OF all the men possessed of no conspicuous mental ability, and with no advantages of birth to aid them, who gained great influence over their fellows during the last century, by sheer force of moral worth and nobility of character, it seems to me that Giuseppe Garibaldi and Michael Davitt stand in the front rank. The former has always been fully appreciated in this country: the latter has not as yet gained the position in public estimation which is his due. This, perhaps, is natural. The great Italian fought gloriously for the complete emancipation of his country from foreign rule, in such wise as to gain for himself the cordial admiration, not to say the affection, of all Englishmen of advanced views. Even the governing minority here, as they lost nothing by Garibaldi’s success and the creation of a United Italy, could afford to admire heroism and self-sacrifice in a cause which cost them cheap sympathy only.
But the great Irishman was also engaged throughout his life in one continuous endeavour to overthrow an equally pernicious dominance over Ireland. This was quite another matter. Carrying on his uphill and almost hopeless struggle against Great Britain, under conditions where open fighting on the field of battle was hopeless and even impossible, political and social conspiracy he thought at first was the only means of achieving his end. The Irish patriot, therefore, found himself not only opposed to the British rule in Ireland but in bitter antagonism to the interests of the landlords in England, who felt that the threat to landed property across the Irish Channel might soon jeopardise their private ownership of the soil in England, Wales, and Scotland. The antagonism to Davitt, consequently, was even more economic than political. Home Rule in Davitt’s mouth meant first and foremost the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland, prior to the political emancipation of Ireland. To our possessing classes, therefore, Davitt’s was the most sinister figure of the whole Irish movement. He was classed by them with the dynamiters whom he opposed and the assassins whose weapons he tried by his agitation to blunt. Having failed to take his life in gaol, which it can scarcely be doubted was the intention, regard being had to the treatment to which he was subjected, not content with again throwing him into prison, they persistently misrepresented this noble man and did their utmost to blacken his character. Davitt’s family, like many thousands of others, was forced to leave Ireland by the series of evictions of the peasantry which followed upon the frightful famine of 1847, in order that grazing land might replace tillage. Turned out of house and home, their cottage battered down before their eyes, Davitt’s father and mother with their children sought refuge at Haslingden in 1852. Davitt was then a boy of six and was soon drafted into the slavery of an English cotton-mill, the beggarly wage for his child-labour being needed to bring the remuneration of the whole family up to bare subsistence level. A few years later, when he remonstrated against being put to do work in the mill, for which he was wholly unfitted by his youth, inexperience, and lack of sufficient strength, he was knocked about by a brutal overseer and kicked into the machinery. He could not be released before his right arm was so mangled that it had to be amputated. So that the future hero of the Irish revolt entered upon life a cripple: a victim of landlordism in Ireland and of capitalism in England.
Naturally enough, with the remembrance of the wrongs of his race constantly brought before his youthful mind by his mother, and the antagonism to the Irish ever present around him in his neighbourhood, he drifted at the age of twenty-four into the Fenian movement. Some of his associates fell into a police trap and, though Davitt himself was not guilty of complicity in any serious plot, the cowardice and treachery of one of his companions caused him to be found guilty of the newly invented crime of treason-felony, by which political prisoners have been put on the same footing as men who have committed the foulest criminal offences.
It is horrible to read even now of the tortures to which this high-minded young Irishman, having only his left arm to work with, was subjected by the Liberal Government in Milbank and Portland. Many of the Fenian prisoners were deliberately driven mad in the former prison, and the wonder is that Davitt’s mind did not succumb to the frightful treatment to which he and the others were subjected. Permanent solitary confinement, with very bad and insufficient food; compelled with his one hand to do the same amount of oakum-picking as prisoners who were unmaimed and were used to the work; placed, alike waking and sleeping, in such a posture for a man of his height as to be subjected to one continual torture; with a Westminster clock breaking in every quarter of an hour with a bar of the Old Hundredth to strain his shattered nerves – all this was indeed a terrible experience for an English political prisoner within a stone’s throw of the Mother of Parliaments.
