Michael Davitt:

'A tool of political crooks and social reactionaries'?(Connolly)

In the centenary year of his death, Peter Berresford Ellis examines the contribution of Michael Davitt to Irish political emancipation and looks at James Connolly and Francis Sheehy Skeffington's contradictory assessments of the Land League leader


MAY 2006, marks the centenary of the death of Michael Davitt, nationalist, trade unionist, agrarian agitator and founder of the National Land League. For Francis Sheehy Skeffington (1878-1916), the socialist writer and agitator, Davitt was "the greatest Irishman of the 19th Century". To his contemporary, James Connolly, Davitt had become "the tool of political crooks and social reactionaries".

Is there a common ground between these two conflicting views and was Connolly justified in his harsh censure?

The facts of Michael Davitt's life are well known. Born in Straide, Co Mayo, in 1846, Davitt's family were evicted during the 'Great Hunger'. They went to Lancashire where he became a child labourer in the cotton mills, losing his right arm - severed by machinery - at the age of eleven years old. He became politically impassioned with Ireland and became organising secretary of the IRB. Arrested, he was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude.

Released from Dartmoor after only seven years, thanks to agitation led by Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Party, he threw himself into land reform was the organising mind behind the Land War. Any study of the Land War in 19th Century Ireland that ignores Davitt's famous classic The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (1904) does so at its peril. It needs to be one of those books on every socialist's shelf. It was Davitt's campaign that brought in fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale beginning the processor of tenant ownership. Davitt's idea of nationalisation of the land, however, simply turned into new ownership.

Davitt was elected as an Irish Party MP for Co Meath in 1882, the represented Mayo and finally retired from active politics in 1899.

James Connolly

James Connolly said of Davitt, in The Harp, August, 1908:

"… it is as the Father of the Land League that Davitt will live in history, and not in the light of the failure of his later career; and it is with that phase of his activity we wish to deal today. We believe profoundly that a close study of the events of that time would immensely benefit the militant Socialists of all countries."

It is right that he should be remembered in 2006. The Irish Heritage Committee in Haslingden, where Davitt grew up and in whose church of St Mary is a memorial to him, has received £36,000 from the Lottery Fund to carry out a series of promotions, exhibitions and commemorations during the year.

However, Michael Davitt was a man with political flaws as Connolly pointed out in an uncompromising tone, calling him "the tool of political crooks and social reactionaries".

He was specifically referring to the last fourteen years of Davitt's life.

Connolly's biggest criticism was that he threw away the opportunity to stand firm with Parnell against "clerical dictation".

"He abhorred clerical dictation in politics, yet when the psychological moment arrived to give it a death blow, when it was grappling to destroy the one leader who with himself could rally all the democracy of Ireland - Parnell, Davitt, instead of taking full advantage of the event which threw Parnell into the democratic ranks and uniting with him against clerical interference in politics, foolishly threw away his opportunity, misjudged the whole situation, and fought with all his force and aggressiveness to establish the priesthood in full control of secular affairs in Ireland."

For that alone, Connolly could not find any praise for Davitt.

In 1887 the London Times had published its series of articles 'Parnellism and Crime' based on a letter purported to be by Parnell but forged by Richard Piggott. Parnell won the libel case against the newspaper, Piggott fled to Madrid and 'committed suicide' - though the circumstances were suspicious. Talk of his being a government agent was thereby quashed. Parnell was at the height of his popularity.

His enemies had another card to play. In November, 1890, Captain William O'Shea obtained a divorce from his wife, Katharine, naming Parnell as co-respondent. The Catholic Church joined forces with the English establishment to demand Parnell's retirement.

As Connolly pointed out, at this crucial time, Davitt, who had previously stood up to the machinations of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, suddenly capitulated to them.

When examined closely, it was not that Sheehy Skeffington really disagreed with Connolly in that criticism. He said:

"there is no episode in Davitt's career on which his admirers would less willing dwell than this..."

"It is one of the strangest ironies in Davitt's career that he, the least clerically minded of Irish politicians, should have become the standard-bearer of an outrageously arrogant clericalism, as he did in this Meath election. The clergy, from the bishops down, had with a few isolated exceptions declared against Parnell. Like some of the English, they seized this opportunity under the cloak of moral zeal, to destroy a man they had long feared and distrusted as a non-Catholic, an anti-cleric at heart, and probably an agnostic. As in the case of the English Liberals, too, Parnell himself had placed in their hands the instruments of his own destruction."

However, Sheehy Skeffington defended Davitt by saying that he had come to the conclusion that the Parnell's continued leadership was impossible even before the hypocritical howls of the English establishment and the Catholic hierarchy joined to topple him.

There is no denying that Parnell was one of the greatest leaders Ireland had until this date. Had Davitt and the other Irish Party Members of Parliament stood firmly behind their leader, there might have been another outcome and Ireland might have avoided the path leading to the sacrifice of 1916, the War of Independence and the terrible civil war and partition.

