The Michael Davitt Papers, held in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, are a rich source for historians of late nineteenth-century Ireland. Davitt, a Mayo-born man of humble origins, was one of the leading political figures of the day. He exerted a significant influence over popular opinion, as an author, journalist and public speaker in Ireland, Britain, and internationally. For many years, Dr Carla King has studied this rich collection, in preparation for her newly published study, Michael Davitt After the Land League. Here she reflects upon Davitt’s life, the provenance of the Davitt papers, and the invaluable insights which the collection offers to researchers.
For well over a decade the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library became almost my second home as I delved into Michael Davitt’s papers (TCD MS 9320-9861) in preparation for my study of his later life. The collection comprises some 361 files, including correspondence, diaries and notebooks, press-cutting books, material relating to legal proceedings, accounts, autobiographical writings, drafts of articles and speeches and over 500 photographs. It provides extraordinarily rich and detailed information and insights not only into Davitt’s life but into his networks of contacts, the political currents of the day, and much else. Davitt and his circle come alive in the papers, with their activities and preoccupations, arguments, jokes, complaints and comments.
Michael Davitt (1846-1906) was one of the leading Irish political figures of the day, and as an author, journalist and public speaker, exerted a significant influence on popular opinion in Ireland, Britain and internationally. His background was modest: the son of tenant farmers in Mayo evicted during the Famine, he grew up in Haslingden, in the industrial north of England. Imprisoned under harsh conditions for gun-running, he served seven and a half years of hard labour in various prisons. Following his release in December 1877, he was one of the architects of the New Departure (an informal rapprochement between the Irish parliamentary party and militant nationalism) and the organising force behind the formation of the Irish National Land League in 1879. The Land League mobilised tenant farmers in a non-violent movement to combat landlordism in the context of a downturn in the Irish economy. Between 1879 and 1882 it won important concessions from the government while also evoking a response in the arrest of hundreds of its leaders, including Charles Stewart Parnell. Following the demise of the movement, Davitt’s politics radicalised and he became closely involved in the emergent British labour movement. However, his commitment to Irish land issues continued and he participated in the Plan of Campaign and was one of the early leaders of the United Irish League. He remained for some years outside parliamentary politics but served as an Irish Party member in the 1890s. By profession he was a journalist and for a while in 1890-1 edited his own paper, the Labour World. In his later years he also travelled in Europe and to the United States, Australia and South Africa, making three trips to Russia. Many of these trips were carried out as a foreign correspondent for newspapers, including Randolph Hearst’s press empire.
Davitt’s papers were initially collected by his widow, Mary, and later loaned to Professor T.W. Moody to assist in the preparation of his biography, Davitt and Irish Revolution (Oxford 1981). In 1982 the Davitt family donated the papers to the Library of Trinity College Dublin. Among the Davitt papers are some of James Stephens’s papers which he purchased on the Fenian leader’s death in 1902. In addition, there is some correspondence of the journalist Richard Piggot, acquired by Davitt following the exposure of Pigott’s forgeries to the Special Commission on Parnellism and Crime and his flight to Madrid and suicide. A third cache of letters included in the Davitt papers relate to Matthew Evanson O’Brien (alias Sinclair, alias Roberts), an Irish-born agent for Scotland Yard.
Davitt’s papers provide a rich source for historians of the period – affording us invaluable insights on the Irish land movements: the Land League, Plan of Campaign and United Irish League; Irish politics and the workings of the Irish Parliamentary Party; the labour movements in Ireland, England and Scotland; developments among the Irish in America and Australia; details about the Boer War and Irish responses to it; and thoughts about reform movements of the day, such as, in particular, Davitt’s ongoing commitment to prison reform.
A summary description of the papers is available via MARLOC; a more detailed listing of the papers made in 1999 is available in the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library.
For more detail on the papers in the collection, you might like to consult my short article, ‘The Davitt papers’, in W.E. Vaughan (ed.), The Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, 1712-2012 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013), pp 246-8.
My book, Michael Davitt After the Land League was published in November 2016 by University College Dublin Press.
Dr Carla King