Michael Davitt, after the Land League 1882–1906

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

UCD Press
ISBN 9781906359928

Reviewed by Conor McNamara

Published towards the end of the centenary year of the 1916 Rising, Carla King’s monumental biography of the later life of Michael Davitt concludes by noting the startling omission of serious analysis of Davitt’s political vision in the discourse of Irish revolutionaries during the 1913–23 period. It is a telling observation and highlights a formative vacuum in the social vision of the Irish revolution and the limitations of the political imagination of the ‘Rising generation’.

If the complexity of Davitt’s vision for Ireland was scantily acknowledged or understood by later generations of revolutionaries, then, as this book convincingly argues, his political endeavours have frequently been reduced in nationalist discourse to the—admittedly monumental—achievements of the Land League between 1879 and 1882. In this respect, as King argues, ‘much of the real man, feisty, thoughtful, radical and deeply engaged with the issues of the day, was lost’ (p. 1).

Davitt’s early career has been extensively chronicled by a range of esteemed historians, including T.W. Moody, Laurence Marley and King herself. The author states that the main purpose of this study, which examines Davitt’s career in the 24 years between the conclusion of the Land War in 1882 and his death in 1906, is to show that Davitt’s achievements extended beyond being the ‘Father of the Land League’. The book illuminates in remarkable detail Davitt’s involvement in multiple social movements and political causes, from the labour movement in Britain to the Plan of Campaign at home, humanitarian relief efforts on the western seaboard, the foundation of the United Irish League and his involvement in national politics, along with his international travels, including activism, journalism and political commentary.

King’s analysis is arranged into sixteen lengthy chapters, beginning with the final years of the Land League in 1882 and Davitt’s release from Portland Prison. Chapters Three (Europe and the Middle East), Five (America and Marriage), Eight (The Labour World), Eleven (Lecture Tour in Australia and New Zealand), Fourteen (The Boer War) and Sixteen (Travel and Writing) deal with his international activism. The remaining ten chapters deal with the continuing saliency of land agitation as a catalyst for social and political change in rural Ireland and Davitt’s involvement in national politics—and, in particular, his difficult (to put it mildly) relationship with Parnell.

By 1883 Parnell and his conservative nationalist colleagues had effectively put a brake on the advancement of popular land agitation in the wake of the victories of the Land War. Increasingly isolated in the aftermath of his triumph, Davitt had undergone a critical redefinition of his own position in the nationalist movement and the development of his political ideas. The previous year had seen Parnell and his followers act decisively to weaken the link between themselves and the land movement and effectively close down the latter. In this respect King pulls no punches, noting that ‘the Land League was abandoned and the Ladies’ Land League forced out of existence’ (p. 63).

Davitt’s espousal of land nationalisation from 1883 onwards was met with political incredulity and popular hostility and, isolated by his gravitation leftward, he found himself politically marginalised. The mainstream of Irish nationalism would never have compromised on the question of peasant proprietorship and, as King notes, ‘tenant farmers were too eager to gain ownership of their land’ (p. 109). In respect of his ideological development at this time, King notes that Davitt was not a Marxist and that ‘in the 1890s the boundary between the radical end of liberalism and socialism was blurred. It was at that boundary that Davitt’s politics were now located’ (p. 63).

With his position in Irish life at a crossroads, Davitt decided to go to Europe and the Middle East in 1885. Initially intended to be a ‘round the world tour’, the trip may have been intended not only to recuperate his health but also to consider what he might do next with his life. His time in Europe and Egypt helped restore his health and energy, while his experience in Palestine intensified his concern for the fate of the Jews and he became an early supporter of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.

Davitt’s next international endeavour brought him to the United States, where during 1886–7 he immersed himself in the fractious world of Irish-American politics and, like many before and afterwards, could not avoid becoming entangled in their seemingly perpetual intrigues and bitter rivalries. Lecturing at large meetings of Irish-Americans, many of whom were less than convinced by his espousal of constitutional nationalism and continued faith in Gladstone and the Liberal Party, Davitt developed acute insomnia, sleeping an average of two hours a night, and was eventually overcome by exhaustion. The tour earned him almost £3,000, allowing him some form of financial security with which to commence his married life, and his attempt to steer the national convention of the Irish National League of America from publicly endorsing the physical-force nationalism of Clan na Gael was significant.

