Ninety years ago an alliance of Irish republican organisations and others, including elements of the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the woman’s movement, socialists, trade unionists, nationalists and Irish language activists, rose up against British rule in Ireland and declared a Republic.
Easter 1916 was a defining moment in Irish history.
At his court martial, addressing those British officers who condemned him to death, a defiant Padraig Pearse defined it perfectly:
‘Believe that we, too, love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again to renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom.’
That desire for freedom and justice, and the efforts of all of those who participated in 1916, were a consequence of the great efforts and sacrifices of other Irish men and women in the generations which preceded them.
They built on the foundations laid by John Mitchel, Fintan Lalor, O’Donovan Rossa and foremost among these was Michael Davitt.
Much has been written of Davitt. And, as with all great leaders there are those who years later seek to claim him as one of their own, or to use his legacy in a partisan fashion. And of course there are elements of the establishment and the revisionist media who seek to de-radicalise Davitt - to tame him.
But what is indisputable is that he was an idealist, a nationalist, a fenian, a republican, a revolutionary, a labour activist, a writer and journalist, a historian and internationalist, and perhaps most importantly a Mayo man.
As a writer his “The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland”, the story of the Land League is widely regarded as a seminal account of those events.
For Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Davitt was “the greatest Irishman of the 19th century”.
While James Connolly was critical of some aspects of Davitt,s approach he nonetheless described him as “honest” and an “unselfish idealist”. Shortly after Davitt’s death Connolly wrote, “it is as the Father of the Land League that Davitt will live in history”.
This year we mark the 160th anniversary of Davitt,s birth and the centenary of his death. In his 60 years of life he packed in more political activism, and helped formulate and promote new and effective methods of struggle, and changed for the better the lives of countless millions of Irish people in his and subsequent generations, than almost any other Irish political leader, before or since.
As a child he experienced the hardship of rural Ireland during the Great Hunger. Born in Straide in 1846 the family was evicted from their home. Like so many hundreds of thousands of others during and after the great hunger Martin and Sabina Davitt uprooted their family and took them to Haslingden, near Manchester, in the north of England.
It must have been a harrowing time for them. Friends and neighbours dying from hunger and the ravages of disease, and many others scrapping together their bits and pieces and fleeing across the Atlantic or to Britain or elsewhere around the world in search of hope and a better life.
And as they left famine stricken Ireland, so too did ships so laden with food that their bellies were low in the water. Not for the first time the interests of the wealthy landlord were put before the people.
At the age of 10 he began working in a cotton mill and at 11 he lost his arm in an accident.
At 19, after many years of self-education, he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was an enthusiastic Fenian and this led him to London where in 1870 he was arrested trying to smuggle arms. He was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude and subsequently spent 7 years in prison. The conditions for all of the republican prisoners held at that time were horrendous. They were held in isolation, often shackled, and treated with a brutality which saw many lose their minds. Tom Clarke and O,Donovan Rossa wrote about this period in their lives.
Their accounts make frightening reading but at the same time give a real sense of the courage and humanity of Tom Clarke and O,Donovan Rossa and Michael Davitt.
Davitt became a passionate penal reformer as a result of this experience.
He returned to Ireland and to Mayo in 1879 to find that many in the west of Ireland were again experiencing the trauma and threat of hunger. Three years of rain had decimated the potato crop. Falling prices were causing an economic crisis elsewhere in the country.
In Mayo there was a threat to evict a number tenants for arrears of rent. At a meeting in Claremorris it was agreed to initiate a campaign of agitation to reduce rents. The first meeting was held at Irishtown, near Ballindine on April 20th 1879.
Canon Ulick Burke was the first to be targeted by this campaign and he was forced to reduce his rent by 25%. Other landowners followed suit and the evictions were cancelled. From this success emerged the Land League of Mayo. It was formally founded in this town, Castlebar, on August 16th 1879. Davitt was the driving force behind it. His slogan was simple; “the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland”.
The lesson was simpler. If the people stood together there was nothing they could not accomplish.
Parnell lent his support to the endeavour and two months later the National Land League was founded in Dublin. Parnell was the leader and Davitt was one of its secretaries. Its demand was for the three F’s “Fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale”.