At Dartmoor the prison conditions were almost as bad, and the food was even worse. It is not too much to say that Davitt’s fellow-prisoner M‘Carthy was actually tortured to death in this prison. The work to which Davitt was set, also, in that place of confinement for atrocious criminals, was not only distressing but actually revolting: one of his tasks being to pound up decaying bones for manure in a stifling atmosphere during the height of summer. Throughout, no allowance whatever was made for him on account of his being a cripple. A plain unvarnished account of the daily life of Davitt in Dartmoor is, in fact, enough to make any Irishman, or any Englishman for that matter, register a vow of undying hatred and revenge against those who were guilty of, or those who condone, such infamy.
Yet the remarkable part of the matter is that Michael Davitt himself bore his inhuman gaolers, and the politicians who gave them their orders, no personal ill-will. His was the most forgiving nature I ever encountered in the whole course of my life. Talking with him about his sufferings at this time and afterwards in the most familiar way, at periods when his health was manifestly weakened from the trials he had undergone, I never heard Davitt denounce the individuals who had maltreated him. If I tried to stir up in him some of the resentment I felt myself against these ruffians above and below, who had so misused him, he always had a word of excuse even for the most brutal of his gaolers. And this was no pose with him at all. In the very widest sense he lived in charity with all men, even with those who had most despitefully used him and persecuted him. As I used to tell him, I could never under any circumstances have risen to this height of moral grandeur. No length of time would have obliterated from my mind the remembrance of these unforgettable injuries, and I should have considered I had misspent my life if I had gone to my grave without getting even with some at least of the worst of my torturers. But with Davitt it was not so. Nay, he really did return good for evil to those who had maltreated him, and when he himself gained influence, actually helped more than one of these miscreants to better positions in life. This last piece of ethical magnanimity made me downright furious, and I denounced him with all the vigour at my command for what seemed to me a complete mania for rewarding the unworthy. But Davitt only laughed and charged me with being more bitter in his cause than he was himself, which he averred I had no right to be. I am not so sure about that, with a man of his almost unreasoning charity towards the worst of his enemies.
When Sir William Harcourt seized this noble Irishman and put him back in gaol, on the pretext that he had broken the terms of his ticket-of-leave, no one felt more furious than I did. It was as silly as it was cowardly on the part of the English Home Secretary to imprison Davitt at this time. Possibly this may have occurred to him when, if he went out to dinner, he thought it indispensable to have four private detectives in the house and four more out on the pavement below the windows, in order to protect his precious life against the dynamiters who had taken, or who Sir William thought had taken, the place of Davitt’s formidable but pacific propaganda. This treatment of Davitt again, with the arrest of Parnell and the incarceration at the same time of large numbers of the most patriotic Irishmen, has always seemed to me conclusive evidence of England’s utter incapacity to deal with the sister island.
It was after Davitt’s release from this imprisonment that I got to know him very well, and we became intimate friends. His was a striking figure. His face was that of a humanised and benignant raven. Dark gleaming eyes, a prominent nose, black hair and beard, he might well appear, with his tall athletic frame and vehement speech and gestures, a formidable personage to his opponents. The empty sleeve where his right arm should have been gave a touch of pathos to the picture, while his career might well have excused him, as already said, for showing far more bitterness than he ever displayed. As a member of the Irish Land League myself, I had better opportunities than most Englishmen of judging of the splendid, ungrudging and self-sacrificing services Davitt rendered to his country. Though during the whole of the early period of our friendship, and even to nearly the close of his life, Davitt was always struggling, against poverty and was very badly paid for the journalistic and lecturing work which he did, he rarely or never complained of his lot. It is perhaps fair to say that Davitt was neither a great writer nor a great speaker. What he lacked in both departments I scarcely know; but somehow he never seemed as interesting in either as he was in himself as a personality or in his private conversation. In these respects he left little to desire.
