Where is today’s Davitt?

An Cailín Rua

TREASURE TROVE The Michael Davitt Museum on the grounds of Straide Abbey.  Pic: northmayo.ie

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

In 1906, 116 years ago, crowds gathered in Dublin and Mayo to mourn the death on May 30 of one of Ireland’s greatest social reformers. Just 60 years old at the time of his death, Michael Davitt remains to this day one of Ireland’s foremost humanitarian politicians.  
This, perhaps, is a sad reflection on our current political regime that when you cast an eye back over the last century, so few high-profile politicians stand out for their work in trying to make Ireland a better place for the people who need help the most. If the current polls are to be believed, a change in that regime is coming; will it be for better or worse? Who knows?
But back to Davitt. He was not born into privilege; at the age of just four, he watched as his family was evicted from their cottage in Straide. Upon discovering in the Swinford workhouse that mother and child would have to be separated, his mother Catherine and father Martin decided instead to emigrate to England.
At the age of ten, Michael started work in a cotton mill, where a horrific machinery accident a year later led to him losing an arm. A local benefactor took pity on him and funded his education, and at a young age he turned to politics and joined the Fenians.
A seven-year stint in dreadful prison conditions for arms smuggling led to him rejecting violent means and embracing peaceful resistance. Over the course of his life, he advocated not just for the oppressed Irish, but was a vocal champion of women’s democratic and political rights, improvements in education, and prison reform. He defended labour unions, spoke out about anti-Semitism, supported the Boer struggle for freedom in Africa and the fight against Chinese feudalism.
Like many current politicians, Davitt held some conflicting positions, and the evolution in his political philosophy was not always acknowledged – something that still rings true in politics today where there is little allowance for personal growth.
Fast forward to the present, the ideals under which the Straide man founded the Land League strike a stronger chord than ever in the 21st century. The aim of the Land League was simple; abolish landlordism in Ireland and enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on. While we are no longer in an era of colonialism, the desire of the Irish for security of tenure and the safety of ownership persists. But amid a housing crisis and an impending cost-of-living catastrophe, combined with a shortage of available housing to buy or rent and rigid, inflexible planning regimes, people are beginning to despair.
Back in 2006 on the centenary of his death, then President Mary McAleese paid tribute to Michael Davitt, claiming that he would be proud of the achievements of a modern Ireland, in which emigration had ceased, and in which young people had access to education, opportunity and jobs. He would, however, ‘be the first to remind us we are still on the road to social inclusion’.
Of course, we all know what followed, and it’s hard not to wonder how Michael Davitt would feel about the Ireland of today, where – despite the country’s relative wealth – social inclusion, equal access to health, education, services and the security of a home are nearly abstract concepts; privileges that are out of reach for so many. It’s hard to imagine that he would be anything but disappointed. Ashamed, perhaps.
Here in Mayo, we are fortunate enough to have a fantastic facility that tells Michael Davitt’s story, housed in the beautifully restored penal church where he was Christened, on the grounds of Straide Abbey.
The Michael Davitt Museum contains an eclectic collection of artefacts, including letters, photos, Land Acts, books, Addresses of welcome and personal effects. Postcards sent to his children from his travels reveal the warmth of his character, and jerseys from Celtic FC of which he was a patron, and the numerous Davitts GAA clubs around the country reveal the spread of his influence. The curator and tour guides make the museum experience authentic, welcoming and inviting – just the way, one suspects, the great man himself would have wanted it.