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

The Workhouse

The ruins of the Schull Worhouse

The ruins of the Schull Workhouse

Of all the old ruined or abandoned buildings that dot the countryside of Ireland, one type has the distinction of being the most hated – the workhouse. Many have disappeared: most of the West Cork workhouses have been pulled down or completely rebuilt as community hospitals. A few hints remain – a wall here, a shed there. The workhouse in Schull, although in a ruinous state, has managed to maintain enough of a presence to remind us of its former role in the community. Surrounded by a high stone wall, you can still see parts of the administration building where inmates were admitted, remains of the dormitories and the hospital.

Administration Building and Entrance to the Workhouse

Administration Building and Entrance to the Workhouse

We wander around a lot of ruins here in West Cork, but this one is different. No good feelings emanate from these walls. Instead, an aura of decay and sadness lies thick upon the site. We found ourselves exploring in silence, contemplating the misery that was the inevitable condition of those who entered.

Schull Workhouse Plan

Schull Workhouse Plan

Workhouses were built throughout the nineteenth century in Ireland. The philosophy of charity prevailing at the time dictated that the workhouse must represent the absolute last resort of the desperate – those who could no longer feed, clothe or house their families or themselves. Once admitted, families were separated and might never see each other again. All inmates were assigned hard labour, although some rudimentary schooling was provided for children. There was no comfort, little sanitation, crowded conditions and meagre allowances of food.

One of the most intact spaces

One of the most intact spaces

The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna has an excellent website if you want to learn more about the Irish context, but the site that dwarfs all others in the sheer amount of information is The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution, created and maintained by Peter Higginbotham. He makes the point that not all was bad about workhouses, that many workhouses in Britain provided inmates with sanctuary, life-saving treatment and skills. This is not their reputation in Ireland, however, where their memory evokes dread and abhorrence.  Part of this is rooted in their response to the Great Famine of 1845-49. Established to provide Inside Relief many of them initially turned away those who came to the gates asking not to be admitted but to be fed. For those inside, conditions at this time were appalling. As an example, the Durrus History Blog records the report of a Dr Stephens on a visit to the Bantry Workhouse in 1847.

A kitchen, perhaps?

A kitchen, perhaps?

The workhouse in Schull was not built until 1851, in the aftermath of the Famine. It was burned down in 1921 during the War of Independence (there’s an account here), as were many workhouses, to prevent it being used as a barracks by the British army. When the Irish Free State was established, one of the first acts of the new government was to abolish the despised workhouse system and transfer its responsibilities to a new Ministry of Health.

The hospital wing?

The hospital wing?

All Irish workhouses were designed by the same man, to one plan, you can get a better idea of how the Schull workhouse might have looked on the Irish Workhouse Centre website. An exception to this sameness was the Durrus Grainstore, pressed into service as an auxiliary workhouse at the height of the hunger for a couple of years.

Durrus Grainstore. Photo by Amanda Clarke of Sheep's Head Places.

Durrus Grainstore. Photo provided by Amanda Clarke of Holy Wells of Cork

Unknown Souls

Unmarked gaves

Unmarked graves in a section of a Protestant churchyard

Dotted across the countryside around us, and throughout Ireland, are the loneliest places on earth. These are the cillíní – the children’s graveyards. A cill (kill) is a monk’s cell or church site, cillín (killeen) is the diminutive and cillíní (killeenee) is the plural: small churches. Ironically, the cillíní despite their names were usually non-church sites. They were burial grounds reserved for unbaptised children (those who died before they could be baptised or were perhaps born out of wedlock), pregnant women (because they were carrying unbaptised children), unrepentant murderers, suicides, shipwreck victims and strangers – anyone, in short, who was not ‘saved’ or whose baptismal status was ambiguous or unknown. They were used into the twentieth century. Some cillíní were also used for mass burials during the time of the famine.

Also used for mass famine burials

This burial ground was used as a mass grave during the famine

This week we attended a fascinating talk on cillíní by William Casey, a local historian. As he explained it, the teachings of the Catholic Church on where unbaptised babies go after death had evolved from a position of ‘they go to hell’ (Augustine, 4th century) to a more moderate invention of the concept of Limbo (Thomas Aquinas, 13th century) – an in-between place where these lost souls would dwell eternally, never to suffer but never to reach heaven.

