31 May 2006

History has shown Davitt to be far ahead of his time

Western People

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The centenary commemorations must be the beginning of a new era of recognition of the achievements of Michael Davitt, writes John Cooney.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usTHE celebration of the death of Michael Davitt a hundred years ago this week as been overshadowed by the Irish Government’s Commemoration Parade on Easter Sunday of the ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. However, it is still not too late to hope that Davitt’s legacy for today’s Ireland will help switch the focus of national debate away from the remembrance of military violence to the politics of peace. Davitt, above all, should be remembered as an ex-Fenian who abandoned armed insurrection for the politics of peaceful protest.

The story of Michael Davitt has the capacity to exercise a powerful hold over our imagination a century after his death for the lessons which he taught about upholding human freedom, educational advancement, prison reform, the rights of women, social commitment and political idealism.

A study of Davitt is timely because the values he espoused are under attack from international terrorism, a monolithic media culture, disrespect for multi-ethnic diversity and the growth of arbitrary State powers.

Fate dealt Davitt two severe blows even before he reached adolescence and intellectual maturity. At the age of four, he watched helplessly as his parents and his other siblings were evicted from their thatched cottage at Straide in County Mayo.

‘I have a distinct remembrance (doubtless strengthened by the frequent narration of the event by my parents in after years) of that morning’s scene,” he was to write his masterpiece, The Fall of Feudalism, published in 1904.

‘The remnant of our household furniture flung about the road; the roof of the house falling in and the thatch catching fire; my mother and father looking on with four young children, the youngest only two months old, adding their cries to the other pangs which must have agitated their souls at the sight of their burning homestead’. At the age of eleven, as a working class refugee in the village of Haslingden in east Lancashire, seventeen miles north of Manchester, he lost his right arm in a cotton mill accident.

The combination of these two personal tragedies catapulted him into the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood, the template for the twentieth century Provisional IRA. This involvement led to his capture, arrest and sentence to eight years of penal servitude in Dartmoor Prison. He was only 24 years of age when he was imprisoned as a convicted Fenian felon for terrorist activities.

Yet, Davitt learned from such adversity while in prison. He came to the conclusion, as he records in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, that violence was self-defeating, and that membership of an underground, armed conspiracy merely invited the counter-productive attention of State agents infiltrating the movement and recruiting informers - a phenomenon recently re-enacted in the brutal fate of double British and republican agent, Denis Donaldson, in his spartan Donegal hideaway.

These insights became the bedrock of Davitt’s conviction to become an apostle of non-violence, though he could use incendiary language on occasions and further brushes with the law. Lastingly, however, he emerged as a symbol of human solidarity. Pertinently, the historian, Carla King, in her foreword to Davitt’s Collected Writings, 1868-1906, Edition Synapse, has remarked that ‘during seven years of a brutal prison regime, Davitt turned, with a greatness of soul and a power to forgive, reminiscent of Nelson Mandela a century later from a physical force terrorist to a constitutional politician’. Davitt inspired Mahatma Gandhi of India in his campaign against the British Empire.

Davitt became the most internationalminded Irish nationalist of his generation. He developed a mission to unite the Irish and British working classes against landlordism and imperialism.

Indeed, Davitt, the one-armed Irishman who spoke with a pronounced Lancashire accent, is best remembered in history books as a leading figure in the nineteenth century Irish Home Rule movement, and especially for his role as the revolutionary founder of the Land League that was to make small farmer proprietorship, in the words of writer Sean O Faolain, the basic social unit in ‘the dreary Eden’ of Eamon de Valera’s independent Ireland. It was not for this that Davitt campaigned.

His advocacy of land nationalisation was rejected as communistic - and as the later experiment in the Soviet Union of collectivised farming showed - unrealistic. In his day, Davitt’s slogan, ‘Land for the People’, helped to simplify the complex agrarian issue, and accelerated what he called ‘the fall of feudalism’ in the land of his birth. Successive Land Acts passed by the House of Commons gave Irish tenants not just Davitt’s three F’s - fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale - but allowed them to purchase their land on favourable terms from oppressive but mainly absentee landlords. That class was worn down by ‘Captain Boycott’.

While Parnell was venerated posthumously as a martyr, Davitt was excoriated as a Judas. Remarkably, by 1916 just ten years after his death, Davitt had been deliberately air-brushed out of the script for Irish freedom. ‘Republican’ Ireland declined to acknowledge him as being among ‘the Greats’. The 1916 leader, P. H. Pearse, did not assign Davitt a place in the Republican pantheon of Theobald Wolfe Tone, John Mitchel, Fintan Lalor - and even Parnell.

Nor, throughout the ‘Long War’ of sectarian violence on to the current attempts of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to restore the Good Friday’s Executive and Assembly, has Davitt’s reputation been rehabilitated.

Insufficient attention has been put on Davitt’s role as an ex-Fenian who took the road of peaceful, democratic politics by renouncing his Fenian oath and taking a seat in the House of Commons at Westminster. He totally excluded violence as a means of advancing Irish unification.

Davitt’s career as a journalist and author after his departure from Westminster recast him as an anti-imperialist writer with his book The Boer Fight for Freedom. His reputation as an international human rights campaigner and investigative journalist was confirmed in his follow-up book on Russian racial pogroms against Jews in Kishniev, Within the Pale - The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia.

Over Davitt’s grave in Straide, a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words: ‘Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it’. Referring to the awesome nature of this memorial, the historian M.R. D. Foot wrote, in 1963, that Davitt had received scant justice from the British in his lifetime and that even in Ireland he had become an unperson. Hopefully, that may about to change on the 160th anniversary of his birth and the 100th anniversary of his death.

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