I felt this lack of oratorical faculty rather keenly on one occasion. My old friend Gowen Evans had asked me to dine at the Reform Club to meet some well-known men whom I was particularly anxious to chat with, including two or three I had known intimately in Australia. Unfortunately, Davitt was to speak on that same night about Land Nationalisation in St. James’s Hall, and I had promised to support him on the platform, an engagement which I felt I could not break in loyalty to Davitt. So I withstood temptation and refused to be beguiled with the flesh-pots of the Reform Club. But in those days I had, horrible as it may seem, the reputation of being able to order dinner with a certain amount of gustatory acumen and even originality. As, therefore, I would not go to the feast to which I was bidden, Evans insisted that I should go down to the Club in his company and order it.
The chef was, I learned, a Frenchman, and I requested that I should have the honour of being presented to him, a function which Evans discharged in due form. My conference with His Eminence of the white beretta and white apron was lengthy and important. I treated him with the deference due to his exalted position: he was good enough to recognise that I had a fair smattering, as a mere Englishman, of the art in which he excelled. We parted with mutual respect – he confident of success and gratified at my appreciation of his capacity to carry out my humble suggestions, I rejoiced at having been of service to my friend, but a trifle saddened at not being able myself to test the results of our joint ingenuity and to enjoy the interesting conversation that would follow.
I thought of this as I sat on the platform and listened to Davitt’s discourse on the single-tax nostrum which he always designated Land Nationalisation. Production was entirely overlooked. The whole problem was regarded from the fiscal side, and a great calculation was made as to what could be done with the millions paid as rent, if they were applied to benefit the people instead of being appropriated by a class. That confiscation of rent was not nationalisation of the land, no matter how the money might be disposed of, and that competition under capitalism would continue, even if this confiscation were achieved, were points that appeared to Davitt of small importance, if he thought of them at all. I was, I confess, a little bored with it all, as I had previously been with Henry George’s exposition of the same views. But Davitt was so thoroughly in earnest and so convinced that he had got hold of the real remedy for all our social ills that I congratulated him heartily on the platform success which he undoubtedly achieved, and went off into the other camp. There I was received with a burst of applause as, if not the begetter, at any rate the orderer of the feast, which was declared to have been a huge success. How I could prefer the dry oratory of Piccadilly to the pleasing menu of Pall Mall puzzled the party.
That Reform Club itself, on the other hand, has always puzzled me. Though the gathering that evening was in every way agreeable, and host and guests were wide-minded and capable people, there was no disguising the fact that on all social questions they were out-and-out reactionaries and regarded my Socialist views as evidence of sheer lunacy, inexplicable in a man who could put together a well-composed menu of succulent dishes with their attendant wines. It so chanced also that the day Sir William Harcourt was beaten for Oxford by Mr. Agg-Gardner, I was dining in the Strangers’ Room at the Reform Club, being one of quite a large party, of which not a few of the guests were members of the Club. The result, so discouraging to Liberals, was received with almost universal jubilation round the table, and when a band, doubtless subsidised from the adjacent Carlton Club, came by, playing the Rogue’s March, the guests cheered and drank Agg-Gardner’s health. I have always been of opinion that the Reform Club, except in matters of Free Trade, which have no real significance for the working class, is more reactionary than the Carlton. The atmosphere of the place is essentially that of a Whiggery, and its influence has been injurious as long as I can remember. That Davitt was a man worthy of the highest regard, who would rank in the future as one of the greatest men of the time, by sheer force of character and self-sacrifice, and that to honour him was to honour oneself, were conceptions quite outside the range of the much cleverer fellows than Davitt whom Gowen Evans had gathered together that night.
