Friday, 11 January 2019

Take root and flourish

Take root and flourish

The winter of 1846 had been cold and wet on the west coast of Ireland. All over the land there was an increasing sense of dread and foreboding as the great hunger dragged on. The actions of landlords would often be the deciding factor on who lived and who died in those bleak times. In County Mayo many of the destitute who had any energy left were put onto public work programmes which made already weakened people complete hard physical work for a pittance in pay. Men were paid 8-10 old pence per day and women 6 pence which in modern terms is roughly £5. Poor as it was this money was all that stood between those on the public works programmes and starvation. For some though even this wasn’t enough. One local newspaper of the time reported a sadly typical event in that era…

‘The deceased was employed at the public works and on Saturday went to the hill of Gurteens to meet the pay Clerk, where in company of other labourers, he remained until night but the Clerk did not appear. Others went off but he remained having got quite weak. He requested a girl who was passing to tell his wife to come meet him and upon the wife’s arrival at the place she found him dead. A verdict of ‘death by starvation’ was returned.’  (Tyrawly Herald 1847)

As An Gorta Mor gripped the land, County Mayo was to see a 29% drop in population. Over the period 1841-1851, the population fell from 388,887 to 274,499. Into this catastrophe was born a child to Martin and Catherine Davitt and they named him Michael. By the time Michael was 4 years old the family would face eviction from their home and be forced to choose between starvation and the harsh conditions and humiliation of the poor house. Upon arrival at the poor house Catherin Davitt was appalled to find parents were routinely separated from any male children over three. As a mother of five children she wanted to be with them all and she and her husband decided to try their luck in England where it was said work was to be found in the burgeoning cities of the industrial north. The family arrived in Liverpool with little more than the clothes they wore. Upon arrival they were told that there was work in Haslingden in Lancashire and the family set out to walk the 48 miles from Liverpool to the town.

They settled in among the sizable Irish community in the east Lancashire town and young Michael had some basic education before he, like many children of that era, joined the workforce at the age of nine. He was trained to operate a spinning machine in a cotton mill and worked long hours in the heat and noise of the factory floor. The work was tiring and dangerous and any lapse in concentration could be costly. In May 1857 young Michael was involved in an accident which saw his arm dragged into a cogwheel and mangled so badly that it had to be amputated. He was just 11 years old at the time and we can only imagine the trauma involved in this accident which was sadly not uncommon in an era where health and safety was a low priority for employers.

A local benefactor took pity on him and gave him a chance to extend his education and give the boy with one arm a better chance in life. He became a voracious reader and joined night school classes which saw him exposed to the ideas of Chartists and other political radicals. As a boy growing up in an Irish community in England, he would also have been exposed to the culture and history of his homeland. As a young man he organised groups of men to defend Catholic churches from attacks by more extreme Protestants in the area but he realised that workers of all faiths were being treated despicably and that such sectarianism was a consequence of old ‘divide and rule’ tactics.

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation with a strong support among much of the Irish community in England. The IRB was dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland using physical force if necessary. Being relatively well educated he rose through the ranks of the organisation and was soon organising Secretary for England and Scotland. He also played an active part in arms smuggling and even took part on raids designed to secure weapons for a rising in Ireland. It was this part of his activities which saw him imprisoned for 15 years in 1870. The IRB like most Irish radical organisations had their share of spies and informers and it was likely prison or worse would be the outcome of Michael’s involvement with them. He endured 7 gruelling years of hard labour, brutal treatment and solitary confinement in prison before his release and he and other Irish prisoners were returned to Ireland where they received a heroes’ welcome from many.

 Davitt’s experiences in prison had merely deepened his belief that he should fight for the rights and well-being of the common man. Like many Irishmen of his day he saw how ‘Landlordism’ had stripped Ireland of its wealth and impoverished much of the population. The principles of the Land League which he joined at the outset were to return ownership of land to the Tenant farmers and take away the fear of eviction which hung over them like the sword of Damocles. Landlords, often from the comfort of England, could make decisions which affected the lives of poor farmers on their Irish estates. That fundamental injustice was one of the things the Land League sought to change with its "Three Fs" (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) Davitt was also outspoken on the rights of persecuted Jews in Russia, the Boers of South Africa and the working classes of Britain and Ireland who for the most part lived and worked in poor conditions. He fought for the dispossessed Highlanders of Scotland during the so called 'Crofter wars' with as much tenacity as he fought for the poor tenant farmers in his own land and toured the Highlands organising and speaking at meetings.