An 11th century round tower watches over the wandering souls

An 11th century round tower watches over a graveyard; a recent plaque commemorates lost souls

This ‘placelessness’ extended to their burial: cillini were normally situated away from the what the church considered ‘consecrated ground.’ Locations often contain poignant echoes of other trapped or wandering souls: boundaries, for example, of parishes or townlands were chosen.  Sometimes cillíní are found in ring forts. Known in Ireland as ‘fairy forts’ these ancient sites were believed to be the domain of the , the fairy folk who also inhabited the world in between earth and heaven. The association of the ring forts with the fairies guaranteed their security – if you interfered with a ring fort bad luck would dog you from that day on.  Protestant churchyards were also used, or areas within or near abandoned or ruined church sites. Perhaps, as William put it, these choices reveal an attempt by parents to ensure their children were buried in holy ground, while still adhering to the strict rules of the Catholic Church

Let us not forget them

Pause a while

Maybe the saddest thing we learned from William’s talk was that tiny children who had died before baptism were buried at night, by lantern light, by the father and male relatives. Women had no role to play and the mother was not present. The grave was placed east-west, alongside other babies who had been buried in the same way and marked, if at all, with a small uninscribed stone. Over time many cillíní melted into the surrounding landscape and are now impossible to find. Others have been restored so that these lost souls will not be forgotten. Here, simple monuments invite us to remember. They attempt to reinstate the dignity and hope that were once robbed by the rigid beliefs of another age.

This medieval church was used as a cillin and most recently as a grotto

This ruined church was used as a children’s burial ground and most recently as a grotto

The Great Hunger

2012-05-19 16.04.23

Skibbereen Heritage Centre

Skibbereen Heritage Centre

I have mentioned the Irish Famine in previous posts. West Cork and the area around Skibbereen in particular was greatly affected by this national disaster. In the period of the failure of the potato crop between 1845 and 1850 it is estimated that one in three people in this area died through starvation or disease. A million people perished in the island as a whole while another million emigrated. By the end of the nineteenth century the population of Ireland had halved, from just over 8 million to just over 4 million, as a traumatised race filled the Coffin Ships to America, Canada and Australia, or took the mail boats to Britain. This time in Irish history has left deep wounds in the Irish soul, and a legacy of distrust of Britain that fuelled much of the subsequent nationalistic fervour.

The Heritage Centre in Skibbereen has an excellent, if harrowing, Famine exhibition. Even more moving, perhaps, is the Abbeystrewry Graveyard, site of mass and unmarked graves of thousands of victims.

2012-05-19 16.02.27

In 1997 when events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Famine were being planned new research turned up many previously unknown stories of the time. While most, understandably, turned on the wretchedness of the people and the political and social context, one small tale fired the imagination of the historian who discovered that the Chocktaw Indians of America had made what must have been for them an enormous donation to hunger relief. Having been deprived of their ancestral homeland, and with their population decimated by European diseases, this faraway people collected and sent $710 to the starving Irish. Since this discovery, a special relationship has been nurtured between the Chocktaw and the Irish.

Tim Tingle, Chocktaw Story Teller

Tim Tingle, Chocktaw Story Teller

We were lucky, recently, to be present at a session by Tim Tingle, a Chocktaw writer and storyteller, in the Skibbereen library. Relaxed and humourous and with the aid of his drum he told us of his people and their relationship with the land and the animals. Slowly he drew us in to a deeper story from the time of the Chocktaw Trail of Tears: a story universal in its appeal and its humanity. His message: “Look ahead, keep moving forward.”

Food Glorious Food

Taste of West Cork

There’s yet another festival on at the moment, and this one is a yummy one: A Taste of West Cork Food Festival. It will culminate next Sunday in a giant market that will take over the main street of Skibbereen, but in the meantime every day brings something new – a farm tour, cooking and fish-smoking demonstrations, walking and boating tours, tasting menus, and special dinners.

Finola and Regina

Finola and Regina

Today we attended a lecture by Regina Sexton, a brilliant writer, broadcaster and food historian. Under the title “Teaching the Poor to Cook in 1847,” Regina led us through the contents of what might have been one of the earliest ever Irish recipe books. Published by a member of the Northern Irish gentry, it instructed the Irish ‘Peasantry’ on how to cook the foods available at the time as substitutes for the potato, then in catastrophic failure due to blight. Revealing as a document of the social and political philosophy of its time, it was eerily poignant given the death toll occurring all around at the height of the Great Famine. I was keenly aware of our surroundings at Liss Ard House, once a mansion where people enjoyed a fine standard of living, while the town of Skibbereen, down the road, had been an epicentre of starvation.

Everything locally grown!

Everything locally grown!

I have written before about West Cork Food (here and here): this really is Foodie Heaven, with fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, homemade preserves and relishes, breads of every description and a wide variety of seafood and organic meats all readily available not only in the weekend markets but in local shops and supermarkets. To add to this, my friend and neighbour Hildegard has been generous with her garden and we have been enjoying fresh beans, zucchini and lettuce and flavouring dishes with her wonderful basil and savoury.

Robert and I love to eat breakfast out as a treat. On one recent foray I ordered boiled eggs and it brought me back to my childhood and time-honoured rituals. Lift the top off the egg with a spoon, drop in butter and salt and put the top back on. Cut your toast into fingers to dip into the buttery yolk. When you have finished your egg, turn it upside-down in the egg cup and present it to an unsuspecting sibling.

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Breakfast in Skibbereen