Forgotten Hero – Michael Davitt

Straide, Co Mayo - Michael Davitt's statue outside the museum dedicated to him
Straide, Co Mayo – Michael Davitt’s statue outside the museum dedicated to him

On our recent travels in Mayo we chanced upon a little museum in a rural situation. I was fascinated by the setting: housed in an old church adjoining the ruins of a 13th century abbey (which itself has some fine medieval carvings). The church has been restored specifically to accommodate the museum, which tells the story of Michael Davitt – who was born close to the site of the museum in 1846, and was buried right behind it in 1906.

Sixty years: a relatively short life – but years filled with remarkable achievement pursuing the causes of basic human rights and of freedom for Ireland. Years filled, also, with considerable hardships.


The village of Straide, in County Mayo, was hard hit by the famine – The Great Hunger – when Michael was born: a disaster that led to starvation and forced emigration for millions of Irish people. The Davitts were no exception to this. When he was only four years old Michael witnessed his own family being evicted from their cottage because they were unable to pay the rent to the landlord. He watched while their few possessions were piled on to the lane and their home was flattened.

Evicted families had little choice: starvation, the workhouse or emigration. The Davitts took the latter course, arriving in Liverpool in November 1850. From there they travelled on foot to Haslingden in Lancashire and settled in the closed world of a poor, Irish immigrant community with strong nationalist feelings and a deep hatred of ‘landlordism’.

At the age of ten, Michael was sent to work in a local cotton mill. At the age of eleven his right arm was entangled in the machinery of a spinning machine and had to be amputated. There was no compensation for accidents suffered by child labourers in the Victorian world, nor – indeed – very much concern or compassion for the conditions suffered by the working classes generally in the British Empire at that time.

Lancashire cotton mill c1900
Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Michael was fortunate as his plight was noticed by a local benefactor, John Dean, who helped him to gain an education in a Wesleyan school. When he left the school at fifteen, Michael Davitt secured a job in a post office and learned to become a typesetter. He also started night classes at the local Mechanics Institute and used its library, where he read extensively about Irish history, contemporary Irish life and radicalist views on land nationalisation and Irish independence.

One of Michael Davitt's campaigning newspapers
One of Michael Davitt’s campaigning newspapers

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Two years later he left his job to devote himself full-time to the IRB, as secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising covert arms smuggling to Ireland. He was arrested in London in 1870, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude in Dartmoor Prison.

Dartmoor Prison - hard labour
Dartmoor Prison – hard labour! (Harper’s Encyclopaedia)

While imprisoned he came to the conclusion, recorded in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, that violence was self defeating and he became an advocate of agitation through non-violence: years later  Mahatma Gandhi cited Davitt as a major influence in the creation of his own peaceful resistance movement.

Ghandi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931
Gandhi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Eventually in Westminster the Irish Parliamentary Party began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners and pressed for an amnesty for detained Irish nationalists. Partially due to public furore over their treatment, Davitt and other prisoners were released in 1877 on a ticket of leave: Michael had served seven and a half years. He and the other prisoners were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Ireland.

'Licence to be at large'
‘Licence to be at large’

For the rest of his life Michael Davitt was devoted to the causes he believed in. In Ireland the Land League became a reality and eventually Irish tenant farmers were enabled to buy their freeholds with UK government loans through the Land Commission. County Councils in Ireland were also able to build over 40,000 new rural cottages, each on an acre of land. By 1914, 75% of occupiers were buying out their landlords. In all, over 316,000 tenants purchased their holdings, amounting to 15 million acres out of a total of 20 million acres in the country. This set the pattern of small owner-occupied farms that we see all around us today in rural Ireland – a system that has long struggled to be economically efficient, but which allows independence and self-pride, which the landlord system certainly did not.

Independent Ireland
Independent Ireland

Michael Davitt was not able to see the realisation of his vision for Ireland, but he played an important part in the movements that enabled it: many historians say that his role was central to it. Such were his energies and beliefs that he involved himself in universal human rights movements, and advocated for more than just the oppressed Irish. He said women should have the right to vote; he spoke out for labour unions and helped found the British Labour Party. He served in Parliament, wrote numerous books, founded newspapers and travelled the world speaking for the underprivileged everywhere. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and supported the Boer fight for freedom in Africa.

I had never heard of Michael Davitt (Finola had): it seems his name was erased from Irish history for a while because of disagreements with other campaigners. Fortunately, that wrong has now been righted, and we have this museum in his memory – celebrating his life and work and open seven days a week all through the year. There is a life-sized bronze statue outside it. Recently a new bridge in Mayo has been named after him. As a man he didn’t seek personal acclaim: he wanted his funeral to be unassuming, yet over 20,000 people filed past his coffin. At Davitt’s grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it.

