01 September 2005

Life of Davitt is recalled at informative Ballina forum

Western People

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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Photo from 'Sinn Féin History of Republicanism' at CAIN

The extraordinary life of Michael Davitt was recalled in Ballina last week when the General Humbert-Michael Davitt Summer School played host to an interesting debate on the Mayo-born patriot. The participants in the debate were James Laffey, Editor, Western People; Bernard O’Hara, Mayo-born historian and registrar at GMIT in Galway and Nancy Smyth, founder of the Davitt Museum in Straide. The session was chaired by Mayo County Manager, Mr Des Mahon.
During the course of the debate, Davitt’s contribution to Irish and international politics was analysed by the three speakers, all of whom offered differing perspectives on Davitt’s life. A question and answer session followed the debate with members of the audience offering their opinions on Davitt’s legacy.
Opening the debate, Mr James Laffey said one had to appreciate the extreme poverty that prevailed in Mayo at the time of the Land League before any examination of Davitt’s legacy could be undertaken. The county was amongst the poorest in Ireland and it was no surprise that it became the epicentre of the Land League movement.
“If there was anywhere in Ireland in 1879 that was going to become a hotbed of nationalist politics and land agitation it was going to be Mayo. The unrest in Irishtown had been simmering since 1857 when a new landlord, Walter Burke, had doubled the rent on his existing tenants. 22 years later, Burke was succeeded on his death by his brother, Canon Geoffrey Burke, the Parish Priest of Irishtown. He immediately threatened to evict the tenants of his new holding if they did not pay all arrears owing to him. Burke, a man of the cloth, was an unlikely target for the dispossessed tenants of South Mayo. Indeed, it is one of the ironies of Irish history that the Land League movement was precipitated by public disquiet at the actions of an Irish Catholic priest rather than the archetype cold-hearted British landlord.”
Mr Laffey said Davitt’s greatest achievement was to give the Mayo Land League a national and international dimension.
“But it was Davitt – the former evictee from the village of Straide – who gave the Land League its national and international gravitas. Without Davitt, the unrest that occurred in Mayo in 1879 might have become nothing more than another episode of agrarian unrest in an already volatile region. Davitt ensured that the events in Mayo were brought to the widest possible audience - in Ireland, England and perhaps, most tellingly, the United States. Davitt was among the first leaders of Irish nationalism to recognise the potential of the United States as a place where Ireland’s ills could be given the sort of worldwide recognition that was always going to be denied by our Imperial rulers. His speaking tours in America ensured that the Land League of County Mayo – and later of All-Ireland – became a truly global event at a time when communications were exceptionally limited and news traveled at a slower rate than the proverbial ass.”
Mr Laffey also discussed Davitt’s influence on the local media in Mayo, including the Western People and the Mayo News, which were both founded in the years after the Land League.
“The role of James Daly, the editor of the Connaught Telgraph, during the years of the Land League has been well documented in Irish history. The Castlebar-based Telegraph, which is among the oldest newspapers in Ireland, was centrally involved in the Land League movement. But it is also worth noting that Mayo’s two other regional newspapers – the Western People and the Mayo News – were also founded in the aftermath of the extraordinary events of 1879 and 1880.
“The Western People was founded in 1883 and, although the editions of its early years were inexplicably not retained by the British Library, it is widely accepted that the newspaper had a nationalist outlook from the very beginning. The same can also be said of the Mayo News, which was founded in Westport in 1892, and immediately adopted a pro-Davitt and pro-Land League stance.
“Modern-day readers of the three Mayo newspapers are, perhaps, unaware of the historic early years of these publications and the immense role that they played in the promotion of the ideals espoused by Michael Davitt. The centenary of Davitt’s death offers each of the three newspapers an opportunity to reclaim the astounding legacy that this great man bestowed on his county.”
Mr Bernard O’Hara, in a fascinating address, said Michael Davitt’s Land League had brought about “one of the greatest social changes ever witnessed in this country”.
“Michael Davitt’s Land League broke the spirit of servility, and paved the way for the emergence of a modern democracy. His sympathy and concern ranged from tenant farmers to agricultural labourers, the British working class, prison conditions, social reform, the Boers in South Africa and the Jews in Russia.”
