Early Life and Influences
Michael Davitt was born on the 25th March, 1846, in the village of Straide Co. Mayo. Born in the midst of the Great Famine of 1845 – 1849, Michael’s tenant farmer parents, Martin and Catherine (née Kielty) struggled to weather the failure of the potato crop on which people were hugely dependent. By 1849, the limited family income no longer covered their mounting arrears and rent, and as a result in 1850, the Davitt family were evicted from their home. This was a process which had happened to many poor families from September of 1847 onwards, when landlords began to resort to tenant eviction and the demolition of cabins as a way to avoid paying a required holdings rate on the building – seen as very costly at a time when landlords had properties which had not yielded rents since the beginning of the Famine.
By this time in 1850, the Davitt family had grown to include four children – Mary, the oldest child at nine, Michael, who was four, Anne, who was two, and Sabina, who was only two months old. Going through an eviction of their home was an event which had a powerful and long-lasting effect on Michael. Michael later wrote: “Failing to wipe off all arrears, we were one morning thrown out on the roadside and our little house and home pulled down before our eyes by the reigning institution: the ‘Crowbar Brigade’. I was then but four and a half years old yet I have a distinct remembrance (doubtless strengthened by the frequent narration of events by my parents in after years) of that morning’s scene: The remnant of our household furniture flung about the road, the roof of our house falling in and the thatch taking fire, my mother and father looking on with four young children”
The Davitts took the decision to emigrate, sharing the actions of over 200,000 others in that year who sought to escape the poverty and desolation of Ireland. They moved to the East Lancashire town of Haslingden, chosen by Martin Davitt as former Straide neighbours had spoken favourably of the employment opportunities there. Due to the goodwill and assistance of other Irish immigrants in Haslingden, the Davitts were initially able to gain employment and rent a house in Rock Hall, an area of the town which was home to several other Irish immigrants. Surrounded by many other Irish immigrants, the Davitts became a part of the Irish community in Haslingden, where the Irish language was commonly spoken, and elements of Irish cultural heritage were taught to the immigrant children by their parents and neighbours.
The industrial factories in Britain provided employment for whole families, and the cotton industry in Lancashire provided employment for young children as well as adults. Child labour was a common part of factory life during this period, and the eldest Davitt child, Mary, started work in a cotton mill in the area at the age of twelve. Factory legislation at this time allowed children between the age of nine and thirteen to work as ‘half-timers’, spending part of their day in school, but children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen worked a full day of ten and a half hours, with a shorter day on Saturdays. At nine years old, Michael lied about his age to say that he was thirteen, to take up a job as a full-time bobbin-tender at the Ewood Bridge cotton mill.
Work in the cotton mills for children was extremely unsafe and unhealthy, and they were often subjected to abuse at the hands of their superiors and employers, as well as dangerous working conditions. After hearing of the workplace death of a neighbour in the Ewood mill, Michael’s parents moved him to work in the nearby Stelfox’s Alliance and Victoria Mills. An incident in this mill would go on to change Michael’s life significantly. At the age of eleven, Michael suffered a terrible accident after being forced to work on a machine which he could not operate. As a result, his right arm was crushed between the cog wheels of the machine – an injury so bad it required amputation of his arm.
Children and adults left with disabilities by factory work were not offered any means of compensation or assistance during this period, and were generally dismissed from their roles and left to fend for themselves. Michael’s disability however would serve to offer him a positive change in his fortunes, unlike so many others at that time. The cotton mill proprietor and prominent Methodist John Dean offered Michael the opportunity to continue with his education at the Wesleyan school in Haslingden, paying for his tuition and setting Michael on a new path in life. Michael’s change in circumstances saved him from a lifetime of mill work, and offered him the opportunity to develop his education and training for the future. For the next four years, Michael received a high level of education at the school.
Michael also attended evening classes at the local Mechanic’s Institute, where had access to a wide range of books and newspapers, which helped him become an avid reader. His reading contributed towards his political education and the lectures he attended, where he heard speakers such as the Chartist leader Ernest Jones denounce landlordism in Ireland. After leaving school in 1861, Michael began work with Henry Cockcroft, the postmaster in Haslingden, where he initially worked as an errand boy, moving on to become the book-keeper and to work in the postal department and in the printing house run by the postmaster.
In 1865, at the age of nineteen, Davitt joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), more widely known as The Fenians. The Fenians were a secret revolutionary organisation who were committed to the use of force to establish an independent Irish republic. Michael quickly rose through the ranks of the organisation, and was elected as a ‘centre’ (a senior figure) of the IRB ‘circle’ in Rossendale. In February 1867, he led a group of IRB men on a daring but unsuccessful attempt to raid the weapons arsenal at Chester Castle. The plan, which aimed to steal the weapons to arm the IRB members for uprising, was cancelled when it emerged that the authorities had been informed and were lying in wait for them.
View the video below on the early life of Michael Davitt