When Michael Davitt came to Athenry by Ronan Killeen
Michael Davitt was born in Co. Mayo in 1846. In 1850 his family where evicted from their home and emigrated to England. When he turned nine he got a job in a mill but lost his arm in an accident there. The consequence of this incident allowed him to go to Wesleyan School and later the Mechanics Institute, where he came under the influence of veteran Chartist leader, Ernest Jones.
In 1865 Davitt joined the Fenians, and because of this action he was found guilty of treason-felony in 1870. In 1877 after years of hard labour Davitt returned to Mayo and found the Land League. He was pivotal in bringing together Charles Stewart Parnell and the Fenians. In 1906 Davitt died of blood poisoning and is buried in Straide, Co. Mayo.
Davitt has written a few autobiographies in his lifetime. I am going to concentrate on his autobiography entitled The Fall and Feudalism of Ireland.
The following is an extract from Davitt when he arrives in Athenry from his book The Fall of Feudalism:
'We drove into the village of Athenry, where, finding the atmosphere close after the heat of the day, we strolled up and down in front of the hotel, and were carefully followed and watched by our old friends the police, who at once began to suspect an opportunity for distinguishing themselves.
We knew, however, that telegraphic information of the circumstances of our previous arrest had already been supplied to them, and accordingly felt secure from a repetition of the annoyance, though it was impossible to discover the exact nature of the information, as the magistrate who had discharged us at Loughrea and expressly told us, when we asked on what grounds we had been arrested, that the police would not give any answer to this question, and that he was not even at liberty to ask it.
Next morning we breakfasted with a magistrate, who told us that he was going about the country to try cases under the coercion act. He had been a barrister, and it seems necessary that in pronouncing sentences of hard labour one of the magistrates present should have legal knowledge.
He justified the wholesale arrest of respectable shopkeepers at Loughrea after the murder of Mr. Blake, although they were at mass at the time, on the somewhat unsatisfactory grounds that those who ordered their arrest knew more about the matter than we did. Our own experience of the 'reliable information' of inspectors of the police did not lead to a similar conclusion; and it is a well-known fact that some constables, eager f or promotion, and unscrupulous in their methods of attaining it, have dictated to their private friends the reliable information with which they wish to be furnished by them.
After breakfast I went out into the town to look at its interesting old walls and ruins, and had a talk with the head constable of the place, and it is to this conversation that I ascribed my immunity from arrest at Athenry.
On returning to the hotel I found Mr. George talking to the curate, who declared that I had already been taken for a detective, and that my talk and walk with the constable would strengthen this idea and effectually prevent my obtaining information from the people. We went out together and strolled about the town, passing on our way some houses in course of erection.
I had seen a great many houses in ruins, but none building as yet, so I stopped and asked the contractor for whom they were intended. He replied shortly and we passed on; but this short conversation had been carefully noted by the police who were following us as usual at some little distance, and gathering grounds of suspicion which might be described as reasonable and culminate arrest.
For this contractor was a man name of Brodrick, who had been imprisoned, for some time in Galway jail as a suspect, and lately released because an influential person in Athenry wanted to get these houses built and there was no one else in the place who was competent to undertake the job.
In happy ignorance that we had been speaking to a suspicious character, who had been boycotted by the local branch of the Land League for having taken some land from which the previous tenant had been evicted.
Having as yet seen nothing of this system of boycotting obnoxious individuals, I was glad to talk with the man, thus confirming the previous suspicions of the police ; though, as no one else in the place would speak to the man at all this conversation ought to have counted as a point in our favour; but the police are not bound to be logical. I compared this man's account with that of Kinneen, the former tenant, and the facts seem to have been as follows: Kinneen had held a farm for twenty-one years at £70 rent, but the landlord now asked £100 for it. This increase of rent Kineen refused to pay, as the higher value of the land was owing to his own improvements, and he was accordingly evicted.
