Crowds pictured at the funeral of Michael Davitt in Straide Cemetery in June 1906.

Local history: 20,000 people filed past Michael Davitt’s coffin

By Tom Gillespie

THIS week we continue to recall the life and times of Michael Davitt as we mark the 175th anniversary of his birth.

In an 1882 by-election, Davitt was elected Member of Parliament for Co. Meath but was disqualified because he was in prison. On his release later in 1882 he travelled to the United States with William Redmond to collect funds for the Land League, and then campaigned for land nationalisation and an alliance between the British working class, Irish labourers and tenant farmers.

This alienated Parnell, and even many of the tenants, but after a meeting with Parnell at Parnell's house, Avondale, in September 1882 he agreed to cooperate with Parnell and set aside his plans for land nationalisation.

Davitt's support of the Irish National League, now under Parnell's and the party's control, earned him a final spell in prison in 1883, and by 1885 his health had broken.

Although only in his 40s, he had become a post-revolutionary figure, and lectured on humanitarian issues in extended tours which included Australia, New Zealand, South America, Palestine, Russia, and most of continental Europe, as well as almost every part of Ireland and of Britain.

In 1886 Davitt, according to Wikipedia, married an American, Mary Yore (born 1861), daughter of John Yore of St. Joseph, Michigan. In 1887 he visited Wales to support land agitation.

The couple returned to Ireland and lived for a while in a Land League cottage in Ballybrack, Co. Dublin, that was presented to them as a wedding gift by the people of Ireland.

They had five children - three boys and two girls, one of whom, Kathleen, died of tuberculosis, aged seven, in 1895. One of their sons, Robert Davitt, became a TD, while another, Cahir Davitt, became President of the High Court.

Davitt was a strong supporter of the alliance between the Liberal Party and the Irish Parliamentary Party and maintained this position in 1890 when the party split over Parnell's divorce case.

Davitt, however, sided with the anti-Parnellite Irish National Federation faction in the House of Commons at Westminster, where he became hostile towards Parnell and was one of Parnell's most vociferous critics.

He also became increasingly impatient with what he saw as the inability or unwillingness of the British parliament to right injustice. In 1888, Davitt launched an anti-semitic attack on George Goschen, 1st Viscount Goschen, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, arguing that he 'represented that class of bond-holders, and usurers, and mostly money-lenders for whom that infamous Egyptian war was waged'.

To further those ends he founded and edited a journal, Labour World, in September 1890, then initiated in January 1891 in Cork the Irish Democratic Labour Federation, an organisation which adopted an advanced social programme including proposals for free education, land settlement, worker housing, reduced working hours, labour political representation and universal suffrage.

The Federation reflected his conviction, to which he adhered to all his life, that farmers' land proprietorship must go hand in hand with land nationalisation.

Davitt was subsequently elected for North Meath in the 1892 general election but his election was overturned on petition.

However, he was promptly elected unopposed for North East Cork at a by-election in February 1893 but resigned from the Commons on May 9 of that year.

At the next general election in 1895, he stood in South Mayo, where he was returned unopposed.

He welcomed Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill as a ‘pact of peace’ between England and Ireland. He supported the British Labour leader Keir Hardie and favoured the foundation of a Labour Party, but his commitment to the Liberal Party for the sake of Home Rule prevented him joining the new party - resulting in a breach with Hardie lasting until 1905.

Davitt resigned from the Commons again in October 1899 with a prediction that ‘no just cause could succeed there unless backed by massed agitation’. Parliament alleviated this need by granting full democratic control of all local affairs, a form of ‘grass roots home rule’, to County and District Councils under the 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act.

Davitt then co-founded, in 1898, together with William O’Brien, the United Irish League and organised it in Mayo and beyond. In 1899 he left his seat in parliament for good in protest against the Boer War, visiting South Africa to lend support to the Boer cause. His experiences inspired his Boer Fight for Freedom, published in 1902.

Davitt died in Elpis Hospital, Dublin, on May 30, 1906, aged 60, from blood poisoning.

The Lord Lieutenant Ireland attended the funeral, a public indication of the dramatic political journey this former Fenian prisoner had taken. The plan had been not to have a public funeral, and hence Davitt's body was brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary in Clarendon Street, Dublin. However, the next day over 20,000 people filed past his coffin.

His remains were then taken by train to Foxford, and buried in the grounds of Straide Abbey at Straide (pictured), where he was baptised.

Over Davitt's grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words: ‘Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it’.

At Straide, the Davitt family church is now a museum that commemorates his life and works, and a life-sized bronze statue stands before it.

The bridge from Achill Island to the mainland is named after him.

The town of Haslingden, Lancashire, England, has also commemorated Davitt's link with it through a public monument erected in the presence of Davitt's son.

Haslingden also organised a Exile & Exiles Festival in 2006 which did much to celebrate the life of Michael Davitt, as well as place it in the context of other immigrants to the community. This included 'The Jail Bird', a performance about Davitt, created by Horse and Bamboo Theatre with local school students.