~ Michael Collins The Early Years~
Michael Collins Boyhood, 18901906
'A great host with whom it is not fortunate to contend, the
battle-trooped host of the O'Coileain.'
OLD IRISH SAYING
Reference Page: Michael Davitt
Michael Davitt and the Land League
Between the Fenians and the Rising of 1916 there was continued agitation from the Land League. The League brings the name Michael Davitt immediately to mind. He had good reason to know the conditions of land tenure in Ireland. At the age of five he was, with his father, mother and two sisters thrown on the roadside. Their little home was razed to the ground, before their eyes. In time they crossed to Lancashire where his father became ill, and Michael, while still only a child, was sent to work in a mill.
One day when he was about twelve, his overseer told him to operate a machine he was too young and inexperienced to manage. His protests were in vain. His right arm was badly mangled after it became entangled in the machinery and it had to be amputated.
Although young Michael had little schooling, he was bright and industrious and though self-taught, developed into an able writer. He became a firearms agent for the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the guise of a commercial traveller. When a co-conspirator took fever and died, leaving a consignment of arms misplaced, the trail led back to Davitt and a Birmingham manufacturer, Mr Wilson.
The sentence for Davitt was fifteen years penal servitude, for Wilson seven years. Note the differences in sentences! If Wilson was guilty, then as a traitor to England his crime was greater than Davitt. If not, he should have been acquitted. Davitt asked to be allowed to serve both sentences. The request was not refused. When Davitt emerged from prison he rejoined the Fenians with the assertion that landlordism should go forever.
During the years 18671879 the tenant farmers once again felt the black withering visitation of famine. Fourteen attempts were made to amend the Land Laws between 1870 and 1876. They all failed and the Irish people got restive. A land agent was shot at in County Cork. The shot unfortunately hit the driver. Joe Bigger remarked that he disapproved of shooting at landlords because innocent people were sometimes shot by accident.
Legal methods were adopted in most cases. The League supplied the funds, usually from America, and often contributed by Irish immigrant servant girls, for the defence of the tenants. Very often the landlord lost in law more than he could gain in rent. The League also saw to it that after an eviction took place the land would remain tenantless and profitless.
A measure of Davitts power as a speaker can be gauged from an interesting meeting held at Straide, County Mayo, in 1880. The meeting was on the very site of the home from which he was cast on the roadside at the age of five. In the address Davitt said:
"Can a more eloquent denunciation of an accursed land code be found than what is witnessed here in this depopulated district? In the memory of many now listening to my words, that peaceful little stream which meanders by the outskirts of this multitude sang back the merry voices of happy children and wended its way through a once populous and prosperous village. Now, however, the merry sounds are gone, the busy hum of hamlet life is hushed in sad desolation. For the hand of the home-destroyers have been here and performed their hellish work, leaving Straide but a name to mark the place where happy homesteads once stood, and whence an inoffensive people were driven to the four corners of the earth by the ruthless decree of landlordism. How often in a strange land has my boyhoods ear drunk in the tale of outrage and wrong and infamy perpetrated here in the name of English laws, and in the interest of territorial greed; in listening to the accounts of the famine sorrow, of the deaths by starvation, of coffinless graves, of scenes
On highway side, where oft was seen
The wild dog and the vulture keen
Tug for the limbs and gnaw the face
Of some starved child of our Irish race.
It is no little consolation to know, however, that we are here today doing battle against a doomed monopoly, and that the power which has so long domineered Ireland and its people is brought to its knees at last, and on the point of being crushed for ever, and if I am standing today upon a platform erected over the ruins of my levelled home, I may yet have the satisfaction of trampling on the ruins of Irish landlordism."
(From 1877 Davitt earned his living as a writer. His best known book is 'Leaves From a Prison Diary (1884)', which proposed a labour party in Britain. In 1906, Michael Davitt died. He is buried in his native Straide, not far from the home from which, as a child, English landlordism had driven him. The man whose spirit could not be broken succeeded in breaking for ever the clutch of landlordism on Ireland.)
The Land League was becoming forceful. Parnell founded the American Land League and left Dillon behind to attend to details. Back in Ireland, Parnell stood for election and was one of sixty-four Nationalists elected. Britain, however, was taking measures to curb the nationalist fervour and prepared an indictment of most of the prominent members. The charge was that of conspiracy, under which any member could be found guilty if proved to be associated with the League.