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland - courtesy Polranny Pirates
The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland – courtesy Polranny Pirates

Davit wrote in his will: To all my friends I leave kind thoughts, to my enemies the fullest possible forgiveness and to Ireland an undying prayer for the absolute freedom and independence which it was my life’s ambition to try and obtain for her…


For his group, Patrick Street, musician Andy Irvine penned a song about Michael Davitt: his memory lives on…

O Forgotten Hero in peace may you rest

Your heart was always with the poor and the oppressed

A prison cell could never quell the courage you possessed

15 thoughts

  1. Great informative piece with excellent illustrations. Most Irish Professors of History and Editors and Chat Show hosts in their various chairs today cannot be trusted to separate the wheat from the chaff , except to sell chaff to the public. Indeed many Ex Cathedra effusions first pass Per Anum, if you’ll excuse my Latin.

    It seems we now need a British Ambassador to explain our history to us. But then Margaret Thatcher
    needed Patrick Cosgrave to advise her on politics!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donal. I think it’s often the case that when you make a new home somewhere you immerse yourself in the local history and culture – and perhaps put more of an objective eye on it…


  2. I found this article VERY interesting. Thank you for it! I have a deep suspicion and circumstantial evidence that my great-great grandfather, Patrick McGrail might have been associated with Michael Davitt (perhaps fairly closely?) and am desperately trying to find out if indeed there was a connection. Patrick and Michael were contemporaries in Haslingden, Lancashire and close in age. Both of their families came from Mayo and had suffered from the famine. Patrick was born in Yorkshire abt 1852, but his Irish parents appear to have served time in a workhouse, came through Liverpool, and when Patrick is a young man all are living in the poor Irish slums of Haslingden and working in the cotton mills. I had heard that Haslingden was once a hotbed of Irish nationalism and certain pubs were the places to go “to hear the whispers and the songs” of the conspirators and rebels. I suspect Patrick was among them and perhaps Davitt too. Also, another family researcher who lives in England contacted me through a few years ago wondering if her McGrails from Mayo could be connect to mine. Looking things over, it seemed they very well could be. I had been trying to find more evidence of my great great grandfather that might connect him concretely to Michael Davitt and asked her if she knew of anything. She did not know who Michael Davitt was nor any of his history and that thread was dropped or forgotten in our further correspondence. Then a year or two later she emailed me with accounts of interesting records she had come across that puzzled her showing some of our McGrails living in a home or building where they were not thought to be as they were not the lessees or owners the place was registered to. Whose name was on the register? Michael Davitt! She was surprised at my “Ah-ha!” reaction as the name never meant much to her and had been forgotten, but I thought perhaps here is the smoking gun that could finally tie my great great grandfather to the famous activist. But I have not seen this document or whatever it was she found and as she is unwell and across seas from me, it has been difficult to secure a copy or clarify the story. I am dying to know if my great great grandfather was an Irish rebel….so much of his life,even once he comes to the US, seems to support this possibility, but as many of the groups and players in the efforts for Irish freedom were of a secret or shady nature for protection of their activities and movements, it seems almost an impossible task to determine. Michael Davitt practiced non-violence, but perhaps my great great grandfather departed from this conviction because he might have become connected with Clan na Gael (maybe in Chicago or Pittsburgh), but I don’t know. My great great grandfather’s story is very mysterious and the circumstances of his sudden death even more so! Somehow an underlying legacy of anti-British sentiment, Irish pride and political activism have survived and woven through the fabric of generations in the family to this day. Is this because of Patrick and his possible connections to men like Michael Davitt? Does anyone reading this have any tips as to how one might penetrate the history of Irish rebel movements and their members? Does anyone know if Michael Davitt was connected to the names Mcgrail, Lynch, or Larkin from Mayo or specifically among the other poor Irish mill workers in the little Lancashire town of Haslingden. Would LOVE to know! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jen! I recently posted about my family on Facebook- I too believe my Chicago family who came from Ireland in 1886 had connections to Michael Davitt… I’m attaching the post below

