Davitt – Land Warrior
Kevin Haddick Flynn looks back at the life and times of radical Michael Davitt as Ireland remembers the centenary of his death on May 31st.
As dawn was breaking on April 3rd, 1878, a crusty, seventy-two-year-old Irish landlord, William Sidney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim, was travelling on his horse and sidecar along a deserted roadway near his estate in County Donegal when he was ambushed by a number of armed men who pointed their weapons directly at him and brought him to a halt.
The first shot killed his driver, who had sought to shield him, and two more mortally wounded his clerk. Then Mickey Rua McElwee jumped upon the sidecar and threw the Earl to the ground. The others moved in, and clubbed him with their musket-butts, rendering his features scarcely recognizable. The assassins escaped by boat; they were never brought to trial, although their identity was an open secret. Even the Royal Irish Constabulary, it was believed, took the view that the world was a better place without the Earl of Leitrim. For years the Earl had rent-racked his tenants, lashed them with his horsewhip as he rode by, forced himself upon their daughters and shot their goats and pigs. His name had become a byword for severity and intransigence, and several attempts had been made on his life before.
The killing was the first sign that a new mood of violence was about to sweep through Ireland. Falling livestock prices, crop failures and atrocious weather, which had continued uninterrupted for two years, had left thousands of tenants facing starvation, eviction and bankruptcy. It was largely thanks to one man, Michael Davitt, and to the Land League that he organized to agitate for tenant rights, that this growing wave of protest escalated into the Land War.