Davitt was also one of the key architects of “the new departure” which united physical force fenianism with the Irish Parliamentary Party and others.
The British government supported the landlords with military intervention, evictions and coercion.
The subsequent Land War took many forms - intimidation, the killing of landlords and their agents, the maiming of animals, the destruction of crops, and rent strikes. The 19th century is notable for the number of coercion acts passed by the British Parliament in respect of Ireland. At least one per year for over 100 years. That was the means by which Ireland was held for the Empire.
Undeterred the Land League continued with its struggle and its most famous action introduced a new word into the English language and a form of protest and activity which was to be copied by others around the world - boycott. It inspired people like Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama and Mahatma Gandhi in India.
The British eventually responded with some reforms but not enough. In 1881 Davitt was arrested and imprisoned for his speeches and agitation work for the League. In 1882 he was elected as an MP for County Meath but was disqualified from taking his seat because he was in prison.
99 years later another Irish republican prisoner Bobby Sands was elected as an MP and after his death the British changed the law to prevent prisoners from ever standing for election. In the British approach to Ireland some things remain constant.
The National Land League was suppressed. Its leadership, which was male, was imprisoned. In 1882 Davitt helped establish the Ladies Land League which proved just as effective at agitating for land reform as the men had. In the words of Constance Markievicz, “it ran the movement and started to do the militant things that the men only threatened and talked of’ -- and was eventually forced to disband”.
More reforms were introduced by the British and for the next 40 years a succession of reforms were brought in to deal with the issue of land ownership.
Davitt clearly saw a relationship between land reform and national independence. But his vision saw beyond land reform. He advocated social reform as well, and in England he helped establish the English Labour Party with Kerr Hardie in the early years of the 20th century.
In 1890 he initiated the Irish Democratic Labour Federation whose task was to advance proposals around free education, land settlement, worker housing, working hours, universal suffrage and much more. A very radical programme for the time.
Davitt was also anti-sectarian. Speaking at a meeting in the local Orange Hall at Loughgall in 1881 Davitt told the crowd that “the landlords of Ireland are all of one religion - their God is mammon and rack rents, and evictions their only morality, while the toilers of the fields, whether Orangemen, Catholics, Presbyterians or Methodists are the victims.”
Davitt was an avowed internationalist. He travelled widely supporting struggles against injustice whether in Russia, in Australia, and in Africa.
He was also elected to the British Parliament again but in October 1899 he withdrew from parliamentary politics. Addressing the Parliament he said: “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.”
Seven years later, not long before his death, Davitt wrote about his own beliefs. “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.”
Davitt died on May 30th 1906. He was a big-hearted, generous, champion of the disadvantaged. We must always judge events and individuals in their own time. Without doubt Michael Davitt was one of this nation,s great leaders.
He was a man of his time. He saw injustice and throughout his life he relentlessly campaigned against it and sought to shape and change the adverse political conditions which impacted on the Irish people.
He was not afraid to contemplate new ideas, new ways. But at the heart of his activism was a belief in the Irish people, a belief in our right to be free, and a determination that we would construct a better future, a more equitable future than that which existed then.
These ideals must be as much a part of our future now as they were 100 years ago.
The Ireland of today is much different from that of Davitt’s time.
Significant progress has taken place politically, socially, and economically. But on one big issue, with which Davitt is forever linked, he would find it ironic that in Ireland today many of our young people cannot afford to buy homes. Particularly in this part of the country and in the era of the Celtic Tiger.
Why? Because Land prices across Ireland, but particularly in the 26 counties, have rocketed over the last decade. While developers and speculators have made huge windfall profits as a result of the rezoning of land, would-be home owners and small farmers seeking to expand their holdings have suffered.
Soaring land prices mean that land is too expensive for community amenities and necessary facilities such as schools and care facilities for the elderly. In particular the escalating cost of building land has frustrated the social housing programmes of local authorities.
The period during which land prices began to escalate at unprecedented levels coincided with the winding down of the Land Commission which had been in existence in one form or another since 1881. Its dissolution in 1999 under the Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Act, 1992 was short sighted.
The Land Commission was abolished on the grounds that its original purpose of reforming landownership was no longer valid. This is clearly not the case. The difficulty in acquiring land has become a block to social progress.
