Michael Davitt: freelance radical and frondeur

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Home Rule, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2007), Reviews, Uncategorized, Volume 15


Michael Davitt: freelance radical and frondeur
Laurence Marley
(Four Courts Press, €45)
ISBN 9781846820663

Michael Davitt once took the sort of questionnaire that would now be found in a glossy magazine. We learn from it that his heroes were ‘those who minimise suffering’; his favourite food was ‘anything purchased by my own energy’; his favourite colour was light purple; and his pet peeves were hero worship and after-dinner speeches. He answered ‘Where would you like to live?’ with ‘Where there is no human misery or pain’, and when the quiz asked ‘What is your present state of mind?’ he replied ‘Difficult to explain’. This difficulty forms the basis for Laurence Marley’s analysis of Davitt’s public career.
Michael Davitt: freelance radical and frondeur is the first substantial biography of Michael Davitt in 25 years and the only book to deal with all of the roles he assumed in public life. It presents Davitt as an ad hoc activist temporarily allied with a number of different movements but ultimately unable to maintain a lasting connection with any of them. Examining the details of the principled positions that led to his alienation from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Parnellites, British labour and the House of Commons, the book makes a strong case for Davitt’s role as a kind of radical consultant, compelled to struggle by his ethical principles but unable to suppress them enough to remain loyal to an organisation. Nevertheless, while Davitt did move from project to project, he held a greater sway over an increasingly powerful constituency of American, Irish, English, Scottish and Australian Irish nationalists than this focus on his disconnections can support. He was powerful enough to raise money, influence votes and apply diplomatic pressure throughout his career, and this power originated in a sustained connection to the global movement for an Irish nation.
Davitt has been conspicuously absent from Irish Studies for some time. In part, this is because of T. W. Moody’s Davitt and the Irish Revolution, 1846–82. The historian kept Davitt’s papers to himself for the duration of the decades-long project, and knowledge of Moody’s work in progress may have kept three decades of younger scholars from beginning a competing book. The senior scholar ended up dealing with only the first half of Davitt’s life, ending his biography with the demise of the Land League. Even after he donated the Davitt papers to the Trinity College manuscripts department, extensive studies have been slow to emerge. In most histories Davitt is depicted as an adversary to Charles Stewart Parnell and other Irish politicians, a controversial figure in the British labour movement, or part of the Land League. This all changed with Carla King’s recent work. Her eight-volume series, Michael Davitt: collected writing, 1868–1906, is the cornerstone for future study of this crucial figure in Irish history.
Marley extends the work of these scholars and he has a great deal of material to reckon with: Davitt had a hand in many key events in nineteenth-century history and rubbed shoulders with an impressive pantheon, including Leo Tolstoy, Peter Kropotkin, Friedrich Engels and Theodore Roosevelt. But this work is more than a record of Davitt’s place in a variety of political moments: it is a detailed analysis of the intellectual evolution of this fascinating man. Marley investigates many common accounts of Davitt’s political life. He challenges the notion (begun by Davitt himself) that the Land League came out of his prison experiences, arguing that seven years in prison without access to books or writing materials would not have given a convict the educational or organisational background evident in the League. If Davitt was the ‘Father of the Land League’, there were a great many uncles among local activists and politicians throughout the island. The blend of local and national influences in the popular movement is good history well told, but Marley emphasises the internal conflicts to the detriment of the significance of Davitt’s role in the agrarian rebellion. Queen Victoria herself advocated his imprisonment as ‘one of the worst of the treasonable agitators’; he was kept under constant police surveillance, and he attracted the serious attention of the home secretary, Sir William Harcourt. Marley’s careful analysis of Davitt’s role in the internecine conflicts in the Land League, the National League and the Parnellite split should have taken into account Davitt’s ability to vex some of the highest-ranking individuals in the most powerful empire in the world.
According to Marley, Davitt developed the political philosophy of a ‘peculiar radical’. Primary influences included Irish intellectual Thomas Davis, English philosopher John Stuart Mill and United States radical Henry George. He supported land nationalisation but not government ownership of all enterprise, rejected communism and anarchism, and promoted free trade. His approach to the land question changed over time, as did his understanding of the fine line between aggressive politics and violence. He struggled to reconcile his desire for a comprehensive federated labour movement spanning Britain and Ireland with nationalist organisations, and had a conflicted role as both a labour activist and board member for a mill that used child labour and cut workers’ wages.
As MP for South Mayo, Davitt played a significant role in radical politics in the 1890s, reforming the penal system, advocating on behalf of the colonised in Egypt and India, and protesting the expansion of the Empire. He resigned from parliament in 1899 in protest at the Boer War and began to work for international rights for the Boers and for Russian Jews. Although he remained an important figure, Davitt’s emphasis on political and economic changes left him largely on the sidelines of the Celtic Revival and he struggled to find a place among the next generation of Irish nationalists.
Marley’s scholarly vigour distinguishes this work from many earlier, gentler studies of Davitt. For Marley, Davitt’s thought does not adhere to a schema of ideas as much as to a system of ethics. He should be read not in any ideological context but as someone driven by an egalitarian mission to address issues affecting industrial humanity, everywhere. Viewed from this perspective, he is better understood as a nationalist, social reformer, educationalist, crusading journalist. Marley offers an excellent critical analysis of the complexities of Davitt’s thinking. He trains a careful eye on what he thinks of as Davitt’s hypocrisies, such as his advocacy of rights for the Boers while turning a blind eye to their treatment of native Africans. He identifies the many contradictions in Davitt’s racial and political perspectives without fully acknowledging that the nineteenth-century figure’s bigotry—however repugnant—was considerably less virulent than the dominant paradigm of his (or indeed any other) age.
It would have been interesting to learn Marley’s perspective on Davitt’s role as a defendant in significant moments in the history of British law. Arguments against him (such as Regina v. Davitt and Seymour v. Davitt) set a number of precedents on whether inmates could serve in parliament, whether a prisoner’s release can be revoked for unspecified reasons, and whether political prisoners were entitled to preferential treatment. Davitt’s perspective on cultural issues as a native Irish-speaker could have been developed as well. Perhaps this is because both subjects merit study in themselves, studies for which, as with all future work on Davitt, this exhaustively sourced and well-researched book will provide a sound foundation.

Seán O’Brien is student advisor and program co-ordinator at the Keough–Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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