Worldwide Influence and Internationalism

Davitt was involved in a variety of national and international causes and organisations. He was an enthusiastic participant in the establishment of the GAA, and was one of the first three patrons of the GAA on its formation in 1884 – the other two being Archbishop Croke of Cashel and Charles Parnell. Davitt was also a patron of Glasgow Celtic F.C., and was awarded the honour of laying the first sod of grass when the club’s first football ground was opened in the city.

Following the winding down of the Land League, Davitt became deeply involved in the Irish and British labour movements, and was an influential figure in the foundation of the British Labour Party. From 1880 onwards, Davitt earned his living as a freelance journalist, and contributed to papers in Ireland, Britain, Australia and America, and was a well-recognised writer and journalist by the 1890s. Davitt was extremely interested in international affairs, and this combined with his love of travel, led him to work as a foreign correspondent with American and Irish newspapers in the later part of his career. His background as a nationalist meant that he held sympathies with other contemporary national struggles for independence. His work helped establish him as a prolific international activist, and he was well known for his journalism in humanitarian and political crises, as well as involvement in international campaigns.

Davitt spent many years refusing to stand for parliament, arguing that he could serve the national cause as well from outside as inside the House of Commons. This was to change in later years, when Davitt recognised the weaknesses in Irish representation following the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party after the revelation of leader Parnell’s adulterous affair. In 1895, Davitt was elected as an MP for Mayo South, and took up his seat in Westminster. As an MP in Westminster, Davitt raised the case of the Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat – sen, questioning the government’s decision to exile and ban him from Hong Kong, and highlighting his support for him. Sun Yat – sen, known today as the “Father of the Nation” in the Republic of China, corresponded with Davitt and considered him an ally in the Chinese struggle for independence. Davitt was kept abreast of revolutionary developments by Sun and his London agent, Roland Mulkern, via coded shorthand in their correspondence. Davitt’s political influence on international revolutionary leaders was incredibly wide. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi has commented that Michael Davitt was an inspiration for his grandfather, who linked the origin of his own movement of peaceful resistance in India to influence by Michael Davitt and the actions of the Land League.

Studio Portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, 1910 or 1911. Courtesy of Burnaby Village Museum.

Davitt’s international political speaking tours afforded him many opportunities to meet influential social and political figures. His travels to the United States allowed him to grow influence in American political circles, and American President Theodore Roosevelt described Davitt as a personal friend. Roosevelt had declared support for Irish Home Rule, and Davitt used his relationship with Roosevelt to encourage him to speak publicly about his support for Irish self-government. He seemed to have an amiable relationship with Roosevelt – a letter from Roosevelt in 1904 thanks Davitt for the gift of “two blackthorns” (walking sticks), writing “You must never go through Washington without letting me know”.

American President Theodore Roosevelt at the 1904 Republican National Convention.

In October 1899, Davitt resigned his seat as a Westminster MP in protest at the British war effort in the outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer war in South Africa. Davitt declared his solidarity with the Boers, and in his resignation speech he made a statement designed to show the international disaffection with British rule: “When I go I shall tell my boys, ‘I have been some five years in this House, and the conclusion with which I leave it is that no cause, however just, will find support, no wrong, however pressing or apparent, will find redress here, unless backed up by force.” Following his resignation, he committed himself to the cause of the Boer resistance. In February 1900, Davitt worked as a war correspondent with the New York American Journal and the Irish Freeman’s Journal, when he travelled to Southern Africa to report on the Boer War; later writing his experiences in his book “The Boer Fight for Freedom”.

First edition of “The Boer Fight for Freedom”, Michael Davitt’s book about the Boer struggle for independence. From the collections of the Michael Davitt Museum.

His journalism work took him to a vast range of countries including Finland, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Canada, America, Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. On his travels, he always made sure to send a postcard home to his children, which recorded his exceptional coverage of countries across the world.

Postcard from Mombasa, Kenya, sent by Michael Davitt to his son. From the collections of the Michael Davitt Museum.

In May 1903, Davitt travelled as an investigative journalist to Kishinev, (now in modern-day Moldova), to investigate and report on the anti-Semitic pogrom (a violent riot aimed at the expulsion of an ethnic/religious group). Davitt’s reports on the massacre were viewed as one of the most objective testimonies of the time, and he identified those who had orchestrated the horrific murder of over fifty Jews and the serious injury of hundreds more. He published his findings in the book “Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia”. Writing on his return home, Davitt commented that what he had seen in Kishinev would “haunt me to my dying days”.

First edition of Michael Davitt’s book on the anti-Semitic persecution he investigated in Kishinev in 1903. From the collections of the Michael Davitt Museum.

Davitt travelled as an investigative journalist to Russia on behalf of the New York American in 1904 and 1905, where he interviewed and reported on industrial unrest. During this time, Davitt met the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy. On their first meeting, Tolstoy mistook Davitt for an Englishman, and was corrected by Michael, who stated “Oh no – I am Irish, not English in any sense”. The two spoke about Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, a book which highlighted the treatment and conditions of prisoners in Siberia. Tolstoy asked Davitt for an account of how political prisoners were treated in Britain, which Davitt readily provided. While he informed Tolstoy of the treatment of Irish nationalist prisoners in British prisons, he also took the opportunity to inform him about the ongoing Irish nationalist struggle, commenting “You have the ear of the reading world as possibly no living layman has today. Say a word for Ireland’s right to rule herself whenever you can.”

Postcard from Moscow, Russia, sent by Michael Davitt to his son. From the collections of the Michael Davitt Museum.

His dedication to the cause of Irish nationalism and social justice followed him throughout his life, and his investigative journalism allowed him to become an international social activist, highlighting injustice on a worldwide scale.

Watch the video below about the international influence of Michael Davitt