On arrival at the Michael Davitt Museum, you are greeted by the imposing bronze statue of the Land League founder in front of the restored 17th-century Straide Church which houses the magnificent museum in honour of the man who helped free rural communities from the yoke of landlordism.
“He didn’t move very far”, joked museum guide, Joe McCullough, referring to the fact that Michael Davitt (25 March 1846 – 30 May 1906) was born, christened and buried within a stone’s throw of the museum that tells his inspirational life story in Straide, Co Mayo.
It was in the museum building, a restored pre-Penal Days Church that Davitt was christened in 1846; the Davitt cottage once stood in an adjoining field – and Davitt’s final resting place, overlooking the plot of land where he was born, is in the old graveyard at the rear of the museum.
Davitt’s heart, it seems, was always in Straide where his family’s eviction when he was just six years of age was the pivotal moment in his life, instilling in him a deep sense of justice and fairness that inspired him to spend his life fighting for the downtrodden, not just in Ireland, but throughout the world.
The museum is set on the beautiful and tranquil grounds of the impressive Straide Abbey. The well-tended lawns, flower beds, seating and picnic area are a world away from the poverty and hardship that the Davitt and their neighbours had to endure in Ireland in the 1800s.
Davitt’s was a life so fully lived and influential beyond Ireland that you can only understand what he achieved by visiting the museum which tells the story of a man who was arguably Ireland’s greatest patriot.
His selfless life is an inspiring one that is lovingly told through the museum’s fascinating exhibits, photographs, Davitt family mementoes, and an informative video presentation.
The museum brings the visitor on a captivating journey through Davitt’s eventful life as a campaigner for social change and we also find out about Davitt the family man.
We learn about his family’s eviction when he was just four years of age and their subsequent emigration to Lancashire where, at age 12, he lost an arm working in Stellfoxe’s Victoria Cotton Mill in Baxenden.
All the pivotal moments in Davitt’s political career are recalled by the museum’s excellent exhibits. His early political involvement with the Fenians in England led to his imprisonment in solitary confinement, and the founding of the Land League in Castlebar in 1879.
Through the many exhibits of his writings, letters, and speeches, and the posters and pamphlets that rallied the downtrodden tenant farmers the Land League struggle is brought to life.
He led Ireland’s poor tenant farmers to victory over landlordism in pursuit of the “Three Fs” (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) in a campaign that became known as the Land War (1879 to 1882).
It is not unreasonable to conclude that Davitt brought about more social change by improving the daily lives of poor rural dwellers through non-violent means than all the bullets and bombs of subsequent years have ever achieved.
His time in the House of Commons as an MP is also chronicled and it was fascinating to learn that the eloquence and power of Davitt’s oratory that had helped change Irish history also inspired a young Mahatma Gandhi to the cause of social change through non-violent methods which he used to great effect in bringing about independence for India.
It’s hard not to wonder what Davitt would make of Ireland’s latter-day evictions and the plight of our homeless people today. It’s probably fair to say that he would not remain silent as some of our feted former and current leaders are doing.
The museum is located alongside Straide Friary, originally a Franciscan abbey dating from the early 13th century and later run by the Dominicans. The ruins have some lovely features, including six original lancet windows and a magnificent tomb niche with a canopy of Gothic tracery.
The friary is well worth visiting; as is the old cemetery where Michael Davitt is buried, his final resting place overlooking the field where his childhood home once stood.