Davitt still has much to teach us today – Enright

Speech by Fine Gael Education Spokeswoman Olwyn Enright TD to the Parnell Summer School, Monday 14th August at 11am

Firstly, may I thank the organisers for their kind invitation to participate in this discussion today, in such historic surroundings, on Davitt’s legacy for contemporary Ireland. If I can begin by commenting on the appropriateness of the Parnell Summer School’s sub-title this year: ‘Forgotten Hero: Michael Davitt and Irish Democracy’. I was discussing my participation in today’s symposium with a friend of my own generation who shares a keen interest in politics and history and we agreed that Michael Davitt’s role, while not overlooked, is not always given the attention it deserves.

This is not because he does not deserve to be celebrated in Irish history – he does – or because his role was insignificant – it was anything but. Perhaps it is because his time in Irish history was shared with that of Parnell, and his story, with all its supposed controversy, proved even then to have a greater appeal, bringing with it as it did the necessary ingredients of scandal to ensure a heightened place in our history.

My formal study of Irish history ended with my Leaving Certificate. I have to confess that my knowledge of Michael Davitt gleaned from that course was largely limited to the land question, the three F’s, and the New Departure. Preparing for today has opened my eyes to an entirely more complex man, whose work, views, opinions still have much to teach us today. Far from confining himself to the land question and the fight for Irish freedom, Davitt had views on multi denominational education, prison reform, emigration, and the role of women in political movements, to name just a few.

The Land League
It is probably appropriate to begin with what Davitt was most famous for, and what immediately comes to mind when we here his name. That is, of course, the Land League, in its various guises. There is no doubt but that Davitt played an enormous role in the Land League and together with Parnell was a key founder. As an aside, it is important to note that he always saw his ultimate goal as Irish self-Government. At the time, Ireland had suffered a series of poor summers, crop failures and shortages, an economic depression in neighbouring Britain, and greater international trading due to the transport revolution leading to lower prices. This was all set against a backdrop of a strong memory of, and fear of, returning to famine. It is interesting to note that of the original members of the Irish National Land League, of which there were seven, had close Fenian connections.

Despite their stated aims, particularly the ‘3 Fs’ – fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure – the group had only one farmer on its executive.

It was clear that the founders had both short and long-term aims. In the short-term, their concerns related to the protection of tenant farmers from landlords, and the lowering of rents. But, in the longer-term, their aim was the conversion of tenants into owner occupiers. Speaking in Claremorris in his native Mayo in July 1879, Davitt said that:

“The soil of Ireland should be returned to the people of Ireland.”

The Land League slogan summarised this as “The Land for the People”. It is arguably this struggle, which gained huge momentum – with Davitt suggesting in February 1881 that the League had 200,000 members in 1,000 branches – that has led to our own fixation with land and home ownership today. There has traditionally been a great reluctance, among landowners in particular, to part with land. There is no doubt that this has changed somewhat in recent years due to the decline in farm incomes. Additionally, today many people are seizing the opportunity of selling sites or developing land to take advantage of the booming property market. And many are also facing compulsory purchases (CPOs) for the road network. In May, the IAVI Agricultural and Rural Conference in Tullamore was told that over 130,000 hectares have been taken out of Irish agriculture since 1990, going in to houses, roads and other construction projects.

While we cannot all aspire to own farms or land, home ownership remains an aspiration of the vast majority of Irish people. We have a home ownership rate of 75%, one of the highest in Europe, compared to rates of 68% in Britain, 65% in Finland, 55% in Austria, 50% in France and 45% in the Netherlands. When you look at the figures there may be many explanations as to why it is so much higher in Ireland, but certainly the struggle in the 19th Century by Davitt and his colleagues created a deep-rooted longing for the security of outright ownership.

Some may argue that this is not necessarily the way to go, that we shouldn’t feel so compelled to try to purchase and that we should move towards rent like many of our European counterparts. However, ownership is still the desire of the majority of Irish people. Yet, in a sense, for many that aspiration is increasingly unattainable, as it was unattainable in the late 1800s. The average price of a house nationally is almost €300,000, while in Dublin it is €400,000. We may well be pricing ourselves back to a time of two Irelands, those who own a property and those who, no matter how much they desire it, may never have that chance.

House prices have risen by an average of 15% each year for the last nine years, nine times the rate of the increase of the Consumer Price Index. There are 100,000 individuals on social housing waiting lists. There are thousands and thousands of our young people making long commutes form home to work and work to home. The soil of Ireland, or even a very small plot of it, will remain beyond the reach of so many unless we address this situation.