The Irish Land League has now lost its interest. Some of the objects it was founded to achieve have been attained, and for a quarter of a century mere politicians of a very inferior type have lived comfortably in the House of Commons on the memory of the work done by Davitt and Parnell – work which it is very doubtful whether these new leaders have ever really desired to carry to full fruition. But the Land League, as Davitt conceived it and organised it, was a marvellous feat none the less. For Davitt had to fight, almost single-handed, not only against the landlords but against the Catholic priesthood who, while posing as patriots, were little better than what Davitt at times called them, “the English garrison in Ireland.” How Michael Davitt, himself a man of strong religious feeling, could have mustered up courage and strength to oppose successfully and overmaster, for the time being, in Ireland a greater and far older organisation than his own is one of the marvels of his career. It would have been impossible had he not been able by sheer power of enthusiasm and moral conviction to inspire the millions of Irish people in America and in Great Britain itself with some of his own invincible optimism and unshakable persistence – had he not also found a kindred spirit in Patrick Ford of the Irish World.
The fatal memories of 1847 with all its horrors were reawakened, and a systematic campaign against English rule in Ireland brought in money support, which was essential to even partial success. Thousands upon thousands of pounds were collected, and branches were formed in places where no political or social movement had existed before. Davitt never spared himself in any way, and risked his health by overwork and his life by his opposition to certain extremists, in a manner which amazed all who knew what he was doing. And all the time he remained as he had begun, a very poor man. Even when he had scraped £4,000 together by lecturing on his own account in Australia, he turned every farthing of it over to the National League, which had run short of funds and needed the money, thus putting himself again in the precarious position of being dependent on his pen for subsistence. Then he started a Labour paper, the Labour World, in London, which could not by any possibility have succeeded in a pecuniary sense, if Davitt had possessed the managerial capacity of a Villemessant in addition to the vigour and originality of a Cobbett. But he lived and worked and made friends and enemies, and had the satisfaction of helping on that sort of half-hearted and less than half-minded movement towards emancipation for which alone the people of this island then seemed ready.
But perhaps the most interesting episode, even in Davitt’s stirring career, was his tremendous effort against the Times, arising out of the publication of the Pigott forgeries and the Commission which followed. I had from Davitt himself an elaborate and detailed account of the whole matter on a very long railway journey we took together. For my part I could never understand why either Parnell or Davitt should have been so desperately anxious to disassociate themselves from any connection with the dynamite section of the Irish revolt. It is natural and inevitable in any country, or among any class, where the desire for emancipation from foreign or domestic tyranny is strongly manifested, and the dominant minority crushes down free speech and free writing, that an extreme party should rise up, determined to try once more, under such circumstances, the effect of outrage and assassination; as this sort of warfare is called by those against whose despotism it is directed.
If Parnell did not know what was going on in this direction, then he ought to have done so; and if he did not to some extent sympathise with the patriotic if misguided desperadoes who were risking their lives by the propaganda of deed in the cause which he was more safely and pacifically conducting in politics, then he was more or less than man.
Davitt’s position was different. He had been a Fenian in his youth: he had believed that Ireland might be freed by secret conspiracy, culminating in organised violence. He founded the Land League, because he became convinced that this was the more excellent way, and that dynamite attacks, however successful for the time being, would not bring about the great change at which he aimed, and must in any event turn against Irish emancipators the feelings of the English people. To him, therefore, even more than to Parnell, the issue of the Commission was important.
It is my opinion that had the Times conducted its case with anything approaching to the ability and astuteness the circumstances called for, that journal would have won, and that in that case the need for the Pigott Letters, forged or unforged, would never have existed. Not that Parnell or Davitt actually encouraged dynamite explosions or Phoenix Park assassinations; but it would have been so easy with the evidence at hand to prove that certain persons connected with the Land League were privy to the more dangerous conspiracy, that public opinion and the Commission itself would have refused to believe in Parnell’s innocence. As it was, the Pigott Letters and the extraordinary doings in America and here in England turned everybody who was not a mere bigot in favour of Parnell.
