Riches of Clare: Letter from Michael Davitt

Clare Champion, Friday, November 29, 2002

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county's history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In the latest article examining the historical artifacts, Thomás MacConmára writes about a letter penned by Michael Davitt…

Michael Davitt (1846-1906) was founder of the Land League, which sought the reform of the agrarian system in post-famine Ireland. He appears to have written this letter in Dalkey, Co. Dublin in January 1903 to a Mr. Molony, despite having lost his arm in a factory accident in Lancashire, at the age of 11.

The Land League was responsible for the articulation of the already prevalent agrarian societies into a coherent political organisation, replacing the traditional weapon of violence with a new system of boycott and isolation and allowing the Irish to launch a successful campaign against the unjust system of Landlordism. The letter in question was a response to an invitation to attend a Land and Labour Association meeting.

The LLA was an offshoot of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which served as an umbrella group for many representative institutions, established to alleviate economic distress. Founded by D. P Sheehan MP, the association was particularly prominent in West Clare. The man, to whom Davitt had written, was at the time an established member of contemporary Nationalist society.

Richard T. (or Dick) Molony was in 1903 a member of the LLA and it was at his request that Michael Davitt attended the subsequent meeting. Dick Molony was born in Turnpike Road, Ennis on July 14th, 1865. From the age of twenty to his last day as a 91-year-old Fianna Fail activist he fought with every fibre of his being the injustices suffered by his native country. At the age of 20 he joined the Land League, which in those far off days was an organisation to be reckoned with. In 1885 as a member of Parnell's escort band he was present when C.S Parnell dug the first sod of the West Clare Railway or "Kate Mac" as it came to be known. Two years later in June of 1887 he was in East Clare to witness Michael Davitt steer the people of Bodyke around a corner of Irish history that became known as the "Bodyke Evictions". The following year at the age of 23 he found himself imprisoned in Clonmel gaol following his activities in connection with a proclaimed Ennis meeting later to become known as "the meeting in the burned store".

On the inception of Sinn Fein he became a member of the East Clare executive. During the 1917 elections he travelled through practically every town and village in support of the candidature of Eamon de Valera. As a member of Sinn Fein, he had the privilege of attending the first meeting of Dáil Eireann on 21st of March 1919. Upon the establishment of Fianna Fail in 1927 he threw his lot in with the party and remained a faithful and loyal supporter of "The Chief" right up until the time of his death in 1956.

The meeting of the Land and Labour association mentioned in the letter took place in Newmarket on February 8th, 1903. The topic discussed was the recent Land Conference which assessed the latest Land Act presented by the English Government.
The Wyndham Land Act of 1903 was the penultimate in a series of eight Acts introduced by both Liberal and Conservative governments commencing with the Disestablishment Act of 1869 and concluding with the Birrel Act of 1909. As a result of the Wyndham Act, which put forward £100 million for land purchase and encouraged landlords to sell whole estates by a bonus system of 12%, 200,000 Irish tenants bought their farms, as repayments were substantially less than the old rent. The negative aspect of the Wyndham Act, not unlike that of the Balfour Act, which preceded it, was that it was not compulsory. This indicated a conservative nature in line with the government that introduced it. Not until the Liberal, Birrel Act of 1909 was the selling of land compulsory for Landlords.

According to the Clare Champion of February 14th, 1903, the meeting was held in Newmarket and was presided over by a Rev Father Houlihan. During the meeting, Mr Davitt encouraged the scrutiny of every aspect of the British proposal. When speaking of the proposal, he said "This report affected every class in Ireland and it is the duty of every Irishman to examine it and criticise it, and if necessary condemn it".

Davitt, whose slogan since his Fenian days were "The land for the people" while agreeing to "a good deal of this report" reminded the British government that "the men who had broken the back of Irish Landlordism were not going to retire until the land for the people had been vindicated and won".

Unfortunately, for Michael Davitt, he would not live to see the full vindication of the Irish people. However, when he died in 1906, the movement he had kickstarted was propelling rapidly towards inevitable success.

Richard T Molony, was one of the unsung heroes of the nationalist movement through the subsequent decades, who influenced the country's transition from colonial oppression to near independence.

Click here to see Letter from Michael Davitt

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