Davitt’s Part

Charles Townshend

  • Davitt and Irish Revolution 1846-1882 by T.W. Moody
    Oxford, 674 pp, £22.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 19 822382 X

‘Has lost the right arm; black, small moustache; black stunted whiskers not meeting under the chin but inclined to grow backwards towards the ears; regular nose; handsome face, inclined to be long;...when walking he swaggers a little and swings the left arm, he has the slightest inclination to stoop, but is straight, smart, active and gentlemanly-looking; his age is about 30 years.’ Such was the picture of the young Michael Davitt, Fenian suspect, produced by the police detective who was watching him in 1869. (In fact, he was working-class, and 24 years old.) Somewhat later, after seven years’ penal servitude, he was seen by the Irish Parliamentarian F.H.O’Donnell as ‘a tall dark romantic looking man ... more like a starved poet than a revolutionist’. (Davitt in return called O’Donnell a ‘self-seeker and egotist’, ‘a most accomplished fraud, dishonest, treacherous, and aiming for office’.) These descriptions – and, perhaps, this invective – are not merely indicative of the prodigious detail of T.W. Moody’s new study: they supply much of his explanation of Davitt’s capacity to sway vast crowds of Connacht peasants whose minds were less than perfectly attuned to his. What impressed his audiences was ‘the intensity of his manner, the clarity of his utterance, and his striking appearance’. Davitt looked the part.

But what was his part? The fact that this question is likely to be asked in England, while it would be unnecessary in Ireland, is a measure of the perceptual divide between the two countries. In Ireland, though it finally repudiated his ideas, Davitt stands with figures such as Wolfe Tone, O’Connell and Parnell, leaders of epic stature in the struggle against England. He saw England’s failure to ‘impress either its civilisation or religion’ on conquered peoples as due to the ruthless disregard of its governing class for every consideration other than British interests narrowly conceived. This telling criticism – in which his bitterness did not blind him as it did on some issues – offers an explanation of the British ability to remember Irish leaders of Parliamentary challenges or of rebellions which directly threatened their power. Davitt was neither. Though he ended up as a well-behaved MP, and in his last years played a part in the birth of the British Labour Party, in his prime he was a Fenian, a man who believed that to attend the English Parliament was to abet the English conquest of Ireland and to corrupt the Irish national spirit. Yet though he tried to take part in the Fenian rebellion of 1867, and went to prison for running guns for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, it was not as a rebel in the classic mould that he found his role. He deviated from orthodox Fenian conspiratorialism into the creation of a mass movement of the discontented Irish rural populace against landlordism. This movement, the Land League, brought Ireland nearer to revolution than any efforts of the IRB had done.

But what sort of revolution? That was the great suppressed question of Irish nationalism, and it is the suppressed question that underlies this book, breaking through to the surface here and there. It is not Professor Moody’s style to confront such issues directly. He has produced not so much a study in revolution as a semi-amplified biography, packed with a lifetime’s research work, a level of factual saturation probably unprecedented in Irish history writing, and certainly in histories of Davitt. (The only accounts of any substance have been Sheehy-Skeffington’s in 1908 and O’Hara’s study of Parnell and Davitt, Chief and Tribune, in 1919.) It is not a conventional biography, as it halts rather abruptly half-way through its subject’s adult life, while it broadens into a general account of the Irish national movement in those years in the 1870s, and again, more unfortunately, in 1881-2 at the height of the land war, when Davitt was removed from active participation by Her Majesty’s Government. Through the massive accretion of detail wider questions gradually stand revealed.

Davitt himself was singular amongst Fenians in that his ideas developed, to the bafflement or anger of hard-line physical-force men like O’Donovan Rossa or John O’Leary. W.B. Yeats consigned Romantic Ireland to the grave with O’Leary: Davitt discovered its terminal weakness much earlier. He outgrew the Fenian romanticism of his youth – in Moody’s words, ‘the practical revolutionist in Davitt was disgusted even more by the gory fantasies of Rossa than by O’Leary’s doctrine of endless inactivity’ – and started to ask what the point of national revolution was. By 1882, he had to conclude that patriotism was not enough: national independence must be not an end in itself but a means of achieving social justice and material progress. Political revolution was valid only as a mechanism for bringing on social revolution. In the end, Davitt even decided that reform was more important than revolution, because it dealt in the real lives of people rather than insubstantial symbols such as sovereignty. Here was the germ of the tragic split between pragmatists and Republican idealists that was to cause civil war in 1922. Pre-echoing MacNeill and Griffith, he held that the nation as an abstraction was empty and futile: as Keir Hardie put it, ‘his Ireland was the actual flesh and blood Ireland.’

This realisation came quite late to Davitt. As a youthful exile in Lancashire he was a conventional Fenian recruit. Even after losing his right arm in an industrial accident caused by shocking machine design and minding practice he seems to have thought less about social justice than about securing guns (a preoccupation which did not entirely leave him even after the ‘new departure’). He was imprisoned in 1870 for organising the dispatch of pitifully small quantities of poorly-made rifles from Birmingham to Ireland. His trial on a charge of treason-felony fostered an idiosyncratic attitude to English law, which emerged again later in his life. As Dr Moody points out, he denied the integrity of English law courts but expected impartial treatment from them. His persistent complaints of injustice are demolished by close analysis of the trial, though his later sufferings in prison – particularly Dartmoor – were undoubtedly severe for a disabled man.

The refusal to give him any form of ameliorated treatment pointed up the Government’s exceptional sensitivity to the Fenian threat, and the serious problem that the concept of political imprisonment raised in Britain. Davitt, like other Republicans, objected to being classified as a common criminal, while the authorities refused to concede that he was a ‘political prisoner’. On this resonant issue, Moody’s account necessitates a revision of the view (sustained, for instance, in R.V. Comerford’s recent biography of Kickham) that ‘political’ treatment was, in practice, semi-officially accorded to Fenians. He does not, however, analyse the serious difference of opinion within the Government on the issue, which can be seen, for instance, in the correspondence between Gladstone and the Viceroy, Lord Spencer, at the time of Davitt’s arrest and trial. Spencer favoured political treatment: Gladstone demurred, though he was sufficiently impressed by the strength of the Amnesty Movement to want to release (rather than re-categorise) the Fenians. Spencer in turn saw this as political weakness, demoralising to loyal citizens and damaging to general respect for law. The question was never clearly resolved, and was of course to re-emerge a century later. Dr Moody does make effective use of the successive Parliamentary inquiries to indicate the complexity and uncertainty of the whole problem.

What is not uncertain is the political effect of imprisonment on Davitt: he was transformed from an unknown exile into a public figure. The description of his triumphal return to his native Mayo early in 1870 is deeply instructive. His first tour of the United States, where he lectured to the Irish-American audiences who came endlessly to have their prejudices reinforced by changeless Fenian rhetoric, is equally significant. His contact with the fierce US Fenian organisation, with Patrick Ford of the Irish World and above all with John Devoy, precipitated him into the ‘new departure’. Prison had probably prepared his mind to grasp the land issue; though many readers will be surprised by the clarity with which it emerges that Davitt did not, as he later suggested, conceive the idea of the Land League while he broke bones in Dartmoor. It may not be surprising to find that he probably never read Marx: it is remarkable that he did not read Lalor until 1880. The massively detailed account of his American journey, if sometimes verging on the tedious, elucidates the gradual crystallisation of his ideas under the tuition of Devoy, whose political acumen emerges impressively from the whole process.

Professor Moody, long the foremost authority on the new departure, presents here a refined analysis of this development, in which he identifies no less than three departures – the first being the decision by a number of neo-Fenians such as O’Connor Power (later described by Davitt as a ‘renegade ... unscrupulously ambitious and untrustworthy’) to enter Parliament in 1874; the second being the arrangement of a co-ordinated strategy between Devoy, Davitt and Parnell, to link Fenians and Parliamentarians with a mass movement based on the land issue in 1878; and the third being the removal of initiative, by the foundation of the Land League of Mayo in 1879, from American Fenians to an Irish popular front. Indeed, the first of these was pre-dated by the IRB’s own constitutional revision in 1873, by which it accepted that it must ‘await the decision of the Irish nation as expressed by a majority of the Irish people’ before launching a rebellion, and in the meantime support any other movement ‘calculated to advance the cause of Irish independence’.

