IF Michael Davitt was still alive he'd be 90 years dead this year. I thought that would get your attention

IF Michael Davitt was still alive he'd be 90 years dead this year. I thought that would get your attention. In fact, if he was still alive, he'd be celebrating his 150th birthday today.

It is sad but probably necessary to descend to such facetiousness to draw attention to man who precipitated the greatest social revolution this country has seen. He shares this comparative anonymity with a near contemporary, Dr Douglas Hyde - who launched the cultural revolution which brought this State into being. It can be argued with conviction that be tween them both men had more influence on the complexion of the modern Irish State than anyone has had since.

They did so through two great movements - the Land League in Davitt's case, and the Gaelic League, where Hyde was concerned. Yet neither is honoured with any "hero courageous tomb," or even the" canal bank seat" favoured by Kavanagh. Both lie in two lonely country churchyards, in graves which until recently were covered in wild grass and briars - modern Ireland's tribute to two founding fathers. "The fools, the fools."

But why? A clue may be found in that lineage of the greats outlined by Pearse, Tone, Davis, Mitchel, Lalor, and Parnell. Even by 1916, when Davitt was but 10 years dead and Hyde had just been ousted (by Pearse) as president of the Gaelic League, they were being ignored.


Neither man supported the use of violence, and therein lay their fault . . . "dear Brutus."

As Davitt's biographer, Prof T.W. Moody, said of him: "He shed no man's blood. He was the best loved and the most trusted of all the Irish national chiefs of his day. His work for British and Irish Labour has never been recognised. All men especially Irishmen, have reason to honour his memory.

Park murders

Moody also records how Davitt's "long process of disillusionment with, and disengagement from, the Fenian organisation was brought to a decisive point" by the Phoenix Park murders in May 1882. He took the lead in drawing up a manifesto to the people of Ireland, signed by himself, John Dillon and Parnell, condemning the "horrible deed."

In an Irish Press interview during the 1970s, Hyde's daughter, Mrs Una Sealy remarked of her father: "If he had shot somebody maybe there would have been more respect for him."

But whereas Hyde may have expressed violent sentiments as a youth he had never been part of the physical force movement Davitt, on the other hand, had been. In 1870 he was sentenced in London to 15 years penal servitude for gun running as a young man in Lancashire he had become involved with the Fenians.

But such was the degree to which he eschewed violence later, and the success of his mass movement of peaceful resistance, that it and he attracted the attention of the" young Mahatma Gandhi, then a law student in London. In later, years Gandhi attributed the origin of his own movement of peaceful resistance in India to Davitt and the Land League. In 1994, Gandhi's grandson, Arun, laid a wreath on Davitt's grave in Straide, Co Mayo.

For such reasons - Davitt's abandonment of the way of violence and the success of his subsequent strategy at home and abroad Mrs Nancy Smyth, of Straide, and chairwoman of the Michael Davitt National Memorial Association, wonders whether any other Irish historical figure has more relevance for our times. "He gave up violence for peace. He crossed all religious divides, and he believed the land of Ireland belonged to all the people of Ireland, " she remarked.

Family evicted

Davitt was born on March 25th, 1846, in Straide during the Famine. In 1851 his parents, three sisters and himself were evicted and their cottage was burnt down. Eventually, they ended up in Haslingden, near Manchester. Davitt went to work in a local factory and at the age of 11 lost his arm there. It was a blessing in disguise, enforcing on him the time necessary for a good education. At 22 he was a commercial traveller for a firearms firm, and became involved in helping others defend, with arms, Catholic property then coming under sectarian attack. It was a short step to the Fenians. In 1870, he was arrested in London.

One day as I went on my rambles from Swinford to sweet Ballinalee.

I met a young maid on my rambles and her name it was Mary Magee.

She sighed for the rights of her country,

Michael Davitt her true Irish

Boy, who is now in the prison in Portland far from the lovely green banks of the May.

So begins lament beloved by the Agriculture Correspondent of this paper, Sean MacConnell. The "true Irish boy" was released from prison in 1877. He returned to his native Mayo. There, in 1879, he helped organise a mass meeting opposing evictions and excessive rents being levied on tenants at Irishtown, near Claremossirs, on an estate administered by a Catholic priest, Canon Geoffrey Bourke, acting as executor for his deceased brother. The canon relented, agreed to withdraw all eviction notices, and reduced rents by 25 per cent This success led to the setting up of the National Land League. Parnell was invited to be president.

As Prof Donal McCartney wrote in this newspaper in 1979: ". . . while the original Fenian leaders and intellectuals like Stephens, O'Leary, Wickham, Luby and Rossa were all from comfortable middle class backgrounds, their immediate lieutenants and, therefore, the next generation of Fenian leaders, Davitt, Devoy, O'Connor Power, had sprung from the Irish working class." He went on, in those less politically correct times: "The face of this new Irish democracy was far from handsome to behold, for it was pock marked in the case of O'Connor Power ... hunchbacked as in the case of Joseph Biggar... and it was one armed as in the case of Davitt. The tone of its language was also ugly, as might indeed be expected of Fenians come into the open, but still preaching revolution."

And so the revolution began, with the boycott as its most effective weapon, first organised in September 1880 by Father John O'Malley, PP of The Neale, in Mayo. The church adapted itself with admirable expediency to the new situation. A social revolution had been effected and the tenant farmers, once the most radical class in Ireland, became peasant proprietors. Soon they were also among the most intractably conservative groups in Irish society, and have remained so. Proving, possibly, that property doth make cowards of us all, even the most radical.

A seminar on Michael Davitt takes place in Straid Community Centre, Co Mayo, today.