Tuesday 24 October 2017

Davitt: A reformer ahead of his time

Biography: Biography, Michael Davitt: After the Land League 1882-1906, Carla King, University College Dublin Press, hdbk, 560 pages, €40

Agrarian agitator: Davitt, the father of the Land League, in the 1890s
Agrarian agitator: Davitt, the father of the Land League, in the 1890s
Michael Davitt: After the Land League 1882-1906 by Carla King
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

Our reviewer on a wonderful book that charts the incredible drive and humanity of one of our forgotten heroes.

In 1966, my father, the sculptor Edward Delaney, told this newspaper that he wanted to do a statue of the Land League leader and nationalist hero Michael Davitt - "a one-armed horseman - now that would be something special".

Davitt had lost an arm after an accident in Lancashire mill, where he had been working virtually as a child worker, but such was his single-mindedness and bravery that he still subsequently went to see the Boers in action and, it was said, rode a horse in that epic anti-British struggle. Thus, the dramatic image so appealing to a commemorative artist.

In the mid 1960s, a finally prosperous and confident Irish State was putting up statues of its nationalist heroes. My father had just done the Wolfe Tone statue in St Stephen's Green and Thomas Davis in College Green, and the Garden of Remembrance had been created - and so Davitt would have been a natural subject. But it didn't happen, which is a pity.

Yes, Davitt is celebrated at Straide in Co Mayo where the land struggle was at its most intense - hence my Claremorris-born father's particular interest - but he should also be commemorated in our capital. The land is the powerful driving force behind the Irish political struggle, and yet it has been curiously forgotten in the popular narrative. Why is this? Why did the extensive 1916 centenary commemorations not focus on the great struggle of the native Irish to get decent conditions to live and work on the land that had been taken from them?

Is it because the famous 'Three Fs' (of tenant rights, etc) are not as exciting as declarations and gunfire? Or is it because the native Irish just replaced the colonial invaders as landlords, with some consequences that we even see today? And is it because the British underwent this handover well before Irish independence?

Davitt foresaw this and, as early as 1881, he proposed the nationalisation of Irish land, a policy that split him from other more bourgeois Irish nationalists, who wanted to simply get the British out of Ireland. Davitt wanted this too but he saw the British as actually preferable to the rack-renting Anglo-Irish landlords. This, almost proto-Communist view, puts Davitt way ahead of his time, as he was in so many regards.

His aims were ambitious and often unfeasible, but it is impossible not to be impressed by Davitt's incredible drive and humanity, not to mention his curiosity and sense of anticipation about events around him. All of this is vividly brought to life in this full and wonderful biography by Carla King, which has been the fruition of almost 10 years' research. King is, coincidentally, the daughter of former Irish Labour Party stalwart Justin Keating so she presumably grew up in an atmosphere of progressive politics.

The 'father of the Land League' is rightly remembered for his work and leadership during the Land War, but King has focused more on the 24 years between Davitt's leadership of the Land League and his death in 1906, and her study looks at the tireless and often unusual activities of his later years, including his interest in foreign issues and extensive overseas travels.

In 1881, with Parnell's Kilmainham Treaty, the Land League campaign was wound down and the focus was now on Home Rule, a campaign that would grow in earnest and come to dominate British politics. For this, Davitt, who had been continuously, and often unfairly, jailed during the land war agitation, now found himself immersed in parliamentary business in Westminster. But he saw Home Rule and Irish land agitation as part of a much broader struggle, which makes him quite unusual in Irish politics and history. He thus championed a wide variety of causes such as education improvement, women's rights, more democracy and prison reform, and the growing Labour struggle which had become a big issue in Britain and Europe. But the latter was a sideline issue in Ireland, seen as a distraction from the great national struggle, and Davitt's wider enthusiasms were not always shared by his colleagues.

Thus, although his support for the Boer case was widely shared in Ireland - King describes massive rallies in Dublin's Beresford Place - Davitt's gesture of resigning his South Mayo seat for the Boer cause was seen as rash, and a step too far. He was also not without contradictions, and although he presented himself as a great opponent of imperialism, he also appeared to side with the Russian Tsars in their disputes with the Japanese.

This was partly as the British were supporting the Japanese in 1904, but also Davitt was a guest of the Russians, when, in one of the most intriguing parts of this book, he was sent to Russia to investigate the anti-Jewish pogroms in Kishniev (now Moldova). This was paid for by Randolph Hearst for his newspapers: Davitt was a tireless journalist and author all his life.

Thus, although Davitt misread the serious unrest in Russia, leading to Revolution, he was very prescient about the situation of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and his interest in this was a precursor to early speculation on Zionism and the idea of a Jewish homeland.

How refreshing to read about an Irish national figure who also had an international interest and involvement but also one grounded in the real world of economic and political struggle - Davitt was the son of an evicted tenant. He wasn't some poetic patriot stuck behind a desk. This is a tremendous story, engagingly told with judicious empathy but also fair objectivity.

Along the way, appearances are made by Leon Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Teddy Roosevelt. King even tells us how, in his final days, one of Davitt's doctors was William Stanley Stoker, the brother of the author of Dracula and other books, which Davitt reviewed.

Secular nationalist, radical land agitator, anti-imperialist and gothic fiction reviewer. The prolific Davitt was surely a man ahead of his time. Maybe its time we got that statue.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment