Michael Davitt lost his arm in a factory accident when he was 11 years
old, but he fought to overcome his disability. He grew up to found the Irish
National Land League, champion Irish Home Rule as a member of the British
parliament and help start the British Labor Party.
Road of peaceful democracy
Despite his accomplishments, Davitt, who died in 1906 at the age of 60
years, is not generally considered a great leader in Ireland’s long, and
often bloody, struggle for independence from British rule, according to an
Irish Independent newspaper editorial written on the 100th
anniversary of his death.
“Insufficient attention has been paid to 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,” the
editorial argued. “He totally excluded violence as a means of advancing
|Michael Davitt’s amputation
as a result of a factory accident allowed him time to receive an education, as
he was not accepted to work again.
|Image: Wikimedia Commons|
Even so, Davitt was noteworthy enough to be called “Mayo’s
most famous son” and “Ireland’s one-armed patriot.”
Labor and survival
Davitt was born in Straide, County Mayo, during the Irish Potato Famine.
His parents were poor tenant farmers.
When Davitt was 4 years old, the landlord evicted the family for failure
to pay their rent. He also threw their meager belongings onto the road and
burned the cottage in which they lived.
The Davitts migrated to England, hoping to find employment. At the age
of 9 years, Davitt went to work in Lancashire cotton mills.
Without strong labor unions and meaningful safety laws, English
factories were dangerous. Industrial accidents killed or maimed hundreds of
men, women and children. In 1857, a machine crushed Davitt’s right arm,
according to Michael Davitt: Revolutionary, Agitator and Labour
Leader written by Francis Sheehy-Skeffington.
When Davitt’s foreman told him to run the machine, the child
refused, pleading the danger of a serious mishap.
“The response was a curse, a blow and a stern command to return to
the work at which he had been placed,” Sheehy-Skeffington wrote.
The machine grabbed Davitt’s arm and almost killed him. Doctors
said the limb had to be removed or he would die.
“The boy’s horror of amputation was such that it is said he
had to be chloroformed by force in order to permit the operation being
performed, performed it was; and the young Michael … was maimed for
life,” Sheehy-Skeffington wrote adding that “weaknesses and the
strength of men and of careers lie ever side by side. Misfortune as it was from
a superficial point of view, in reality the loss of this arm proved a decided
advantage for Davitt. It took him from the factory – one-armed boys were
no use there – it gave him schooling and a lighter employment.”
Davitt received no disability benefits from his employer or from the
government, but a Methodist Englishman took pity on the Irish Catholic youth
and paid his way into a Methodist school. Eventually, Davitt became a
typesetter and a bookkeeper.
Change of beliefs
He also became a fervent Irish nationalist. At the age of 19 years, he
joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, a secret
society whose members pledged their all to fight for Irish independence from
British rule. He became a gun runner for the organization.
Davitt started smuggling weapons from England to fellow Fenians in
Ireland. Also seeking guns, he joined an unsuccessful raid on an English
arsenal in a castle.
In 1870 he was arrested in London on gun smuggling charges and sentenced
to 15 years at Dartmoor Prison. He was paroled after 7 years.
According to the Independent editorial, during his time in
prison, Davitt concluded “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. These insights became the bedrock of Davitt’s
conviction to become an apostle of non-violence, though he could use incendiary
language on occasion and in further brushes with the law. Lastingly, however,
he emerged as a symbol of human solidarity.”
Quoting historian Carla King, the Independent editorial
said “during 7 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.” The editorial also claimed that he “inspired Mahatma
Gandhi in his campaign against the British Empire.”
New life dedication
Freed from prison, Davitt started the Irish National Land League,
eschewed violence and dedicated himself to civil disobedience. The
League’s targets were Protestant landlords – some of whom did not
even live in Ireland – who owned almost all of the Irish land. These
resident and absentee landlords charged Irish peasants exorbitant rents to live
on and work the land.
Tenant farmers could not earn enough money to buy land. They also could
be evicted at the whim of the landlord.
Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landlord, who was sympathetic to
the Catholic Irish, supported the Land League, which aimed to abolish
landlordism and empower peasants to buy land. The Land League’s struggle
against the landlords was called the “Land War.”
In 1880, the Land League took action against an agent of one of the
landlords that reflected Davitt’s policy of non-violent resistance.
Instead of harming the agent, the League called for him to be ostracized.
An appealing advocate
Meanwhile, Sheehy-Skeffington wrote that Davitt’s empty sleeve made
him more appealing as a defender of Irish rights.
The amputation reflected “his maimed life – of his manhood
mured in dungeons, of his youthful strength pitilessly marred in the unequal
conquest with the power of England.”
The British government did not cripple him, but his missing arm,
“was an indelible mark of his struggle with even a grimmer foe – it
had been endured at the hands of that monstrous spirit of greed of which
British imperialism is only one of the uglier manifestations.”
Parnell wanted to replace landlordism with small farms owned by
peasants. Davitt favored land nationalization. He wanted the government of an
independent Ireland to take over the land, which farmers would work for the
good of the country.
“His advocacy of land nationalisation was rejected as communistic
– and as the later experiment in the Soviet Union of collectivized farming
showed – unrealistic,” the editorial read. “[But] 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.”
An unofficial ambassador
Eventually, Davitt was elected to parliament. He called for a peaceful
transition to Irish Home Rule, and ultimately, Irish independence, but “he
totally excluded violence as a means” to that end, the editorial read.
After he left parliament, Davitt became a journalist and author who
advocated for more than just the oppressed Irish. He said women should have the
right to vote. He spoke out for labor unions and helped found the British Labor
Party, hoping to forge an alliance between the British and Irish working
Davitt traveled as an unofficial Irish ambassador for universal human
rights. He denounced imperialism and anti-Semitism.
Even if Davitt is not as well known as Parnell and other major figures
in Irish history, he is not entirely forgotten. The Davitt Branch of the Irish
Democratic League Club erected a monument to him on the site of his home in
The inscription reads, in part: “This memorial has been erected to
perpetuate the memory of Michael Davitt … Irish patriot … He became a
great world figure in the cause of freedom and raised his voice and pen on
behalf of the oppressed, irrespective of race or creed.”