Upon this Madden had taken a portion of the farm, and this is just the proceeding which has so often led to the commission of outrages in Ireland before the existence of the Land League, when its powerful organization could not be brought to bear upon the offenders against its unwritten laws. It is obvious that if new tenants could always be found when the old are evicted there would be no security whatever against rack-renting in its worst forms; and it seems manifest that the lesser penalty of boycotting has saved many a man from becoming the victim of an outrage. Accordingly the local Land League determined to boycott the man Madden, and, as he was a blacksmith, they erected a new forge, to which all the village went to have their horses shod. He told me that he had lost £200 by it, and 'had such a bother that he was afeared (means afraid in modern day terminology) and applied for police protection,' and after being guarded for some time was finally driven to give up the land again, and now no longer needed protection.
Four young men who had been active for the league had been arrested as suspects when this new forge was put up, and were still in Galway prison.
At mid-day we retired to our inn, and were regaled by the curate on repast of bread-and-butter and a cooling beverage compounded of innocent ingredients --- soda-water and raspberry wine. We purposed to take the train at one o'clock to Galway, and just before we started for the station Mr. George, in want of collar-stuff, went rapidly into three shops in succession to buy one, succeeding in his object at the third shop. Now these three identical shops happened to belong to three people whom the police considered suspicious characters, and this unfortunate hunt after a button added the last link to their chain of evidence, which was complete.
However, with such a notable prisoner as Mr. George things must not be done in a corner, and they decided that the greatest glory would redound to themselves and the maximum of inconvience be inflicted on their victim if they arrested him among the crowds at station after he had actually taken his ticket to Galway. They knew how to bide their time, and could sympathize with the feelings of a cat that plays with its mouse.
So, in all ignorance we drove to the station, and took our tickets, though we noticed that the presence of the police seemed even more pervading than before. The train arrived, and I had already put in our luggage and taken our places, when I observed that my friend was not on the platform, and, in fact, I could see nothing but police.
Just as the train was starting he reappeared, and told me that he had been again arrested, and that his captor, a youth of about twenty-one years of age, had permitted him to come and inform me of the fact. This young sub-inspector also advanced, and told me very politely that he must detain my friend, but that I was free to continue my journey, or, in case I preferred to remain, he could offer me a seat on the police car to drive back to the barracks.
I accepted this kind proposal, and hurriedly saved the luggage from going on alone to Galway, and for the second time we drove through gazing crowds guarded on all sides by armed police.
On arriving at the police barracks Mr. George was shut up, while the usual search for treasonable documents began, although the inspector was well aware that this had already been done most minutely at Loughrea less than forty-eight hours ago. However, he read all his papers and note-books and gathered evidence from the latter which he could present with pride before any magistrate. Meanwhile, there was no magistrate to be had, for Mr. Byrne had departed to Loughrea,and telegraphed that he could not be back before seven o'clock.
There was nothing to be done but to wait, my friend in the guard-room and myself at the inn. I was allowed to pay him occasional visits, and I occupied the intervals in strolling about and conversing with the people, who had immense sympathy for any one who was in difficulties with the police. Exactly in front of the barracks stands the only pump in the whole village, and to this pump the barefooted women and girls continually coming to fill their various pails and pans. The pump was worked by a huge wheel, which it taxed all their energies to turn, and I was rather indignant with the group of stalwart policemen, who were always lounging at the door of their station with nothing on earth to do, while the women and children struggled with the wheel. So thinking that example was better than precept, I offered to turn it for an old woman who was waiting with her pail; but I soon found that I was in for a harder task than I had expected, for as fast as one pail was full another was presented , and I could not refuse to fill it, and the succession of empty pails was kept up by the women until I had worked for nearly half an hour, earning showers of blessings and causing huge amusement, especially among the police.
About five o'clock the inspector announced that he would take my friend before Major Lopdell, J. P., who might, perhaps, be persuaded to hear the case, although the ordinary magistrates generally refuse to do anything under the coercion act, from a wholesome fear of burning their fingers with it and getting into hot water either with the government or the people.
