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None dreamed such impossible dreams as Davitt did and then made them come true

ONE hundred and thirty years ago today, at a meeting in D'Olier Street in Dublin -- in a building where the rather pleasing art deco offices of the Dublin Gas Company now stand -- JJ Loudon, President of the Mayo Land League, was elected on to the National Executive of the Home Rule League.

The Land Question had arrived, and Irish politics was about to change forever. Michael Davitt soon afterwards formally launched the Land League nationally; and with its eventual victory, the peaceful determination of the plain people of Ireland was triumphantly vindicated.

The Ireland of 1879 was divided in ways that we -- in all our current despair -- cannot possibly begin to imagine. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were dependent upon the whim and the charity of their landlords.

Rents were high, security of tenure was low, and most Irish people felt they had historically been robbed of what was naturally theirs. And with that sense of robbery came personal bitterness, psychological alienation, and a profound sense of political grievance. This was a ruinous combination, destructive of personal and communal happiness, with the Famine not just a memory but a potent threat.

Indeed it was this possibility that galvanised Michael Davitt into turning the land agitation of his native Mayo into a national campaign. And of all the organisations which have ever sought to serve the Irish people, the most high-minded and the most effective was the Land League. This reflected the personality of Michael Davitt himself, who was probably the most attractive of all Irish popular leaders. None dreamed such impossible dreams as he did, and then made them come true.

Mayo-born, when he was nine his family emigrated to Lancashire, where, aged 11, he lost his arm in an industrial accident. When he was 25, he was imprisoned for 15 years for his part in concocting a truly bizarre Fenian plot. He was to meet John Wilson, a Birmingham gunsmith, at Great Western Station (or Euston) in London, to collect two huge bags containing 50 revolvers (with his one arm, remember).

The informer John Corydon later testified that Davitt's plan was for a group of Fenians using these pistols to storm Chester Castle and steal thousands of rifles. Now fully armed, and having cut all telegraph wires at Crewe, they would commandeer both the Holyhead train, and the Irish mailboat. On arriving home, they would launch an immediate uprising.

Davitt served seven years for plotting this preposterous piece of opera-bouffe, and upon his release, with his dreams and planning skills now honed to realism, he soon became the greatest mass-organiser in Ireland since Daniel O'Connell. His methods were now studiously peaceful, though it was not always possible to ensure that everyone would avoid violence in such a divided country. The boycott -- an unpleasant social device, which like any other weapon, once made, cannot be uninvented -- made its appearance, and within weeks had spread across European language: boicottagio (Italian), Boycottierung (German), boicotear (Spanish) and boycottage (French) -- before emerging in Turkish, Urdu and Japanese.

But Davitt's real lesson for the world -- which Ghandi learnt, but tragically Pearse and Connolly did not -- wasn't about the creation of a word but a concept: that peaceful, studiously non-violent mass-action in pursuit of a palpably just cause can create an almost irresistible political momentum. If unjust imprisonment be your fate, then lift your hand against no man, and go to jail.

Tragically, Davitt's amazing personal triumphs against a seemingly all-powerful landlord class, and an otherwise irresistible British imperial parliament -- which at that very time was consolidating its rule in India and Africa (and for all eternity, or so it thought) -- were swiftly forgotten. Yet the seeds of undoing of both that class and that empire were simultaneously being sown in Ireland.

But no man is an island, and Davitt's greatness in part depended on the inspiration he got from the nameless Lancashire Methodist lay-preacher and socialist who had, in his own time, patiently educated this one-armed Irish Catholic teenage cripple.

There aren't many useful lessons that we can learn from Davitt, but a couple still hold water. One is that the pursuit of selfish sectional interests, at a time of national crisis, spells ruin for all. Another is that calm patience is vital to all success, especially amid adversity, which duly struck with the Phoenix Park murders in 1882. Because men of violence always, always, always, are likely to ruin the cause they purport to serve -- for they are more interested in impetuous self-gratification, and in martyrdom, than in the historic needs of others.

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Michael Davitt steered the Land League through the crisis which followed the Burke and Cavendish murders, though he always allowed the more charismatic Parnell to claim political credit for Land League successes. No single individual has ever transformed Ireland for the better as Davitt did; but best of all, he gave power to the powerless by perfectly peaceful means.

And his great campaign to break the vice-grip of landlordism over Irish tenantry began with the election of JJ Loudon of the Mayo Land League to the centre of Irish national politics, 130 years ago today.