Fenian and Land League founder Michael Davitt (1846–1906) was born on 25 March in Straide, Co. Mayo. In 1850 his family's landlord evicted them from their small farm, and they emigrated to Haslingden, an industrial town in Lancashire, England. At age eleven, when he was working in a cotton mill, a machine crushed his right arm, and it was later amputated. Ironically this injury allowed him to resume formal schooling, and in 1861 he became a post office clerk. In 1865 Davitt, like many young Irishmen in Lancashire, joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), or Fenians. He rose quickly through the ranks and in February 1867 helped to lead the ill-conceived raid on Chester Castle. Appointed IRB organizing secretary for England and Scotland in 1868, during the next two years Davitt traveled clandestinely around Britain organizing arms shipments to Ireland. In 1870 the authorities arrested and tried Davitt for arms trafficking. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude.
Davitt's mistreatment in prison became a cause célèbre, and many Irish nationalists campaigned for his release. Davitt thus emerged with a high public profile when he was released eight years early in 1877. He went to the United States in 1878 and with John Devoy set the nationalist movement on a new course by promising American Fenian support for both Charles Stewart Parnell's constitutional campaign for self-government and renewed land agitation. This "new departure" bore fruit when agricultural depression hit Ireland in the late 1870s. In October 1879 Davitt founded the Irish National Land League, and Parnell became its president. The league united large farmers, small farmers, laborers, constitutional nationalists, and Fenians in a great agrarian movement that received substantial financial backing from Irish Americans. The ensuing Land War forced the British government to grant the 1881 Land Act, which gave Irish tenants the famous "three Fs"—fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale.
After 1882 Davitt began advocating land nationalization. This put him at odds with most Irish nationalists, who sought tenant ownership of the land. In 1890, after news surfaced of Parnell's long-standing love affair with a married woman, Davitt became a leading anti-Parnellite. He served as an anti-Parnellite MP from 1893 until 1899, when he resigned his seat to protest the Boer War. Davitt spent the rest of his life traveling, mostly as an investigative journalist. By founding the Land League, Davitt had begun the process that fundamentally transformed Irish landholding.
SEE ALSO Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Ladies' Land League; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Primary Documents: Establishment of the National Land League of Mayo (16 August 1879)
Davitt, Michael. The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland; or, The Story of the Land League Revolution. 1904.
Moody, T. W. Davitt and the Irish Revolution, 1846–82. 1982.
Patrick F. Tally
J. A. Cannon