The Father of the Land League and pioneer of social justice, Michael Davitt, was born in Straide, Co Mayo, on 25 March 1846 during An Gorta Mór. When Michael was six years old, his parents, Martin and Sabina Davitt, were evicted and their cottage was burnt down. Eventually, they ended up in Haslingden, near Manchester. Davitt went to work in a local factory at the age of 11 and operated a spinning machine where his right arm was entangled in a cogwheel and mangled so badly it had to be amputated. He did not receive any compensation.
When he recovered from his operation, a local benefactor, John Dean, helped to send him to a Wesleyan school, which was connected to the Methodist Church and where he received a proper education.
In 1865, Davitt joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) which had strong support among working-class Irish immigrants. He soon became part of the inner circle of the local group. Eventually Davitt became the organising secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising arms smuggling to Ireland using his new job as “hawker” (travelling salesman) as cover for this activity.
Davitt was involved in a failed raid on Chester Castle to obtain arms on 11 February 1867 in advance of the Fenian Rising in Ireland, but evaded the law. In the Haslingden area he helped to organise the defence of Catholic churches against Protestant attack in 1868. Having come to the attention of the police he was arrested in Paddington Station in London on 14 May 1870 while awaiting a delivery of arms.
On 11th of July both John Wilson and Michael Davitt were indicted for treason-felony, to wit, feloniously conspiring to depose the Queen from her imperial dignity, and to levy war against her. Wilson claimed that he did not know that the arms were going to Ireland or that he did anything wrong. Davitt made an impassioned plea on behalf of Wilson, offering to take any punishment given to him in addition to his own so that he did not suffer.
While the Chief Justice was impressed with Davitt’s plea, he could not accept that Wilson did not know the use to which the arms might be put and sentenced him to seven years. The plea had a mitigating circumstance for Wilson, but Michael Davitt was sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude. While guilty of the offence, he was unlucky to have been convicted on the basis of the evidence presented at trial.
Davitt was kept in solitary confinement and received very harsh treatment during the un-remitted portion of his term. In prison he concluded that ownership of the land by the people was the only solution to Ireland’s problems. He managed to get a covert contact to an Irish Parliamentary Party MP, John O’Connor Power, who began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners. He often read Davitt’s letters in the House of Commons, with his Party pressing for an amnesty for Irish nationalist prisoners. Partially due to public furore over his treatment, Davitt was released (along with other political prisoners) on 19 December 1877, when he had served seven and a half years, on a “ticket of leave”. He and the other prisoners were given a hero’s welcome on landing in Ireland.