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  • The Prison Writing of Michael Davitt
  • Sean T. O’Brien

The nineteenth-century radical intellectual and Irish nationalist Michael Davitt was profoundly influenced by his experiences in Victorian penitentiaries. In Yeats’s Autobiography, the poet suggests that Davitt’s years in prison had impaired his mind, character, and judgment, concluding that “imprisonment at the most plastic period of his life had jarred or broken his contact with reality.”1 Davitt’s first imprisonment from 1870 to 1877 did, indeed, change him. For seven-and-one-half years, the activist’s entire sense of the real was filtered through the technology of the Victorian penitentiary—a social collaboration designed to use absolute control to “break” the inmate through isolation and the careful manipulation of time, space, and sensory input.

The penitentiary’s exercise of authority over the most minute details of his life had threatened, and then shattered, Davitt’s sense of self; the modern technology of incarceration was specifically engineered to make inmate subjectivity impossible. Davitt’s first prison sentence marked the most significant turning point in his life, and his subsequent political and intellectual contributions were built upon the social capital he received from Irish nationalists after his incarceration. The scale and quality of his broad body of work as a thinker, activist, and journalist suggests that if Davitt was indeed, as Yeats claimed, “jarred or broken” by his years in prison, he was made by it as well.

Michael Davitt was born in Straide, County Mayo, in March of 1846. His earliest memory was of his family’s eviction at the age of four. His mother refused to stay in the local workhouse—which would have segregated her children according to sex—and after a brief period of homelessness the family emigrated to the industrial town of Haslingden in Lancashire. At the age of eleven, Davitt left school to work in the local textile mills. He was employed in three different [End Page 16] mills over a period of a few months, but his industrial career ended when his arm was mangled in a factory machine at Stillfoxe’s Mill. When the mill refused to compensate the family (the machine he was using was putatively restricted to operators over the age of eighteen), a philanthropist paid for the boy to attend the local Wesleyan school. As a young adult, Davitt worked for a printing shop and began to associate with nationalist organizations. At nineteen he took the oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and two years later, participated in the abortive Fenian uprising of 1867.2

Davitt distinguished himself in the Fenian rising in a disastrous raid on Chester Castle, during which his unit’s leader fled as soon as he discovered the revolutionaries were expected. Davitt assumed leadership of the group, eventually pawning his revolver, undergarments, and overcoat to raise enough money for all of his associates in the Irish Republican Brotherhood men to return home. He later organized Irish nationalists to protect Catholic churches in and around Haslingden during anti-Irish riots. His competence attracted the attention of IRB leaders; Davitt was soon appointed to the supreme council as the member from North England, and set about acquiring weapons for the Fenians. In 1870 he was arrested at Paddington Station with £135 on his person, just at the moment when as a gunsmith from Birmingham arrived with a bag of thirty guns

It was legal for Davitt to hold money, and legal to sell guns; by itself, the interrupted meeting did not provide sufficient evidence to convict. However, after an informant, John Corydon, testified that he had seen Davitt at several IRB meetings, Davitt was convicted of treason felony. Both Davitt and John Wilson, the gunsmith apprehended at the same time, were sentenced to penal servitude. In his final statement before the court, Davitt claimed that the merchant had no knowledge of his true identity and asked the judge to add Wilson’s sentence to his own; the judge refused, and the Fenian was sentenced to fifteen years on July 11, 1870.

Davitt’s crime was “misprison of treason, of felony,” a charge created in 1848 as a response to the growing nationalist movement in...


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