Michael Davitt was born in County Mayo, Ireland, in the year 1846, during the worst of the Great Famine (known outside of Ireland as Irish Potato Famine). He grew up passionately devoted to the cause of Irish freedom, which led him to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
It was as a member of the latter that he was arrested while waiting to collect an arms shipment in Paddington Station, London. He was charged with treason and convicted to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour. Davitt, not unreasonably, claimed that he had never received a fair trial or an adequate defence. In prison, he kept busy writing his political allies, and these letters became a part of their ammunition in demanding an end to the unjust imprisonment and cruel treatement of Irish political prisoners in the United Kingdom. He was released on December 19, 1877, after serving seven and a half years of his sentence, and given a hero’s welcome in his return to Ireland.
Michael Davitt was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a revolutionary movement that espoused armed uprising as the only way to rid Ireland of British rule. He mostly participated in arms smuggling operations, and it was on one of these that he was arrested in 1870.
He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Dartmoor Prison, where he was subjected to casual brutality and solitary confinement. The letters he sent, describing his treatment, were read aloud in the British House of Commons by sympathetic politicians, and a public outcry against the treatment of Davitt and other Irish prisoners led to his early release. He received a hero’s welcome on his return to Ireland, and returned at once to the struggle, albeit now concentrating on non-violent political actions.
Michael Davitt and Charles Parnell were the two leadng lights of the Land League of Mayo. Formed in response to the Land Act of 1870, which was actually intended to make life for Irish farmers less harsh. Unfortunately, most of the good it might have donw was wiped away by years of economic depression that followed it – and even had that not been the case, it fell far short of what the Irish wanted. The demands of the Land League were the three F’s: Fair rent, Fixity of tenure and Free sale. It was one of the major resistance movements against British Rule in Ireland, intended as a way to fight for Irish Independence within the system, and to relieve some of the burdens of occupation.
Inevitably, resistance crystallised around it to become something less legal and more overt: the period of prolonged civil unrest and low level rebellion generally known as the Land War, and the Land League of Mayo was suppressed as a revolutionary organisation in 1881, and many of its leaders thrown into prison.
Michael Davitt was 60 years old when he died in Elphis Hospital, Dublin. In his six decades of life, he’d been a Fenian revolutionary, served seven years of a fifteen year sentence for treason, was pardoned, and imprisoned again on new charges relating to his activities with various groups agitating for Irish freedom. He was elected as a Member of Parliament, but disqualified due to his confinement. He toured the world, giving speeches to raise awareness of the issues facing Ireland.
Although he did not live to see the struggle for Irish self-determination completed – indeed, some would say that it still has not – he was instrumental in many of the developments that led towards it, notably the Land Act of 1881 and the Ashbourn Act of 1885. After his death, he became an inspiration to others whose struggles resembled his – notably, Mahatma Gandhi attributed the origins of and inspiration for his own peaceful resistance to Davitt’s life and work.