Meanwhile, at Claremorris, James Morris, an American journalist, outlined what was afterwards to be known as boycotting. The first victim of the system was Captain Boycott. He was the agent of Lord Erne, who lived at Lough Mask House in County Mayo. When he dismissed his labourers, owing to a dispute over wages, no others took their place. Although the captain got angry there was no-one to serve his summons. The crops were ripening with no-one to reap them.
Help was soon at hand in the form of fifty northern Orangemen, escorted by two thousand soldiers. The labourers and their escorts had to walk fifteen miles from the train station at Claremorris, in the rain. They camped on the captains lawn. They ate his chickens, turkeys, geese, pigs, piglings, goslings, ducklings and almost everything else in his possession. It was estimated that it cost ten pounds for every pounds worth of crop reaped on his land. Boycott departed for England soon afterwards.
Parnells sister, Fanny sent a song from America:
Hold the rent and hold the crops, boys.
Pass the word from town to town,
Pull away the props, boys,
So youll pull coercion down.
Davitt was sent back to prison, but before he went he established the Ladies Land League. He relied on the women of Ireland to carry on, knowing all the men would be imprisoned. Miss Anna Parnell was president of the Ladies Land League and they did what Davitt expected of them and more. Soon all the leaders were in jail-Parnell, Kettle, Davitt, Brennan, Dillon and Sexton. There were over a thousand men in prison who were never faced with any charges. They were suspects and that was enough to keep them out of circulation. There was not even the usual mockery of a trial.
Even women and children were charged with the most ridiculous offences. A boy was sent to prison for winking at a policeman; a girl of twelve for conspiracy to obstruct the sheriffs officers; a man for winking in the marketplace at a pig. The Ladies Land League was becoming daily more active in keeping up agitation.
William E Forster was then Chief Secretary for Ireland and he was to prove to be as unfortunate as any other. While nominally a Liberal, he was as much a British imperialist as any of his Tory predecessors. A debate took place in 1880 regarding the conduct of the constabulary at evictions. Foster came forward as their champion. He decided that ball cartridges should not be used for firing amongst the people that henceforth they should use buckshot. A shotgun is, of course, much more dangerous when discharged in close contact with excited people. His name in Ireland has ever since been Buckshot Forster.
Forsters Buckshot Brigade was also provided with a new type of bayonet. A few examples will facilitate the explanation of how the orders to break the spirit of the Irish people were carried out. At Grawhill, in 1881 a crowd assembled, mainly women and children. The officer in charge gave the order to fire a volley of buckshot into the crowd and then charge with bayonets fixed. Numbers were wounded and the crowd rushed away in panic, the police still using their bayonets indiscriminately. Mary Dean, a widowed mother, they shot dead; a young girl, Ellen McDonagh, they stabbed to death. Nobody was ever brought to justice for the crime.
The Newcastle Chronicle stated, concerning the situation in Ireland: Nothing can surpass the withering sarcasm which Continental politicians of every class cast upon this new phase of nationality interest, as they call it, developed in Her Majestys Government. The men that have so often stood before Europe as the friends of every slave shivering in his chains, are now themselves putting in force as remorseless a despotism as is operating in Moscow.
In the West Riding of Galway alone Forster employed over 4,000 soldiers in a single district, to carry out evictions, paid for by the Irish people to eradicate themselves. This period, like that of the famine, is a period of few real statistics. No-one knows how many emigrated, or how many died, or how many of those who emigrated later died on their way to a foreign shore. We only know that there was a heavy toll in lives.
On 20 October 1881, the Land League was suppressed and Forster announced from his command post in Dublin Castle: Now we hereby warn all persons that the said association, styling itself the Irish Land League or whatsoever other names it may be called or known, is an unlawful and criminal association...
In Britain, Gladstone, conveniently forgetting a pamphlet he had written attacking the Vatican, called Vaticanism, turned to Rome for help. The Vatican as usual obliged and he secured a condemnation of the Land League in January 1882, although it had passed out of legal existence according to Forsters edict in October 1881.
Again, in 1888, Rome issued a Papal Rescript condemning the Plan of Campaign. Neither of these condemnations had any effect on the struggle.
