaps reflects his marginalisation.
And sadly at the weekend, the museum was closed…and may not re-open due to funding issues.

Small museums and heritage centres…Battle of Aughrim site, Admiral William Brown Museum at Foxford, Boulavogue Centre, Glencolumcille Folk Museum…among them are vital for local economies and more so local pride.
All over Ireland, small villages have found a “hook” on which to hang a tourist industry. We would be a poorer culture without the Foynes Flying Boat Museum or the Palatine Centre at Rathkeale.

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4 Responses to Michael Davitt: Forgotten Hero?

  1. CD says:

    I’m a longtime reader and enjoy your blog.

    Davitt is indeed a much neglected figure and reading his The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland is still a very rewarding exercise for those who wish to see positive change in Ireland. He knew his business and his people. His business was to smash the Landlords and liberate the country.

    In later life he espoused a ‘Union of Hearts’ between the English working class and the Irish peasantry based on their shared interest in resisting the British ruling class. It didn’t go anywhere.

    When still a young man he took part in the Fenian rising in England and held a leadership position in the IRB volunteers tasked with capturing the armoury at Chester Castle. Post rising he was imprisoned and subject to years of vicious and inhuman treatment.

    He lost his arm, not his just hand, in a very common industrial accident when he was still a child. The machinery would rip off the limb. Davitt clearly did not let that hold him back. He was an intectual and an organising genius who was not afraid of a fight.

    He remains a heroic figure who we should hear a lot more about. I don’t think his English accent is part of the explanation for his relative obscurity after all Connolly had a Scots one and his fame endures. More I think its that things moved on, the Land League did deliver and lifted people out of extreme poverty, the IRB for all its courage and ingenuity was not able to deliver a military solution and people knew it. A decisive confrontation with the British Empire had to wait for another generation. By the time that was over Davitt was dead and very much of the previous century gradually he slipped from the popular memory.

    • Thank you.
      As I was typing this yesterday, I was unsure about the action Davitt took part in during the Fenian Rising. Thank you for reminding me that it was Chester. And Im also reminded in an email of the corcumsstances for his arrest.
      I was also mindful that the English accent thing was a bit tongue in cheek on my part as I was actually thinking that it didnt affect Connolly (the Scottish accent).
      I get the impression and I am basing this on years of picking up a snippet here and a snippet there that Davitt was personally unpopular.
      If this was an academic essay, it would not withstand scrutiny. I have no footnotes or references…just that he had an on-off alliance with Parnell. He repudiated Fenianism to sit in the Commons. The “internationalism” or at least pan-British Isles campaign might be construed as anti- nationalist.
      This morning I was told that the Viceroy attended his funeral.

      Maybe if he had been seen to be as consistent ( not a good word to use as everyone changes) as Parnell or Pearse or Connolly or Clarke or even Larkin, his legacy might be different and he would be held in more affection by ALL. It seems to me that no faction from that time …IRB, Labour, Irish Party is WHOLLY committed to his memory and perhaps most appropriate that he is confined to Straide…but a shame that the future of that museum is in doubt.
      Or maybe the key thing is …as you point out…..that he was a distant memory in 1916.
      I just dont know. I find him an enigma.

  2. CD says:

    Yes he may have been unpopular in some quarters, he refused if my memory serves to repudiate Parnell when it was fashionable and that would have cost him. He also came to think the IRB could not deliver and that also would have cost him albeit with a different group of people. But he was a Fenian hero so criticism from them would have been muted. The Bisops of course knew him as a Fenian and hell was not hot enough.

    Being a politicaly astute man its possible that he thought the likely emergence of a heavily Irish influenced British labour Party might make a big difference to Ireland. At a stretch he might even of thought it could remove the political power from the British ruling class and permanently remove the threat to Ireland. Those thoughts were misplaced if he ever had them.

    There is something else though, Davitt undoubtedly impressed the English power brokers and he was courted by some. Victoria was appalled and said so. Davitt had seen the British Parliament agree to the Land League demands, he also played a key role in securing penal reform. Its possible that he thought reason might prevail with Britain in terms of Ireland. Again that would prove wrong but you can sort of see the trajectory.

    He remains though a key figure in Irish history and should be commemorated and the museum maintained. Its a very good point about which political party would own his memory so to speak. Not the Labour Party he wasn’t their syle at all, FF in the Lemass generation possibly, FG unlikely, perhaps SF in its current incarnation?

    Or maybe just the Irish people we all have reason to think well of him for telling us to keep hold of our homesteads and making sure we did.

    • Good point about not being owned by a political party like Collins, Liam Lynch, Pearse, Tone.
      The museum was opened by Bertie Ahern in 2000….which is a political rather than national thing.
      Opened by a President might have been more appropriate.

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