For our part, Fine Gael has proposed:

• Frontloaded mortgage interest relief to the first seven years of the mortgage so people will have it when they need it most;
• The abolition of stamp duty on homes up to the value of €400,000 for first time buyers; and,
• The establishment of an SSIA type scheme where the State would pay €1 for every €3 saved over two years towards a deposit for a house.

As it happened, the land league struggle had the effect of benefiting the larger tenants more so than farm labourers, something which led Paul Bew to suggest that Davitt’s belief in land nationalisation may have come from his unhappiness with this result. While I in no way subscribe to the theory of land nationalisation, I have no doubt that Davitt would be deeply dissatisfied that not all the people of Ireland are able to afford a share of her soil.

Prison Reform
Personal experience will always offer a greater degree of understanding, but as politicians it is impossible for us to experience every need of our constituents personally. Instead, we often have to rely on those experiences shared with us by others, and hope that we have enough compassion and common sense to judge what should be done about what we learn.

Davitt had some very personal experience of hardship, emigration, suffering and incarceration, and no doubt these impacted on his public life and views. One aspect of this that is particularly relevant at the moment is something which Davitt championed, most likely following personal experience, and that is the question of prison reform.

Davitt spent a relatively long period of time in prison, from 1870 to 1878, for treason felony. He was incarcerated for a few days in 1879, spent a little over one year in prison in Dorset in 1881, and a further few months in 1883 along with Timothy Healy for sedition. These periods left him with a lasting concern for the welfare of prisoners, and the conditions in which they were held. One writer describes imprisonment as an ‘occupational hazard of militant Irish nationalism’.

Historians differ about whether Davitt sought to highlight the distinction between political and ordinary prisoners, but he did try to improve the conditions of all. He asked questions which are still as relevant today about what prisons were for and felt that they should be used to reform criminality rather than merely punish it. His views on the problems of penal servitude gained public recognition.

Today, we still grapple with these issues. Should prison be more than merely punishment? I certainly believe it should. Rehabilitation, education, employment, drug treatment programmes and counselling should be an integral part of prison life. This does not appear to be the case at present.

I accept that unsuitable and sometimes antiquated accommodation plays a significant role in creating an unstable atmosphere. But, with some of the most dangerous members of our society, merely taking away their freedom is not always enough to change their ways. Only through training, education and treatment can prisoners be shown that there is an alternative way for them to participate in civilised society.

Likewise, prisoners are entitled to live in safety and it is incumbent on us, as elected representatives, to ensure that this happens and that our prisons are not breeding grounds for more dangerous behaviour, or where dangerous behaviour is learned.

Perhaps one of Michael Davitt’s most admirable traits was his tolerance of, and respect for, people of all nationalities and religions. He travelled widely and brought his experiences from Ireland to other countries and vice versa. He could see that there can be a lot to learn from experiences in other places and that Ireland should not be insular. His devotion to the national struggle here led to sympathies with struggles in other European countries, and beyond.

I have no doubt that his own experiences as an emigrant to England as a young child shaped his thinking. I admire the way he was able to differentiate between the English people as a whole, against whom he bore no ill, and their Government whom he held to account.

I also believe that, were he in Ireland today, he would have a compassion for and understanding of the plight of immigrants to our shores, whether economic or otherwise, and that he would extend the hand of friendship to them, treating all with dignity and respect.

Multi-Denominational Education
One of the interesting things about being an MP in Davitt’s era was that they didn’t seem to be terribly concerned about what constituency that they stood for. Davitt was first defeated by John Redmond in a Waterford City by-election in December 1891. The following July he was elected MP for North Meath but the result was overturned on petition. In February 1893 he was elected MP for North East Cork, and in 1895 elected MP for South Mayo. Clearly constituency clinics weren’t as popular then as they are today! While Davitt participated in debate in the House of Commons, he spent a great deal of time travelling to other countries, and in 1895 he travelled to Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand for seven months. I can be fairly sure of the reaction if I, or any of my parliamentary colleagues, were to undertake such a trip today, regardless of the worthiness of the cause!

While there he examined many issues, and had praise for the contribution of the Catholic religious orders in the development of Australian education. I make this point because in Ireland he was later to engage in debate with the Irish clergy over the issue of religious denominated schools. This debate became particularly fierce with the introduction by the Conservative Government of the Education Bill in 1902. The leaders of the Irish party were under severe pressure to support the Bill which was to create a national system of education which would also safeguard the position of denominational schools. Davitt, who was always against clerical interference in politics, and who perhaps was still stung by the attitude of many clerics to the Land League, was angry at what he saw as a sectarian trend in the Irish party.

