Davitt Down Under

Michael Davitt, who was born in 1846 and died in 1906, was a radical Irish nationalist, social reformer and champion of the Irish diaspora of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Davitt’s papers are held in the Manuscripts’ Department of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The photographs within the collection are in the process of being catalogued and digitised.

In 1895, Michael Davitt departed Dublin for a tour of Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii and the United States. 

Mining shacks in Tipperary Flat, Queensland, 1895

One of the aims of the tour was to re-connect with the Irish communities in Australia after Charles Stewart Parnell’s adulterous relationship with Kitty O’Shea became public knowledge and caused major damage to the Irish Parliamentary Party’s (IPP) reputation internationally.

Irish-Australians had been major financial contributors to Irish famine relief, the IPP and the Land League throughout the nineteenth century. Their support was essential for continuing the campaign towards Irish Home Rule in Westminster. Other reasons for the tour were personal; including Davitt’s need to make money for his family by lecturing in Australia and New Zealand.

MS 9477/4425 Telegraph from Mary to Michael Davitt, 1895

During Davitt’s journey to Australia, disaster struck his family in Ireland, when his six-year-old daughter Kathleen died suddenly from the flu. However, Davitt’s wife pressed him to continue his ‘mission’, in a telegram he received from Mary in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Following his wife’s advice, Davitt continued on his voyage to Australia. 

Following his tour of Australia and New Zealand, Davitt published Life and Progress in Australasia in 1897. His book focuses on the gold rush in Western Australia and particularly on the town of Coolgardie.

MS 9649/348 Crowd of men at a sale of mining lots in Coolgardie, 1895

 

Davitt describes Coolgardie as ‘full of the gold-seeking fever’, with miners from vastly different backgrounds. In his diary for Western Australia MS 9565 he lists these as ‘any number of men with University training, pressmen, politicians, barristers, lawyers…all here on same gold hunting purpose’. The independence of the miners from the Australian authorities is illustrated by his photographs of a fire on Bailey Street in Coolgardie, which he reports in his diary was caused by the burning of an effigy of the Mayor of the town. 

MS 9649/373 Group of Aboriginal Australians under a tree near Great Boulder, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, 1895

 

 

Davitt includes an interview with Catholic bishop Matthew Gibney in his book. Gibney discusses the mistreatment of Aborigines, the privatisation of Aboriginal land and hunting grounds in Western Australia. In Life and Progress Davitt declares that ‘the white man’s law justifies him in stealing the black man’s country, his wife, and daughters whenever he wants them; but to take a sheep from this moral professor of the ten commandments is to earn the penalty of a bullet!’

Davitt, as a radical politician and writer from a famine emigrant, working class background, was an important figure to the Irish diaspora in Australia. Davitt’s family were part of the million people who emigrated from Ireland to England, the United States and Australia to escape starvation after the failure of the potato crop during the Irish Great Famine. His importance to the Irish diaspora is evident throughout the Davitt photographic collection as large welcoming committees were organised to from MS 9649/32 below, where Davitt is welcomed at the train station in Maryborough, Victoria, Australia.

Reception Committee for Davitt during his lecture tour of Australia
in Maryborough, Victoria, 1895

The online catalogue has now been updated and can be viewed here.

Dáire Rooney