The essence of the new departure was a compound of two elements: acceptance of the need for an open movement with a popular base in addition to the secret insurrectionary preparation of the IRB, and acceptance that the land issue was the overriding concern of the majority of the Irish people. In effect, this was a tacit admission (never openly made) that the people were insufficiently interested in national independence. Davitt recognised that ‘self-interest rather than self-sacrifice’ was the force that mobilised the peasantry behind the nationalist leaders: but he attributed this distressing lack of idealism to the evil effects of a land system that had ‘trampled’ on Irish ‘manhood’. His denunciation of this system was passionate and, as Dr Moody delicately shows, intellectually confused. He labelled it ‘landlordism’, and deployed this concept more or less as a synonym for English rule. He refused to think through the implications of the great increase in middle-class Irish landownership since the 1840s. Later, in his masterpiece The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland: or the Story of the Land League Revolution (‘an indispensable source not only for the history of the land war but also for its mythology’), he added a further layer of confusion by giving it an archaic name – perhaps to disguise the fact that while ‘feudalism’ (the rule of Anglo-Irish landlords) might have fallen, landlordism itself had most definitely not.

Davitt held that ‘rent for land can only in equity be defined as the surplus profit accruing from the capital and labour expended on its use,’ and that ‘to claim it under conditions which admit of no profits at all would be like insisting upon income tax from a workhouse pauper.’ This was an elegant quasi-judicial endorsement of traditional peasant attitudes to their right of occupation. The spectacular success of the Land League stemmed from this; it amplified and systematised traditional rural methods of resistance to the exercise of landlords’ rights under English law, and gave effect to an ‘unwritten law’ backed by the sanction of violence. Davitt, with typical Fenian fastidiousness, deplored the ugly brutality of agrarian crime, especially against animals (outrages ‘play the devil with us’ by alienating American sympathy), but it was an inescapable part of the land struggle. The sophisticated application of social ostracism – the boycott – depended on a habit of general obedience maintained by intimidation.

Was this a ‘reign of terror’ imposed by ‘village tyrants’, as the Government believed? Dr Moody seems to suggest that police statistics, which he surveys rather cursorily, do not support this picture. In fact, the incidence of crime is not really the point, as the authorities held that a small number of visible ‘outrages’ could signify the most effective intimidation. The question is probably unanswerable, and in the end even irrelevant. So is the difficult question of the precise relationship, for rank-and-file League members, between the achievement of ‘the land for the people’ and the achievement of national independence. What is certain is that the sheer scale of the League transcended local concerns and became a political challenge to the Government. British reactions, as so often, magnified the sense of crisis, and handed the Nationalists victories on a plate. They are well illuminated in the decision to prosecute Davitt for a ‘seditious’ speech in November 1879. The Government rapidly perceived the League as a rival, though Davitt appears to have seen it less as a counter-state than as a huge pressure group.

Dr Moody’s lucid account of the League organisation is of great value, not least in its lack of obtrusive interpretation, and will now be set alongside the recent major works of Clark and Bew. He does not, however, pretend that absolute clarity can be imposed on Davitt’s developing ideas. Davitt later produced contradictory views of the all-out rent strike which precipitated the fall of the League, and it seems unlikely that he had a clear grasp of the issue at the time. Sadly, his ideas ceased to matter as soon as they ceased to mirror those of the land-hungry tenantry. The most striking aspect of his career is the suddenness with which he ‘ceased to be a factor in politics’ after his re-imprisonment in February 1881. How can his dramatic eclipse be squared with his apparently overwhelming stature as a popular tribune beforehand? This was not due simply to imprisonment, which had previously increased his fame and influence, even though his imprisonment came at a critical moment.

He undermined his own position by allowing his ideas to develop – a serious crime amongst nationalists, Irish or otherwise. Under the influence of Henry George he realised belatedly that universal occupying ownership, hitherto his consuming obsession, would perpetuate the principle of landlordism rather than destroy it. ‘The land for the people’ could only be justly achieved by social action – that is to say, action by the state. To Davitt, the adoption of a policy of land nationalisation was merely a logical extension of his former approach. To the peasantry (as distinct from the labourers) it was alarming nonsense. Dr Moody suggests that there was a contradiction of which Davitt was unaware between nationalism and nationalisation. This cannot be true in principle, but in Irish practice it was so. Nationalisation ‘had no roots in Irish tradition’, and thus stood condemned.

Davitt was incorporated in the national pantheon, but petrified as the Davitt of 1878-81. Dr Moody was no doubt right to cut short his biography accordingly. The study he has produced is definitive in the most complete sense of that much-used word: its carefully underplayed revisionism pares away the patina of legend (much of it laid on by Davitt himself) and approaches as close, surely, as is possible to the reality of a social convulsion in which, as so often, truth look second place to the engineering of effective political slogans. This weighty book will stand for along time: it is to be hoped that a second edition will rectify an alarming series of printing errors.