Extraordinary doings in America, I say extraordinary indeed. Did you ever see the old Palais Royal farce of Tricoche et Cacolet forty years ago? If not, and you get a chance of seeing it well played, do so. The story Davitt told me of the intrigues and counter-intrigues of the Times agents and the Land Leaguers rivals the adventures of those two mirth-provoking detectives. The Times people carefully bribed a most desperate fellow who was ready to disclose everything. A horrible tale this worthy had to tell, which was duly cabled over to the Times solicitors. Suspicion was somehow awakened, and the valuable witness was found to have come with a cock-and-bull story straight out of the enemy’s camp.
Then some capable person was put on to the job, who used the wires freely with an elaborate cypher. This would never do. The wires were tapped, the cypher discovered by ingenuity or bribery, and again the whole thing was terribly mixed up for the accusers. Sympathy on “the other side” was all in favour of Davitt, Patrick Ford and their friends, and all against the great English journal. So in the end the Times people found out just what they were intended to find out and no more. I have never been able to understand why Mr. Walter, who had so much at stake in the matter, entrusted the management of this important case to a highly respectable solicitor, with no experience whatever of this desperately difficult sort of business; nor why even this solicitor, incompetent as he might be, refrained from subpœnaing certain persons, English as well as Irish, who would pretty certainly have left the country rather than give evidence. I presume overweening confidence in Pigott wrecked their judgment in every way. Davitt himself was of that opinion, though he thought Parnell would have won in any event.
As a member of the Irish Land League and of the Central Executive of the Land League of Great Britain, I of course took a deep interest in all this. I did not care much for Parnell’s purely political action, nor did I believe it could be successful, as I said in my letter of resignation to the Irish World some time before. But a Home Ruler and a Land Nationaliser I was all the time. The following incident, however, was very strange, and neither Davitt nor any one else ever explained it to me. On the one hand, it seemed impossible that, however contemptuous and distrustful I may have felt towards some of the self-seeking political intriguers of the Irish party, it could be thought I should injure a cause for which I had spent a good deal of money and had run considerable risk; and, on the other hand, it appeared unlikely that the final decision on such an important matter should have been entrusted to me by any Irish section.
At any rate this is what occurred. I was sitting in the SDF offices at Bridge Street, Blackfriars, where our headquarters then were, several members of the body who had been with me having just left, when a man whom I had never seen before came straight into the inner room, closing the door behind him. I was not unaccustomed to this sort of thing, so I showed no surprise, but asked my visitor, who I thought had watched the premises so as to be sure of finding me alone, what he wanted. “You are Mr. Hyndman?” I said I was. “My name is ——,” and he mentioned a name well known in the extreme Irish section, but which I do not care to give even now, “and I have come to take your advice.” “On what matter?” “On a very important matter indeed.” “But who sent you to me on such an errand? I don’t think I ever saw you before.” “Those who sent me know what they are about.” “But will you take my advice if I give it?” “That’s what I am here for. When you know just how I am fixed” – it was the only Americanism he used – “and tell me what I ought to do, I shall do it.” “Very well; let me hear your story.”
He sat down. “I am in the pay of the Times” “That is a good beginning,” I said, smiling. “Yes,” he answered quite gravely, “I am in the pay of the Times, and I have been getting twenty pounds a week from them for the last two months. I came to London two days ago, and now I have run away.” “Well?” “You know who I am now I have told you my name.” I said I did. “And you can see I should be an uncommonly awkward witness against Parnell.” I replied that quite possibly he might be. “More than that, you know I should be. What I want to ask you is, whether I shall stay and go into the box, or whether, now I have slipped them, I shall go off in the Atlantic Transport boat which leaves for New York tomorrow morning? We know you don’t care much for Parnell’s tactics in these days.”
