Michael Davitt: Will his vision of an egalitarian Ireland be fulfilled?


by Brian Casey – NUI Maynooth


At the Irish Labour History Conference held in Galway on 13 and 14 February, Laurence Marley – author of the highly regarded Michael Davit: freelance radical and frondeur – argued in his paper on Michael Davitt that it was inevitable that he would not base himself in Ireland after the end of the first phase of the Land War (1879-82). Davitt began to see the unification of the land and labour questions to be part of the struggle of industrial humanity and he tried, unique for an Irish radical at the time (though there were so very few of those) to place the agrarian agitation in an international context. Parnell dismissed Davitt’s attempts to drive for labour rights to be included in any solution to the land question. The land movement eventually split from Davitt, as he was a lone voice in the Irish Land Movement advocating land nationalisation.


Davitt oversaw the establishment of an agrarian labourer movement and this movement included town tenants, in an attempt to deal with issues concerning the urban tenantry. However, this labourer movement was later subsumed into the Irish National League and Davitt was instrumental in overseeing this merger. This merger retarded the development of the labourer and working class movements in Ireland. He believed the greater good lay in Home Rule and it was important that a united front was presented in this matter.


Despite this failure in campaigning for the rights of the workers of Ireland, Davitt was the ‘darling’ of the Scottish-Irish community, as he attempted to radicalise the British working class community. He objected to the establishment of British Trade Unions in Ireland, in the hope that an Irish Trade Union movement would be established and agitate for uniquely Irish demands.


His newspaper Labour World was seen to be a vanity exercise for promoting his own political ideology (sure how many others have newspapers for the same purpose; if Davitt was not a radical, he probably would not have been criticised as much for this). Labour World became somewhat damaged when it became the main organ of the anti Parnellites and so in turn, became aligned with conservatives.


Was Davitt a socialist? Marley argued that there is no definitive evidence to suggest that he ever read Marx and he denied ever being one, but Keir Hardie said that this was an attempt at damage limitation for the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was a republican by creed and conviction and took exception to being identified as an English man and pulled Tolstoy up on this when he called him English. (Understandable, considering Davitt had a Lancashire accent). His cosmopolitanism was his eventual undoing and Matt Harris accused Davitt of political naïveté and called him Henry George’s latest acquistion. There was a great deal of suspicion because Davitt tried to fit Ireland into an international context. Davitt argued the labour could be international without being unpatriotic.


Davitt’s internationalism was not appreciated in Ireland, in fact it is likely he was treated with contempt. While we remember people like Connolly, Larkin, Pearse, Collins (need I go on?), we have neglected to acknowledge what Davitt tried to do for the cause of Ireland. He wanted to have an egalitarian society, break down religious and class barriers and not the system that we ended up with. No doubt, he is spinning in his grave over the mess the country is now in, with no solution short of a serious class revolution in sight. If Davitt had been listened to and afforded the respect that he truly deserved, one wonders would Ireland have ended up the basket case that it is.


The cause of the poor and downtrodden would be at the forefront in any government under Davitt’s ideology. The man was a radical with great integrity that was determined to better the cause of Ireland. However, having to face the dual forces of the Parnellite machine and the Catholic Church meant that he was fighting a lost cause. The attachment of the Irish man to their land hindered the development of this country.


Even one of the fiercest advocates of the tenant farmers, Matt Harris became deeply suspicious of them. In 1888, he said ‘when the farmer becomes emancipated and gets his land, such a man will look to the borders of his farm as the border of his country, because as a rule, farmers are very selfish men’. Words that ring true, he could also have said conservative. Davitt’s plan of land nationalisation was an attempt to ensure the people of the countryside remained radical as they were in the halcyon days of the Land War, however, the powerful resistance he met forced Davitt’s hand and he was forced to relent and drop the issue.


Davitt’s attempts to better the country he adored through the adoption of radical and egalitarian ideals resulted in him being air brushed out of the orthodox nationalist consciousness. Now as the country is once again as in Davitt’s time at the precipice of oblivion, it is time to start remembering Davitt again and become inspired by his thought provoking ideals.


The country of developers and gombeen men is not the Ireland that Davitt and other radicals in the land movement, such as Matt Harris, had envisaged. In fact, it was the Ireland that they feared. Davitt wanted to create an egalitarian, quasi-socialist society in order to destroy the inequalities that he loathed and fought to destroy throughout his far too short life. The Ireland that was created as a result of his work is not one that Davitt would be proud off. The Ireland of the Celtic Tiger was one of abhorrent greed and wrecklessness; multiple opportunities to improve the lot of the mass of underprivileged people went unheeded in order to ensure that the free market would not be rattled.


As Michael McDowell so obnoxiously argued (is this man going to be Chief Justice?), inequality is inevitable and welcome in order to have a booming economy – but only for a few – like what we had over the past decade. Davitt would not have accepted this. This would not have happened if the people actually listened to Davitt, instead we are left to suffer because of our fear of adopting a radical, yet egalitarian approach. Now is the time to adopt this approach and ensure Davitt’s vision of an Ireland of equals is created.


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