Michael Davitt’s earliest memory was experiencing the eviction of his family from their Mayo home when he was four years old. The ejection of the family from their home at Straide and the deliberate destruction of the building by the ‘upholders’ of law and order never left him. The homeless family made their way to the Lancashire town of Haslingden, which they reached in November, 1850. They found a house to rent in Rockhall, where most of their neighbours were Irish. Remains of the terraced house can still be found in close proximity to more modern houses in Rock Hall. The Davitt’s would remain in Haslingden until 1870, their last home being in Wilkinson Street, the site being marked by a memorial set up in the 1950s.
Michael attended St Mary’s school at that time conducted by William Bourke. The school initially had to be content with temporary accommodation in an attic in Wilkinson Street. Like so many children of the time he was anxious to quit school and become a wage earner. The textile factories were proliferating and the demand for labour, especially young cheap hands, appeared to be insatiable. Michael had no problem finding a job, but left after one month disgusted at receiving no pay. His next position proved to even less satisfactory, when his friend and neighbour, John Ginty, was killed in an accident. Michael had been employed for some time at Stelfox’s mill at Baxenden when he met with the accident that necessitated the amputation of his right arm.
This tragic episode proved to be a turning point in Michael’s life, when thanks to the generosity of an anonymous benefactor, he embarked on a further course of education. This was at the Wesleyan school where he would remain for four years. At a time when most children received little or no education, this unexpected opportunity placed him in a more favourable position when seeking employment, and he was fortunate to find a position with the town’s postmaster, Henry Cockroft. It was while he was at the post office that Michael was drawn into the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians. From being ‘headcentre’ of the Rossendale circle he progressed to the post of national organiser and for these activities he came to the attention of the authorities. Following his arrest and trial in 1870 he was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude.
(For more see: J Dunleavy, Michael Davitt and Haslingden; and Davitt, exile and exiles).
Despite the harshness of the prison regime, Davitt continued to persist in his efforts at self-education. Physically the years of his incarceration told on his health, yet mentally he came out of prison late in 1877 a stronger man. He spent much of his time thinking deeply about the injustices meted out not only to his own countrymen but to the ‘factory slaves’ of industrial Britain and beyond. He determined to play his part in trying to remedy these matters. On his release he earned his livelihood by public speaking and journalism. Irish freedom was always at the forefront of his concerns and he mobilised the forces of Irish nationalism in the National Land League in 1879. Having secured a better deal for the tenantry, he became a committed Home Ruler, though along with this he found time to espouse the cause of the low paid and the oppressed, be they the Jews in Russia or the Boers in South Africa. Subscribing to the view that the pen is mightier than the sword, he wrote for a variety of journals, and founded and edited The Labour World. When he died in 1906 most obituarists highlighted his commitment to the universal labour movement, both in the industrial and political spheres. Davitt served as a Home Rule MP in the 1890s and urged the need for more Labour members.
The memorial tablet at Haslingden St Mary’s describes Davitt as a ‘great Irish patriot’, yet he was much more than this. Given his lifelong concern for the underdog the sentiments set out on the Wilkinson street memorial in referring to his readiness to employ his voice and pen in the cause of social justice everywhere seems more appropriate. His biographer, the late TW Moody, assessed his character superbly when he described Davitt as a man with ‘a passion for social justice that transcended nationality.’ (Moody and Martin, The course of Irish history, p. 284.)