Whatever might have been his object, the man was undoubtedly in earnest, and I knew enough of what had been going on to believe that he had information at his command which might seriously affect the issue being tried. I had no doubt at all as to what my advice would be; but I reflected for a moment as to how I should give it, especially as I thought then, and think now, that my strange visitor was acting in perfect good faith. “Supposing you were to give the evidence you are capable of giving, and it had all the effect you feel confident it would have, who do you think would benefit by it?” “The Times and the Unionists, of course. There can be no doubt about that.” “But much as you may question the soundness of Parnell’s whole policy, that must be in the main a victory for the landlord party and the enemies of Ireland.” “Yes, though I think Parnell is our enemy too.” “But not in a position to hurt you so much.” “Then you advise me to go to America tomorrow morning?” “Certainly I do.” “In that case I shall go.”
I wished him good-bye, and I have never seen or heard of him from that day to this, though I have good reason to believe he sailed in the vessel he spoke of, and duly landed in New York. Furthermore, from inquiries I made I came to the conclusion that he had accepted pay from the Times, and that he had been allowed to get away shortly after reaching London. Altogether it was a very funny business. I have had many stranger and far more dangerous, for in this there was no risk, interviews than this, but none that appeared to me more unnecessary on the part of the individual who came to see me, or the people who suggested to him to come. Possibly it was all done to test my good faith.
When Davitt was returned to the House of Commons I used to see a good deal of him. He detested the atmosphere of the House, and disliked the detached, comfortable, man-of-the-world methods of the Irish members, and their cynical views of life. In fact he never “caught the tone of the House,” as some of our Labour men pride themselves on having done. With his honest, clear-sighted eyes he saw clean through the trickeries and sham-fightings of the political parties, including that to which he nominally belonged. But he thought at first too well of the men, as men, and believed that, like himself, they would free themselves from the trammels of Parliamentary tradition, if they could, and come out boldly on the side of the people. When he found that, from whatever cause, they would do nothing of the sort, and that he virtually stood alone in his anxiety to be up and doing, regardless of immediate consequences, he at once decided to clear out of the House of Commons altogether. I did my very utmost to dissuade him from taking this course.
I urged that everything must have a beginning; that even one honest, capable representative in the House, unfettered by party ties and utterly indifferent to society, was better than none; that the opportunity when he could make himself felt and be certain of vigorous backing from without was sure to come; and that his mere presence there was a restraint upon evil-doers and a perpetual protest against intrigue. It was all to no purpose. Resign his seat he would. The best I could do was to obtain from him a pledge that if I myself ever got into the House of Commons he would at once try again for an Irish seat, and if successful we would fight the battle together. That was the arrangement between us to his dying day.
But he was very catholic in his sympathies, I must say. He never would believe what I told him about John Burns, for example – that he was merely a self-seeker, whose one object it was to get well-paid office on one side or the other, and that, moreover, he had no high faculties at all. So, after having backed me most vigorously at Burnley, he went over post-haste to Battersea to support the present President of the Local Government Board. That Davitt with all his fervour and good-fellowship failed to secure me the Irish vote at Burnley was only to be expected. The priests and Mr. T.P. O’Connor were too much for him. Neither ecclesiastics nor “politicians” can endure independence of thought or of action. Only in stirring times can a man of Davitt’s mould overmaster such people.
Davitt married a Californian lady of some means and larger expectations, and though his wife was a devoted, not to say a bigoted, Catholic, he appears to have lived a happy domestic life with her at Land League Cottage, Ballybrack, and he certainly thought and spoke a good deal of her and his children. But he was in nowise relieved from the necessity for work. I was going on an important matter of business by way of Paris to Buda-Pest, and on leaving Paris, some friends came to the station to see me off. I got up on to the train to secure my berth in the sleeping-car which I had engaged, and I saw on the seat opposite to mine a small portmanteau with the name “M. Davitt “ upon it in large black letters. There is and can be only one M. Davitt in Europe, thought I, and I told my French friends that in a few minutes they would see the famous Irish agitator. Sure enough, a moment or two before the train started Davitt made his appearance, and my friends and our fellow-passengers were astonished to see two elderly and apparently sane travellers suddenly set to work to dance a fandango of jubilation in the corridor of the sleeping-car. It was indeed a joyful meeting.