Parnell and Davitt were a powerful political great force together. The reform of the land code was certainly the greatest social revolution in modern Ireland. And together they had made the British people aware of the morality of Ireland's claim to self-government and won to that cause the large and influential liberal element that had followed Gladstone. That support became lost to Ireland due to the unholy alliance of the Catholic hierarchy and English establishment making Ireland's future struggle inevitable.

How much did Davitt regret the course of action that he took?

He certainly returned to his criticism of the hierarchy not long after the Parnell split. A few months before his own death, Davitt wrote an open letter to Edward O'Dwyer, the Bishop of Limerick, and averred: "Make no mistake about it, my Lord Bishop of Limerick, Democracy is going to rule in these countries."

It is interesting that when Sheehy Skeffington's biography of Davitt was published, as hero-worshipping as Skeffington was, Davitt's widow, Mary, severely attacked it. Her Catholic piety was repelled by Sheehy Skeffington's public profession of his abandonment of Catholicism and stand as a Freethinker.

Davitt withdrew from politics as an MP in 1899 and devoted himself to travel and journalism. Recent revisionist historians have claimed that he had denounced political violence. However, on October 25, 1899, he told the House of Commons:

"I have for years tried to appeal to the sense of justice in this House of Commons on behalf of Ireland. I leave, convinced that no just cause, no cause of right, will ever find support from this House of Commons unless it is backed up by force."

In his support for the Boers in their struggle, Davitt gave money to some Irish volunteers to go out to South Africa to join the Irish Brigade fighting for the Boer republics against the British invasion. He told the House of Commons on the day he quit it:

"We Irishmen are compelled to give our sympathies to the Boers, because they are absolutely in the right in heroically defending with their lives the independence of their country…'

The trouble was, the time to make such grandiose gestures had passed Davitt by. That time, as Connolly pointed out, was when he should have stood shoulder to shoulder with Parnell.

Connolly also criticised Davitt for being a socialist in England but backing away from socialism in Ireland. Connolly said:

"… never has the voice of Davitt raised in such a fight on behalf of Labour (in Ireland)."

"We are convinced that he was quite as sympathetic to the cause of Labour in Ireland as in England, but he had surrendered himself into the control of men who were quite willing to play upon Labour sentiments in England where such sentiments might be made a menace to British aristocracy, but were determined to scotch and oppose such sentiments in Ireland where they might become a menace themselves.

"Thus, in his latter days, Davitt became the idol of the revolutionary English democracy and disliked and distrusted by the revolutionary working class democracy of Ireland. A poor ending for such a career, and solely due to the fact that he did not possess that knowledge of men of which his biographer [Sheehy Skeffington] gives him credit. Honest himself, he believed implicitly in the honesty of others and became the tool of political crooks and social reactionaries."

Davitt certainly promoted the cause of the fledgling Labour Party in England, In Ireland, however, Connolly said he threw in his lot with a section of Home Rulers "whose leaders were the bitterest enemies of the newly enfranchised workers of the Irish cities".

In the year before his death, speaking at a political meeting in England, Davitt said:

"I am not a Socialist myself; I am content to be an Irish Nationalist and Land Reformer; but there are many articles in the political creed of Socialism to which I willingly subscribe … Socialists are not, so far as I can see, either drunkards, gamblers or wife-beaters. If they were, they would vote Tory, and the churchmen would not denounce them. They are sober, earnest, intelligent citizens, who see clearly the exiles of existing systems in their effects upon the industrial and civic lives of the wage-earning masses, and who have the courage to put forward proposed reforms which shall minimise, if they cannot eradicate, these evils in the existence of the labouring poor.'

Connolly felt that Davitt an 'unselfish idealist', but felt that Davitt was not possessed of the "great intellectual acuteness, resourcefulness and knowledge of men", which Francis Sheehy Skeffington claimed for him.

Connolly felt that Davitt allowed himself, albeit unknowingly, to be used by men who despised his ideals and, but for their need of him, would have happily seen Davitt imprisoned or hung.

T.W. Moody, in his biography of Davitt in 1981 - Davitt and Irish Revolutuion 1846-82, Oxford University Press, did acknowledge Davitt's faults, admitting that they impaired his effectiveness as a politician, but then absolved him with these words:

"But in the estimation of Irishmen and of innumerable others all over the world his faults counted for very little in the scale against his great-heartedness, his self-sacrifice, and his invincible courage. He did not seek power or glory or money but he won gratitude and respect and love in full measure."

As we examined the contribution of Michael Davitt in the year of the centenary of his death, I think it behoves us to reflect also on his faults as well as his virtues and bear in mind the down to earth realism of Connolly's judgement as well as the laudatory tribute of Sheehy Skeffington.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-01-20 14:43:03.
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