In four lengthy chapters King forensically examines Davitt’s relationship with Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party and his involvement in the campaign for Home Rule. Davitt maintained his allegiance to the British radicals among the Liberal Party while he was kept at arm’s length by Parnell and his political circle. Following the 1885 general election and the subsequent defeat of the Home Rule Bill, he ascribed the failure of the measure to ‘the unpreparedness of the English mind for the idea of a separate parliament for Ireland’ and ‘the unscrupulous tactics of the Tories and their organisations in appealing to the forces of political fear and religious bigotry’ (p. 167).

Davitt’s aggressive stance against Parnell during the poisonous split that brought about the latter’s downfall was inevitable, given the political history between the two men and Davitt’s unstinting belief in the primacy of the political cause of Home Rule above the needs of Parnell’s ego and personality, buttressed no doubt by his profound sense of personal betrayal. While his initial calls for his party leader to resign were measured, Davitt’s voice became more aggressive, central and determined as it became clear that Parnell wished to fight on. King makes her subject’s case forcefully, noting that his uncompromising stance should be understood in terms of Davitt’s commitment to radical solutions for Ireland: ‘His vision was an egalitarian, modernising, independent, non-sectarian republic’ (p. 244). Davitt himself later wrote: ‘It was a most hateful and senseless struggle, and earned for our cause some pity and much contempt from former supporters who were not of our race’ (p. 344).

Davitt’s lifelong attachment to the British labour movement distinguishes him from most Irish nationalist leaders. He remained in close touch with developments on the political left in Britain during the early years of the development of socialism and the emergence of new trade unionism. Against the background of rising labour mobilisation, Davitt founded his first newspaper, Labour World, in 1890, after being blocked by Parnell from becoming editor of the Freeman’s Journal. The paper’s political orientation was independent but gave support to the Liberal Party ‘for the object of the improvement of the working classes’. Like many tasks that Davitt set himself, editing was a grind to which he was temperamentally unsuited, contributing to another breakdown in his health and the loss of almost all his savings.

Davitt’s final years were largely consumed by travel, mainly to South Africa, Russia and the United States, and he had a long affiliation with Russian radicals in London. His first trip to Russia was to investigate a pogrom against the Jewish community in present-day Moldova in 1903. Throughout this period he received regular commissions from the Hearst newspaper group in the US, for whom he acted as a type of modern-day foreign correspondent. Despite his playing an important role in highlighting the plight of the Russian Jews and expressing support for Zionism, King notes that Davitt’s political analysis was not beyond some of the less appealing aspects of contemporary anti-Semitic prejudice.

Davitt’s support for the Boers from 1899 to 1902 brought him more into line with advanced nationalists in Ireland than he had been for some time. He perceived the Boer War in terms of a David and Goliath struggle, with one of the smallest states in the world pitted against its largest empire. As King notes, however, Davitt’s admiration for the Boer people, expressed in journalism and book form, extended to an uncritical approach to their treatment of the black African community, whom he repeatedly referred to as ‘savages’.

That the author has toiled in archives not just in Ireland but across several continents is most apparent in the breadth of detail and scale of research employed in this study, reflecting her pursuit of her subject over several decades. While some prospective readers may baulk at the sheer size of the book—a staggering 728 pages—it is miserly to suggest that the topic does not warrant the breadth of historical scrutiny that King has lavished upon her protagonist.

In James Connolly’s assessment, Davitt was an ‘unselfish idealist, who in his enthusiasm for a cause gave his name, and his services freely at the beck and call of men who despised his ideals and would willingly have hung himself as high as Haman’. King does not altogether disagree with this, noting that Davitt had few illusions about his more conservative allies: ‘he was a man in the service of an ideal far more than a party and it is possible that he made a conscious decision between pinning his colours to the mast or continuing his influence in practical politics’ (p. 537). It is a sentiment that Connolly himself, more than any other revolutionary, was to embrace a few short years later.

Davitt’s absence from the perceived canon of subsequent Irish nationalist visionaries reinforces the notion that he was not simply a man of his time, the figure ultimately responsible for the social contours of rural Ireland and its subsequent political discourse; as King outlines, his later career highlights the limitations of the collective political imagination of Irish nationalism and the ultimate triumph of rural conservatism. Davitt had many more defeats—personal, financial and political—than victories, and it is from the marginalised years of his career, so expertly chronicled here, that we learn much about the character of Irish nationalism and of a life of singular and astounding endeavour.

Conor McNamara is NUI Galway’s 1916 Scholar in Residence.


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