Davitt was on his way to Constantinople and Odessa in order to report on the recent “pogroms” of the Jews at Kischeneff; so we had a full forty hours of journey together, which gave me a good chance of a private talk. The first words he said, after we had settled ourselves into our seats on leaving the station, were: “We might swear all the oaths we liked, Hyndman, but there is not a police bureau in Europe would believe that this is an accidental meeting.” Purely accidental meeting it was, however, and one very delightful to me. Davitt spoke more freely of his career and of his personal feelings and domestic joys and troubles than he had ever spoken to me of them before, told me also, as I have already said, much about that bitter but amusing struggle against the Times in America. He was in very good spirits, but assured me it was quite a mistake to imagine, as some took it for granted, that he had married an heiress, and was now well off. “It is all we can do to keep a comfortable roof over our heads, and give our children a decent education. That is why I am off on this trip”; which itself, so far as I could learn, was none too well paid, considering the arduous and distressing character of the work to be done.
And so we talked and journeyed on, hour after hour, looking back at the past and making hopeful forecasts for the future as we traversed the lovely country through which the railway passes from Munich on to Vienna. Davitt was never tired of pointing out to me the picturesque, prosperous-looking villages along the route, instancing them as evidence of what a rightful system of land-owning might result in, and how happy and well an independent peasantry might be. He would not listen to me when I urged that Austria, to say nothing of Bavaria, had also her serious troubles with the land, and that the condition of the agriculturists was not to be gauged by the charming appearance of their villages perched on the hills, or straggling along the roadside in the beautiful country. Davitt had still all the strong feeling of his ancestry in favour of actual ownership of small plots of land, and took it for granted that this system must everywhere be advantageous.
Now, too, I found out that Davitt looked farther back in the history of his own family than to his immediate forbears, the peasants and cottiers and rent-paying smallholders who had been so cruelly used and brought to so sad an end. There was the old sept loyalty to his tribe and gens still lingering in him, and he spoke of the Davitts of old times who had been chiefs and princes in the South, of the glories of educated Ireland, what time the Emerald Isle sent forth her Christian missionaries all over Europe in brotherly religious rivalry with the monks of lona. The deep melancholy of Ireland’s sad past and the deeper depression of her sad present found echo and expression in Davitt’s eyes and voice.
He looked for her early resurrection and for the simultaneous awakening of England to the great destinies lying ahead of her. With all his Celtic gloom at times, Davitt was really much more optimistic than I. He would never accept Socialism as possible of realisation, never perhaps understood what it meant. So he had a Utopia of his own for Ireland and other countries, which he could place quite close to him and work out comfortably in detail. Whereas I, knowing right well that by far the greatest Social Revolution of all the ages could not be nicely arranged between luncheon and dinner, so to say, was accused of being optimistic because I deliberately shut my eyes to obstacles, in order that others should not feel discouraged. And so we discoursed of many things and many men from Munich unto Vienna, and for the last four crowded-up hours from Vienna even unto Buda-Pest, where I myself left to plunge into the muddy water of capitalism; and he went on to inquire why Jews should still undergo medieval tortures in the twentieth century in Russia.