Against this backdrop, it was ironic then that the Landlord of Celtic FC decided in 1892 to increase the annual rent on the first Celtic Park from £50 per year to £450. (Almost £55,000 at today’s prices) The fledgling club decided to have no truck with such exploitation and move. The move to the other side of Janefield cemetery was said by one wag to be akin to leaving the graveyard for ‘Paradise;’ a nickname which stuck to the new ground at the end of Kerrydale Street.  Given the first generation of Celts were almost all Irish and in sympathy with the ideals of the land league, it was unsurprising that Celtic invited Michael Davitt to the opening of the new Celtic Park where he helped lay a sod of turf from Donegal in the centre of the field. One newspaper of the day celebrated the occasion by printing this short poem…

"On alien soil like yourself I am here;
I'll take root and flourish, of that never fear;
And though I'll be crossed sore and oft by the foes,
You'll find me as hardy as Thistle or Rose.
If model is needed on your own pitch you'll have it."

Davitt was made a patron of Celtic and the club made a generous donation to the Land League to help with its work in Ireland and indeed in Scotland. Celtic presented him with a ‘Glasgow Medal’ and it is recorded that….

‘Mr Davitt's son, a child of five years, and wearing a badge of the club, and a white cap bearing the word " Celtic " in gold letters, was led to the centre of the field by his father and the president of the Club, Mr John Glass. Mr Davitt's young son faved the ball awaiting his attention. Standing in a determined attitude the little gentleman lifted his right foot and amid loud cheers administered to the ball a splendid running kick. This was the kick off and immediately afterwards the contending teams, the Celtic and Queen's Park entered upon the game.The play as might be expected from the two leading clubs in the country proved a fine display. Notwithstanding the splendid playing on both sides the match ended in a draw of one goal each'. 

It was fitting then that 103 years later in 1995 as the new Celtic Park rose above the east end skyline that Celtic kept faith with the past and had a sod of turf from Donegal brought over and transplanted into the Celtic Park pitch. Fifty Donegal Celtic fans travelled with the turf and were met by Fergus McCann at the stadium for the ceremony. Fellow Donegal man Pat Bonner took part too as a connection to the past was honoured. Michael Davitt would have approved.

Michal Davitt’s life would see him continue to fight for social justice and eventually face prison again for his agitation on behalf of the poor. He lectured all over the world from Russia to Palestine and was elected to Parliament in his time and never stopped fighting to right the wrongs he saw around him. He came to the conclusion that non-violent agitation was the best way to challenge injustice and for that reason he was to a degree unfairly air-brushed out of the post 1916 narrative of Irish history. When he died in Dublin in 1906 it was a mark of how far the former Fenian convict had come that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the highest British official in the land, attended his funeral.

Davitt would have been more proud though of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who filed past his coffin to pay their respects. It was for the advancement of ordinary folk that he struggled so long and hard. The baby born into a land racked by hunger and injustice, who lost an arm in an industrial accident when just eleven years of age, deserves to be remembered as a friend of the poor and a fighter for social justice. Celtic can be proud too that he was a patron of the club in its earliest years and that fact will remind the club that it too has a role to play in living up to its founding principles of social justice, charity and inclusiveness.

Michael Davitt 1846-1906
Celtic Patron
Friend of the poor


  1. God bless n may he rest in peace

  2. Excellent. Thank you for this.

    1. You're welcome Donald. Thank you for taking the time to read it HH

    2. Tweeted a pic of a plaque in Skye.

    3. It's good to share the fact that Davitt cared about the struggles of people all over the British Isles, those struggles are linked and only dumb sectarianism stops some from seeing this fact. Hard to believe even in these troubled times how many people lived (and died) just a couple of lifetimes ago.

    4. The Highlands and islands land struggle had many parallels and links as you say. Stronger reason for fraternal and sororial unity than any of the divisions caused by what you correctly term dumb sectarianism.
      I really appreciate and enjoy your blogging. Thanks again.

  3. Brilliant article, where I knew some of the history but learned so much more so many thanks. HH.

    1. Thanks Anton, worth remembering folk who tried to help the ordinary people in their struggles