In January 1906, in response to a letter in the Freeman’s Journal by the Bishop of Limerick, Davitt gave a robust defence of his views in favour of State-aided secular education, with separate religious education by each denomination.

Davitt was not to see his views on education come to pass in his lifetime, nor even still a century on from his death. However, he would no doubt be pleased to see the growth in recent years of multi-denominational schools. Perhaps he would have remained critical of the church’s role in education, but he may have appreciated that they, despite the faults that were sadly there, played a crucial role in the development of Irish education.

This year, the Christian Brothers withdrew from direct involvement in the 138 CBS schools around the country as they no longer have sufficient numbers to remain involved. It may well be that, with the decline in vocations, Michael Davitt’s wish may come to pass. This, however, is something which we as a State must actually plan and make provision for.

The vast majority of our more than 4,000 schools are still under the patronage of either Catholic or Church of Ireland bishops. One priest or minister can now be the Chair of several Boards of Management. The Department of Education should now be in discussions as to what decisions will be made in the future, rather than the haphazard planning which is the case at present. For example, today we may be building an extension at a school which is overcrowded, whilst another school just up the road has empty classrooms. As a State, we need to be more practical and proactive about planning for the future in education, and the changes which are clearly going to take case.

Ladies Land League
While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with Michael Davitt on all his views, one of the things I admire him for most was his support for the Ladies Land League. This may well have come about for practical considerations, such as the need to continue to collect money to distribute to evicted tenants with the imprisonment of the Land League leaders. In any case, even if his support was not based on any deep rooted belief regarding the importance of female participation in public life, it was still an important step and created a very formidable force.

Parnell’s sister Fanny formed an American Ladies Land League, but it was at a meeting of the League executive in January 1881 (even before the foundation of the GAA) that Davitt proposed the foundation of a Ladies Land League. Davitt himself later recalled that he ‘was laughed at by all except Mr Egan and myself, and vehemently opposed by Messrs Parnell, Dillon and Brennan, who feared we would invite public ridicule in appearing to put women forward in positions of danger’. They did, however, sanction the formation of a provisional central committee, described by Davitt as ‘passive assent to what they dreaded would be a most dangerous experiment’.

The significance of the Ladies Land League cannot be downplayed today. It was the first political organisation run by and led by women in Ireland. The Ladies Land League had to face more than the criticisms of Parnell and his colleagues. Archbishop McCabe of Dublin, denouncing the organisation in a pastoral read in Dublin, said ‘The daughters of our Catholic people, be they matrons or virgins, are called forth, under the flimsy pretext of charity, to take their stand in the noisy arena of public life’. Not all bishops shared his view, and many people believed his denunciation came from his hostility to the Land League in general rather than just the Ladies Land League.

It is argued that Davitt too shared a prevailing belief in the importance of women’s role in the home, perhaps because of his own very frequent absences, but he still believed that they had a place in the land struggle arguing that the fight to save the homes of Ireland was their fight too. It must be remembered that many women were already involved in the Land League at a grassroots level, but the real question was whether they should assume leadership roles.

Davitt described Parnell’s views on this question. He said that Parnell denounced the Ladies Land League ‘as if he were a British Minister bringing in a coercion bill’. He felt that they had ‘taken the country out of his hands and should be suppressed’. Davitt claims to have defended them saying that they had kept the ball rolling while they were in prison but Parnell replied ‘I am out now and I don’t want them to keep the ball rolling anymore’.

No doubt their success in part led to the hostility felt towards them by many – they were also more radical and unafraid to contradict the views of the Land League when they diverged.

Davitt may have supported the Ladies Land League from practical necessity. I have no doubt if it was easier to elect a woman, political parties in Ireland too would be driven by practical necessity and there would be far more female politicians than there are at present. But I think that Davitt supported women’s participation in democracy more deeply than just from necessity and this is evidenced in 1905, when he signed a memorial urging members of the Irish Parliamentary Party to support the Women’s Suffrage Bill, then before the House of Commons.

There is much we can learn today from Michael Davitt. We may not always appreciate that some of our actions or thoughts stem from his legacy, indeed many people are largely unaware of just what his legacy is. It is easy too to pick and choose the pieces of history we wish to associate ourselves with, or disassociate ourselves from that which we wish to ignore.

His legacy is far more diverse that I at first appreciated and I welcome the fact that this week, in the year of the centenary of his death, we have the opportunity to explore it further. As you will have gleaned from my contribution, I am no expert on his life or on his legacy, but my contribution focused on the issues that jumped out at me as being particularly relevant today.

Author: Stephen

Cork born and bred, proud European and Irishman. Involved in many organisations and politics. Also writes for SpirtualityIreland.org and UCC Express.

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