Michael Davitt: New Perspectives, edited by Fintan Lane and Andrew G. Newby, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009, cloth 224pp, €35.00, ISBN: 9780716530428
Michael Davitt – New Perspectives is a book which should be read by anyone with an interest in post Famine/early twentieth century Irish political history. Encapsulating the life, varied interests, and many enterprises of Davitt within 200 pages is not an easy task. Professor Joe Lee says as much in the opening words of his chapter: ‘Essaying an overview of a life of such variety, such controversy, indeed such improbability, as that of Michael Davitt poses a daunting challenge’ (p.13). Joe Lee is one of the thirteen contributors to this new book, based on papers presented at the Davitt Centenary Conference, held at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, in May 2006. Other professorial and senior academic figures amongst the thirteen include: Paul Bew, Queen’s University Belfast; Elaine McFarland, Glasgow Caledonian University; Laura McNeil, Elms College, Massachusetts; Andrew G. Newby, University of Aberdeen; Alan O’Day, Oxford; Pauric Travers, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. Incisive contributions are made also by younger historians, all of whom already have an established publication record in the study of modern Irish history. The latter group includes: Fintan Lane; Owen McGee; Laurence Marley; John Dunleavy; Patrick Maume. A highly engaging opening chapter entitled Getting to know granddad: a family perspective on Michael Davitt, is provided by Fr Thomas Davitt, a grandson of Michael Davitt. Overall, the book succeeds in rounding out our knowledge of Davitt beyond that generally available to date to non-specialist readers.
Michael Davitt is accepted as a major figure in the political history of post-Famine Ireland. For most, he remains ‘the father of the Land League’ – no mean achievement and yet a great understatement. From the early 1920s until the early 1960s, second level students of Irish history depended greatly on Hayden and Moonan’s (1921) Short History of the Irish People for their knowledge and understanding of modern Irish history. Writing of the months immediately preceding the ‘Parnellite Split’ in 1890, readers of Hayden and Moonan’s (ibid.: 537) school textbook were told: ‘The sky was serene; a glorious day seemed to be at hand. But again the cup was to be dashed to the ground; again Ireland was to go out weeping into the desert, to mourn her departed hopes’. While the Hayden and Moonan historical narrative continued up to 1924, its last reference to Michael Davitt was to his major role in 1889 at a Parliamentary inquiry where he rebutted the allegations published in The London Times which sought to link Parnell with terrorism. History students might have drawn the reasonable, but greatly mistaken, conclusion that Davitt’s life as a political activist was effectively over by 1890.
T.W. Moody’s meticulous work of scholarly historical research, Davitt and the Irish Revolution, was published in 1981. In style and content, Moody’s (1981) work differed greatly from that of Hayden and Moonan and chose an even earlier exit point for Davitt than that of Hayden and Moonan, ending at the Kilmainham Treaty of 1882. It is impossible to refute Moody’s assessment that, in the twenty four years of Davitt’s life after 1882, Davitt was never again to exercise power at the centre of Irish affairs as he had done in 1879-81. Moody, however, added a twenty four page epilogue, summarising Davitt’s post-1881 public life at home and abroad. The centenary of Davitt’s death (2006) highlighted the need for presenting well researched historical narratives on Davitt’s ‘after life’ between 1882 and 1906. Michael Davitt – New Perspectives is an excellent step in that direction.
The bare outline of Davitt’s early life is very stark. He was born in 1846, a few months before the birth of Charles Stewart Parnell. Their political careers would intertwine at times to enormous effect on Irish political life. Their respective socio-economic backgrounds could hardly have been more different. Parnell was the son of a Wicklow landlord and had been an undergraduate at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Davitt, a child of evicted tenant farmers from Mayo, commenced his working life in a Lancashire cotton mill at the age of nine. By the age of eleven, he had lost his right arm in a work accident. While still in his mid twenties, Davitt was sentenced to fifteen years of penal servitude for treason-felony, seven of which he served. His term of imprisonment was spent largely at Dartmoor prison. Breaking stones as a one-armed prisoner inevitably damaged his health. Davitt and Parnell’s willingness to serve a common objective led to the New Departure, a policy of cooperation between Fenians, land agitators, and members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was a key phase in a long process which ultimately led to the whole scale transfer of ownership of Ireland’s land, thereby transforming the socio-economic and political landscape of Ireland.
Davitt’s public life showed independence of mind and a level of moral courage not often found in Irish political life. Though an observant Catholic, he frequently expressed views in public which were not in tune with the orthodoxies of his day. He favoured the nationalisation of Irish land rather than peasant proprietorship, never a popular cause. His return to formal education at the age of eleven was to a Lancashire Wesleyan school. Drawing on that largely positive experience, Davitt openly clashed much later in his life with the Catholic Bishop of Limerick in favour of a public education system that provided for religious instructions for all who required it. After 1900, Davitt supported the emerging Labour Party in Britain, but gave his support in Ireland primarily to the Home Rule Party. He denounced injustice wherever he perceived it, not just in Ireland but in India, South Africa, and Czarist Russia. The evolution of Davitt’s thinking and his role as a concerned campaigner are outlined in this new book. Hopefully, Michael Davitt-New Perspectives is a precursor of many, more detailed studies of particular facets of a multi-faceted, generous-spirited and very talented man.
Executive Secretary, The Royal Irish Academy.
- Hayden, M. and Moonan, G.A. (1921), A Short History of the Irish People, Part Two, Dublin: The Educational Company of Ireland Ltd.
- Moody, T.W. (1981), Davitt and the Irish Revolution 1846-82, Oxford: Clarendon Press.