By the way, it was on this journey that Davitt told me that Colonel Villebois de Mareuil had accepted his views at last, as to the desirability of recruiting a “Legion of the Lost” under the French flag and bringing them out to help the Boers. I know it is commonly stated that Davitt and de Mareuil never came to terms about this highly adventurous and, indeed, desperate scheme, which, if successful, could scarcely have failed to bring a European Power into the fray. But Davitt gave me distinctly to understand that the Colonel just before his death had given in his adhesion to the plan proposed. Davitt, of course, was an open enemy of England in this infamous war, and, owing us no allegiance whatever, was perfectly justified in siding with the Boers against our army. Under the leadership of a man like de Mareuil a powerful force, such as it was contemplated to ship and land, might have turned the scale against the invaders; and if it had been attacked at sea or not permitted to come ashore, complications would almost certainly have followed. This was the calculation, and Davitt at least believed it would have been verified.
On his return from Kischeneff, Davitt, while denouncing the horrors of the massacres, had been convinced, it seemed to me, by his talks with Trepoff and others that the Jews played so ugly a part in Russian rural life that it was easy to rouse unappeasable hatred against the whole of the race by reason of the economic action of the money-lending few; that in fact the feeling towards the Jews in Russia on the part of the peasantry was not very different from that of the ryots of India in many districts towards the bunias, shroffs, or marwarries, men of the same race as the ryots themselves, who play the like usurious part.
Undoubtedly, Davitt in private, while not excusing the Russian authorities, felt that Russia would be much better off if she had no Jews at all within her boundaries. And as he spoke thus I could not but recall a graphic story told at our table by Dr. Rudolph Meyer of a ragged, half-starved Jew arriving in a Russian village, up to that date a fairly well-to-do community as such villages go. Within a few years this Jew, to use Marx’s phrase, had eaten into the pores of this simple society. Everything had become his, and the peasants themselves, with their families, were little better than his slaves. It was the old, old story of debtor and creditor, which well-nigh wrecked some of the greatest societies of ancient times. Perhaps the Irish feeling against the gombeen man made Davitt less bitter than he would otherwise have been against the slaughterers of Jews.
A few years later came what was to me the saddest part of Davitt’s life: its end just as he was in a position to feel at ease in money matters, and was making ready to enjoy his last few years by travelling just when and where and how it suited him. He called to see us before he started, to tell us of the change in his fortunes. “The old lady,” his wife’s aunt, “had a fortune of £90,000. The priests obtained two-thirds of it, and had she lived a few months more I verily believe they would have got the rest. As it happened, she died worth £30,000, and this my wife inherited. Thus all my family are now well provided for, and I feel a free man for the first time in my life.” And then he went on to tell us of the tour he had charted out for himself, and how delightful it would be for him to go on or stop, travel fast or travel slow, just as the humour seized him. His first journey would be through South America. He was quite young again at the prospect. Never had I seen him look better, fuller of life, or more certain of attaining to a good old age. We wished him heartily “bon voyage,” and begged him to write us a line now and then, or to send us a picture-card on his travels. His hearty farewell rings still in my ears. He went over to Ireland to make his final arrangements for starting, had trouble with his teeth, owing to abominable ill-usage in gaol years before, got blood-poisoning, and died.
No nobler character ever fought for the independence and wellbeing of his country than Michael Davitt. He is fully entitled to a foremost place among the martyrs of his race. If he did not actually die for Ireland, he undoubtedly lived for her, and underwent for the sake of his fellow-countrymen sufferings worse considerably than mere death. Death, indeed, is a mere incident in the career of a man like Davitt, and not by any means the most important incident either. True, viewed from the standpoint of Socialism and political economy, his theories were unsound and his proposals in some respects reactionary. True, also, that in politics his almost aggressive honesty, contempt for compromise, and hatred of shams, induced him to give up a position in which he might have done great service, while his inherited abhorrence of sexual laxity drew him into mistaken and injurious action towards Parnell. At times, too, it may be that he manifested some little self-consciousness in regard to the important part he had played. But these are indeed trifling errors in the course of a great career, and it will be well for Ireland, in the difficult and possibly dangerous days of national reorganisation which are approaching, if she finds even a few of her sons who can partially emulate the high example set them by Michael Davitt.
Last updated on 1.11.2007