      Hi all!! I’m hoping that the story I share below might link me to someone who has either run into documents or maybe some of these details resonate with someone..
      My maternal grandmother’s mother was raised by her grandmother and never really knew her parents Her grandmother, Honora settled on the South Side of Chicago/Hyde Park neighborhood in 1886…
      I have learned that my Irish heritage comes with lots of tragedy and is related to the terrible corruption/distrust between the people of Ireland and the British government and those who were seen as agitators to the government perhaps doing a better job of gaining the trust of an average family with many children.
      Co. Galway Ireland
      My 3x great-grandmother (Honora Walsh NEE Coyne) married Stephen Walsh (1825-1878) in 1858. They shared 9 children between 1859 and 1879. Stephen lost their land in 1877 due to the landlords raising the rent. Stephen, supporting a family of 11 could not afford the rent. So they lost over 700 acres in Keelkyle Co. Galway that had been previously been in Honora’s family (the Coynes) who had already emigrated to USA in 1870s… The Walshes ended up moving slightly west to Letterfrack. Several months later in 1878 Stephen died. Honora, a grieving widow raising 10 children had at some point become friendly with the Fenians allowing her home to be used for meetings. She also developed a connection with Michael Davitt of the Irish National Land League which was formed less than a year after Stephen died.
      In 1881 more tragedy struck Honora and her oldest son, Patrick Walsh was accused of murder and ended up being hanged in 1882 in Co. Galway. Patrick’s brother, Micheal soon thereafter was accused of murder and sentenced to prison for life at the age of 15 (Both Walsh boys endured severe consequences for horrendous actions they most likely never committed.. I have found newspaper articles that indicate the government knew Honora (“Widow Walsh”) had moved to Chicago and had written to Michael Davitt as well as being confident that Honora was well aware of who the actual murderers were. In addition Michael Davitt was very clear in his deposition in 1889 stating that it was very “honorable” for Honora to not turn in those who committed the crime. Her son, Michael, did end up being released from prison in 1894 (partially related to him being chronically ill due to the terrible conditions, but also in an effort to trick him and use him to learn more on the specifics of Michael Davitt’s relationship with my 3x great-grandmother. It was well established before his release that he would be going to Chicago to join his family. Unfortunately he was too ill to travel and died just a few months after his release….
      Mr. Davitt very likely assisted financially in getting Honora to the USA in 1886 and he was in he USA that year himself. She came with several of her children including my 2x great-grandmother, Mary Walsh (1865-1899)..
      These details had never been passed down to the 3 generations preceding me and we were simply told that “Patrick Walsh was hanged by the English”
      However, I found it oddly suspicious learning that Honora’s daughter, Mary Walsh ended up marrying a man by the name of “Charles Davitt” in May 1898. It seems quite a coincidence and I wonder if there was a Charles Davitt who had that name or if it was made up. My great-grandmother Irene Davitt was born in Aug 1898 in Chicago and by Oct 1899, her mother, “Mary Davitt NEE Walsh” died.. And three weeks after Mary’s death, Michael Davitt resigned from parliament. By 1900 Irene was being raised by Honora . Charles Davitt was gone …
      In 1910 Irene and Honora are not found living together, but I found a “Mary Stokes” as a grandma to an Irene Devitt at a different address nearby in Chicago.. It seems to possibly be my Irene but I have no idea who this Stokes woman. Mary Stokes NEE Shaugnessey was apparently married to a Thomas Stokes who was deceased by 1910.
      In 1920 Irene is living with her grandmother, Honora again and Honora’s dtr Babara McManmon (1870-1939) and the children of Barbara and her deceased spouse, “Peter A McManmon” (1876-1917)
      I HAVE found an death notice for a “Catherine Davitt NEE McNamara B in Ireland in 1851. She died in Feb 1913 and the notice states “mother of Charles and Arthur” – Arthur executed Catherine’s will. and is listed as informant of death. John McNamara is listed as Catherine’s father. But again, I cannot find an “Arthur Davitt” after the records regarding Catherine’s death in 1913
      As it turns out , “Arthur Davitt was also a witness to Mary Walsh and Charles Davitt’s wedding in 1898 at St.Thomas’ Catholic Church in Hyde Park Chicago and “Johannah Walsh” was the other witness who was definitely Mary’s youngest sister.. (is listed as Honora’s dtr and living with her and Irene in the 1900 census)
      So I am posting here because I wonder if anyone has run into any documents, letters or clues related to this… I suspect that Honora had much difficulty and she was likely surrounded by those who may have been good to her but were also bad news for the safety of children.. There are definitely parts of the story that I may never learn, but I wonderd if anyone has knowledge of Chicago’s Clan na Gael/Fenian connections to Michael Davitt. or a Charles Davitt??
      I apologize for the novel but thanks anyone who may have any info to help shed some light on my family at this time. I greatly appreciate any thoughts, feedback or ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear friends, I am an ancestor on the Yore side living in the San Francisco Bay Area now. My father Mike Yore did some wonderful work charting our family tree and the connection to Michael Daviit. We have a beautifully detailed 5+ page article about his and Mary’s wedding from the Oakland Tribune. He has always been an inspiration to me, but more of a faint idea than a real man. Thank you for this article. It has truly inspired me, especially the bit about Ghandi. Tom Joad comes to mind. If anyone would like to connect, please use Patrick Yore

    Liked by 1 person


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Robert. And thank you to all the other commenters on this post, too. I found Michael Davitt’s story fascinating, and it’s good to know that there are so many connections today with this inspiring man. He was certainly a ‘forgotten hero’ once, but no longer… The Museum in Straide, Co Mayo has ensured that his work is recognised and his spirit kept alive.

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  5. This was very interesting…thanks for the photo of the bridge. I suspect that my “other” Irish ancestors,the ones not from Cork, were from Achill Island, and plan to visit May along with Cork next year…Thanks! April

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  6. I had never heard/ read about Michael Davitt, but now would certainly read more about this tenacious, selfless,and courageous man. Thanks for a great post.

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  7. Nice account Robert and well-illustrated. A pity in a way Ireland no longer favours the type of relentless though peaceful agitator that helps challenge the established order and galvanises real social change

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