In order to ensure that the land of Ireland is used to the benefit of the people of Ireland there is a compelling case to be made for the re-establishment of a land commission
A reconfigured Land Commission would ensure that where land becomes available it is not priced beyond the means of local (small) farmers who wish to expand their holdings, or beyond the means of local authorities and communities who require land for housing or essential facilities and amenities.
It would ensure that rural communities would be more socially cohesive. It could also help shift the focus of development away from the East Coast.
A new Land Commission could be used to facilitate new people entering the farming sector - but who would find it impossible to acquire the land needed - to lease holdings or purchase land at a reduced cost. In particular it could be used to facilitate those who wish to become organic farmers. It could play a significant role in rural regeneration at time when the numbers of farms and farmers in the state continues to decline.
In addition, almost 130 years after the Land War we still have a situation in many parts of Ireland where ground rent is still being paid to absentee English landlords. This is unacceptable to Sinn Féin. It would certainly be unacceptable to Michael Davitt. Ground rents should be abolished.
Mayo today is also the county of the Rossport Five. If Davitt was alive today it would be the Rossport Six.
Michael Davitt would stand up to Shell as he stood up to unscrupulous landlords or anyone else who would seek to deprive the Irish people of what is theirs by right.
Despite the great wealth that exists in this part of the island at this time there is significant underfunding in health, education, roads, and tens of thousands living in poverty. At a time of unprecedented growth, 15% of all children live in consistent poverty, while one in four children are deemed by the government’s own statistics to be at risk of poverty.
After 15 years of growth it is a disgrace that people are left waiting for days on hospital trollies, that people can’t afford a home to live in and that the transport system is gridlocked.
People in the West of Ireland are forced to campaign year after year to try and get the government to invest in jobs and infrastructure. Sinn Féin believes that balanced regional development is essential. We believe that an integrated transport system, including the re-opening of the Western Rail Corridor is essential. We are working to make it happen.
So there is much to be done here in the West and across Ireland.
The British still occupy part of the national territory.
Sinn Féin’s goals are straightforward; an end to partition, an end to the union with Britain, the construction of a new national democracy, a new republic, on the island of Ireland, and reconciliation between orange and green.
But we are not prepared to wait until we have achieved these goals for people to have their rights to a decent home, to a job and a decent wage, to decent public services like health and education, and a safer cleaner environment.
Irish republicans want change in the here and now.
Our policies provide a real alternative to the uninspiring and jaded approach of the other parties. Before election time they promise radical measures. After the election they go on to replicate the mistakes of those they temporarily replace.
Irish republicanism is better than that. Our republicanism is about positive, progressive change - fundamental, and deep-rooted. This places an enormous responsibility on us to deliver change. Sinn Féin is about empowering individuals and communities to achieve change.
We are about building an alternative to the kind of government which presides over one of the wealthiest economies in the European Union, yet fails to provide ordinary citizens with decent public services, in health, in education, transport and housing. We are about transforming an economy where the income of the wealthiest ten percent is thirteen times that of the lowest paid workers.
The heart and soul of our approach is rooted in the Proclamation of Easter 1916.
It is a Proclamation of Freedom and a Charter of Liberty which “guarantees religious and civil liberty; equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts cherishing all of the children of the nation equally “.
Sinn Féin’s objective is to turn these objectives into reality.
Sinn Féin has a vision for the future. We are totally committed to establishing an entirely new Ireland built on positive change, on equality, on partnership.
An Ireland which is open, transparent and accountable - a people-centred republic - owned by and responsible to the people. An Ireland where no one waits for a hospital bed, a home or a job.
This vision is as real and as attainable for this generation as was land reform for Michael Davitt and his.
Michael Davitt was a visionary. The men and women of 1916 were visionaries. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike and the deaths of 10 hungers strikers. They too were visionaries. We need to be visionaries also.
I want to invite you to join Sinn Féin.
I especially want to appeal to women to come into our party and to change it. Women are the majority on this island but they are mostly absent from the decision making processes. We want women to be at the heart of Sinn Féin,s decision making processes. We want to build a stronger, egalitarian national political movement which is capable of making our vision a reality.
The West is Awake once more. Let’s ensure that the leadership which Mayo is capable of has its place as of right in the vanguard of our struggle.”