In Mitcheltown in September 1887, a public meeting was held. English as well as Irish speakers were present. The peaceful people were jostled by police, and exasperated. The people attacked their assailants with sticks. The police retired to barracks and deliberately fired at the gathering. Three men were killed. Although a verdict of wilful murder was returned against the police at the coroners inquest, no action was taken.
There was an unprovoked attack in Ballina on a band of children mostly under twelve. They were parading to celebrate Parnells release from custody and were attacked with buckshot and bayonet. A twelve-year-old boy, Patrick Melody, was stabbed to death and many others were seriously wounded.
It was against this background that a secret organisation called the Irish Invincibles sprang into being. The Invincibles were recruited from the Land League when it became evident in 1881 that the League was about to be crushed by force. It would appear that Parnell supported a physical force movement from a report published in the New York Herald in January 1880: A true revolutionary movement in Ireland should, in my opinion, partake of both a constitutional and an illegal character. It should be both an open and a secret organisation, using the constitution for its own purposes, but taking advantage of its secret combination.
Patrick Joseph Tynan appears to have been responsible for organising the Dublin Invincibles. As well as being a leader of a band of Irish guerrilla soldiers, he was also a member of the Queens Westminsters. They were a very special London Volunteer Regiment commanded by the Duke of Westminster. When the Queen officially opened the new Law Courts in London, Tynan was a member of the Queens Westminsters. He had the distinction of forming part of Her Majestys guard of honour.
The chief aim of the Dublin Invincibles was to assassinate Forster but he proved elusive and several attempts failed. On Thursday, 4 May, Forster resigned. On Saturday, 6 May, the new Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish and T H Burke, the permanent Under Secretary, were assassinated in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Thomas Henry Burke was a Catholic and an Irishman, but was regarded as the evil adviser in Forsters administration. He was an employer of informers and an advocate of prison without trial, and every other draconian measure to keep Ireland secured permanently with the Union Jack.
Twelve months later, over twenty Invincibles were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder. Five were condemned to death and were hanged. Three received life sentences and others were given various prison sentences. Mrs Byrne, a direct descendant of Lord Moneypenny of Scotland, is credited with bringing the surgical knives used in the Phoenix Park, from England. She got away to America, with her husband Frank, before the trials started.
The informer, whose wife helped to entrap him by some information she communicated to police to help secure his release, was sent abroad. Patrick ODonnell, a fellow-passenger identified him on the high seas and shot him dead. They took ODonnell to England and hanged him.
The Phoenix Park assassinations received bad press, and they were publicly condemned as murder most foul. For the assassins to be remembered as heroes in Ireland, their timing was slightly askew. Had the assassinations been carried out after the murder of the widowed mother and the young girl in October 1881, or any time while Parnell and the other leaders were being held in prison without trial, the Invincibles would have been hailed as heroes, who risked all to liberate their country.
There was more support from Continental publications than from those at home. "La Marseillaise" commented:
Thus it is no longer at simple landed proprietors that the musket balls of Ireland are aimed. They strike down the queens delegates, in broad daylight. We pity the victims, but the immense pity we feel for the horrible situation of the Irish people, forbids us to show too much sympathy. Ireland, since the first day of the conquest, has been in a state of legitimate self defence. If at the cost of a series of outrages, she succeeds in casting off the terrible yoke which the sister island imposes on her, what friend of humanity would think of blaming her for it?
"La Bastille" wrote: By executing Cavendish and Burke the unhappy slaves of English land law publicly declare that pseudo-liberal measures cannot satisfy them...that they have a goal in view, with a firm resolution of reaching it namely, Irish independence.
"Le Mot dOrdre" said:
We hope the Irish will show they are worthy of liberty by not allowing themselves to be lured by a few paltry concessions. We exhort them to continue to struggle, without truce or mercy, to reconquer their independence. We have not to trouble ourselves with the means by which this transformation will be effected ... even if some excesses are to be feared and deemed necessary, we should not indulge in hypocritical lamentations on the fate of privileged victims of this defence of property based on confiscation and fraud.
In the 1800s a calculation was made that Ireland was twice as murderous as England. Yet the facts show that there were 20 murders per million in England and just 13 in Ireland. A crime in England was reported as a crime but in Ireland as an outrage. More than 50 per cent of these outrages were threatening letters to landlords.
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