Michael Davitt, Irish republican and agrarian agitator, is born in Straide, County Mayo, on March 25, 1846. Davitt is the founder of the Irish National Land League, which organizes resistance to absentee landlordism and seeks to relieve the poverty of the tenant farmers by securing fixity of tenure, fair rent, and free sale of the tenant’s interest.
Davitt is the son of an evicted tenant farmer. After their eviction, the family emigrates to England. In 1856, at the age of 10, he starts work in a cotton mill, where he loses an arm in a machinery accident a year later. In 1865, he joins the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood, an international secret society that seeks to secure political freedom for Ireland. He becomes secretary of its Irish analogue, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), in 1868. Arrested in Paddington Station in London for sending firearms to Ireland on May 14, 1870, he is sentenced to 15 years in Dartmoor Prison and there lays plans to link Charles Stewart Parnell’s constitutional reform with Fenian activism to achieve political-agrarian agitation.
Paroled from prison in 1877, Davitt rejoins the IRB and goes to the United States, where the Fenian movement originated. There he is deeply influenced by Henry George’s ideas about the relationship between land monopoly and poverty.
Back in Ireland, using funds raised by John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the United States, Davitt wins Parnell’s cooperation in organizing the Land League in 1879, which leads, however, to his expulsion from the supreme council of the IRB in 1880. He is elected member of Parliament for County Meath in 1882 but is disqualified as he is a convict. He is also imprisoned for seditious speeches in 1881 and 1883.
Because of his public championing of Henry George’s theories of land reform, Parnell repudiates him. Davitt actively defends the Nationalists before the Parnell Commission, which meets between 1887 and 1889. When the Irish party splits in 1890 over Parnell’s involvement in Capt. William Henry O’Shea’s divorce case, Davitt is among the first to oppose Parnell’s continuance as leader.
Davitt is elected to Parliament in 1892 and 1893 but is unseated in both cases. He is elected again, for South Mayo in 1895, but resigns in 1899 in protest against the Second Boer War.
Davitt dies in Elphis Hospital, Dublin on May 30, 1906, at the age of 60, from blood poisoning. The fact that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland attends his funeral is a public indication of the dramatic political journey this former Fenian prisoner has taken. There is no plan for public funeral, and hence Davitt’s body is brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary, Clarendon Street, Dublin. However, the next day over 20,000 people file past his coffin. His remains are taken by train to Foxford, County Mayo, and buried in the grounds of Straide Abbey at Straide, near his place of birth.
Davitt’s book, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904), is a valuable record of his time.