Mr O’Hara recalled the impact of the Famine on the parish of Straide, where Michael Davitt was born in 1846. The events of those years were to have a lasting effect on Davitt.
“The population of the parish of Straide fell by 44%, from 4,251 in 1841 to 2,387 in 1851...It can be safely said that almost 100,000 died in Mayo from the famine epidemic and that close to a similar number emigrated. Almost 47,000 families were evicted during this period, among them the family of Martin and Catherine Davitt in Straide.”
Mr O’Hara gave a very graphic and moving description of the eviction process, quoting from Davitt’s autobiography, ‘The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland’. He went on to trace the events of the subsequent years as the Davitt family settled in England where Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Referring to Davitt’s second period of imprisonment – at the height of the Land League – Mr O’Hara said the Mayo-born patriot had been hugely influenced by a book he read during at that time, ‘Progress and Poverty’ by Henry George.
“It influenced him to think of land nationalisation as the solution of the Irish land problem. On his release he recommended land nationalisation but the tenant farmers would not accept it. Michael Davitt, always a realist and pragmatist, succumbed to their wishes and accepted tenant proprietorship as the only attainable solution at the time, even though he did not agree with it.”
Mr O’Hara described Davitt as a public representative par excellence and said he had set extremely high standards while in office.
“Michael Davitt was a strong personality, fiercely independent, his own man in every respect, with a passion for social justice for all humankind. A person of considerable courage, moral and physical, transparent integrity, he attacked the social system of his time, but not the people in that system and throughout his life remained independent of power, honour, or bribe. He was scrupulous in his use of public funds, and never used such funds for his own benefit despite the poor state of his own finances for most of his life. He believed in patriotic public service and is thus an ideal role model for modern Ireland.”
Mr O’Hara said Davitt advocated social justice and political justice for all people and, as a leader of public opinion, he was ahead of his time.
“Michael Davitt worked for an independent, democratic, egalitarian Ireland, pluralist in nature, progressive, tolerant and outward looking, but he was no narrow nationalist. He was an internationalist who regarded all humanity as one family, and who believed that the dignity and equality of all people should be the ideal goal for all nations. He had a great love for poor working class people everywhere, as well as farmers and especially agricultural labourers who gained little or nothing from the land campaign.”
In a wide-ranging and hugely informative address, Ms Nancy Smyth said education had been a central part of Davitt’s life. He had received his education in England at an inter-denominational school and this was to be hugely influential on his later political ideology.
Ms Smyth said Davitt had fought for civil and human rights for a whole range of minorities, both in Ireland and across the world. His speaking tours of America had also been very influential in terms of internationalising the Land League and other Irish issues.
Ms Smyth also outlined some of the plans that were being put in place at the Davitt Museum in Straide to mark the centenary of the patriot’s death. She said the museum had a whole series of events planned for 2006 and it would be publicising these in the coming months. It was hoped to commission a stamp in Davitt’s memory and an application had already been submitted to An Post. There were also plans for a major commemorative event in Straide on the anniversary of the death of Davitt.
“We are looking forward to involving all the communities in Mayo in our ceremonies. 2006 will be a very special year for the Davitt Museum and we are determined to make it as memorable as possible. We intend to ensure that the year will be a fitting tribute to the great Michael Davitt.”
Mr Des Mahon said the County Council was working hand in hand with the Davitt Museum in advance of the centenary year. He also hoped to become involved with the Western People in the publication of an information pack on Davitt, which would be distributed to all schools in the county. The idea had been suggested by James Laffey during his speech.
Mr Mahon said he was pleased to say that Mayo had progressed a great deal since the years of the Land League. The terrible years of the Famine were only four generations ago but, thankfully, the poverty and hardship of former years had been all but removed.
“We have made great progress and I am determined to ensure that this progress continues. There is a lot we can learn from the life of Michael Davitt but it is important to keep looking to the future. That is the key to progressing our county in the years ahead.”

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