Accordingly we drove off to his residence outside the town, entered some beautiful grounds, and ascertained to our annoyance that the Major was out. However, just at the nick of time he was seen returning, and the inspector, informed him of the state of the case. To our astonishment he declared that he had business of his own which would occupy him until seven o'clock, the precise time when he knew Mr. Byrne would be back from Loughrea, a most curios coincidence.
I ventured to tell him that as he was a magistrate his business was to attend to us, but without stopping to argue the point he turned and went off rapidly across his fields. There was no help for it, so we drove back again, though the inspector admitted that it was his duty to hear the case, and on arriving again at the barracks he stretched a point of displine and allowed my friend to accompany me to the inn, under police supervision, and there partake of any refreshment he might prefer. After this interlude he was again locke up, and the time wore slowly away until past eight o'clock, when Mr. Byrne returned with his escort of police, and soon arrived at the barracks.
Prepartions were made for hearing and recording evidence, but the accommodation was miserably limited, and the the trial was adjourned by consent to a private room in the hotel whiter we all proceeded.
The trial opened by Inspector Bell, who brought forward his suspicions, and confirmed them by the sworn testimony of various constables. All the proceedings were formally taken down by a policeman, and this caused considerable delay, for he was not a quick writer. The inspector produced a pamphlet on the land question, written by Mr.George, and containing some scandalous statements which tended to show that rent was only another form of robbery, and that the state was the true owner of the soil, which private individuals ought not to be allowed to monopolize. He had busily marked special passages in this treasonable pamphlet, which he put in evidence as a whole although parts were particularly had spoken to Brodrick, the builder, and Madden, the blacksmith, though neither of these facts was correct, as I was the culprit in both cases.
Evidence was given that his note-book contained suspicious names and addresses, and that there was a most suspicious F. C. appended to some names not otherwise objectionable, letters which could surely mean nothing more or less than Fenian centre. Evidence was also given that he had visited the abbey graveyard, and stayed a long time there without ostensible reason in company with suspicious characters – viz., FatherMacPhilpin, the curate, and myself; and, finally, that he had entered the shops of three more suspicious persons and had entries in his note-book referring to the late murders at Loughrea. This closed the inspector’s case, and it was now Mr. George’s turn to reply to it as best he could.
He began by asking the magistrate to dismiss it at once as a frivolous and foolish charge. But this he refused to do saying that there seemed to be some ground for the inspector’s suspicions. So Mr. George made a detailed statement, saying that he was the correspondent of an American paper, and that the note-book was simply used to found his letters upon; that his acquaintances was wide and included men who might be called suspicious, whose names the inspector had picked out from several hundred others; that the suspicious letters were not F. C. but T. C., and were intended for town councillor instead of Fenian centre; that he had visited the ruined abbey for the purpose of inspecting the ruins, and without knowing that the curate was a suspicious character; that he had not spoken either to Broderick or Madden; that he had gone into suspicious shops with the harmless intention of buying a button, which button he bought at the last of the three, and now produced for the magistrate’s inspection; that the entry in his note-book about the murders was for the same purpose as the very next entry about the bees and the vegetarian of the Carmelite convent at Loughrea; and, finally, that his pamphlet could not be judged by excerpted passages torn from their context but that he would be happy to present every one in the room with a copy for perusal of their own leisure, which copies accordingly handed round at once.
This was his answer to the charge, and the magistrate was about to give decision when Inspector Bell, who had been looking very much annoyed at the prospect of his prisoner’s release, suggested that the entry in the note-book about bees, etc., might have been added after our first arrest, to give the book a more peaceable character, and that the prisoner might have known that one of the shops did not sell buttons. However, to his great chargin the magistrate decided that, although there were grounds for his suspicion, the prisoner had cleared himself, and was accordingly discharged, and at precisely eleven o’clock we returned to our hotel, after Mr. George had been in custody for ten hours.
For further reading read Michael Davitt's book The Fall of Feudalism