This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“Mr. Davitt spent an hour with me today, and we had a most interesting conversation.”
–William Henry Hurlbert
Hurlbert sought to interview Michael Davitt since his late January arrival in Dublin. The American journalist finally connected with the agrarian activist nearly three weeks later in London; Hurlbert having been called away from his travels in Ireland for reasons he did not explain in the book.
Hulbert reported that he had followed Davitt’s career “with lively personal interest” since they met in 1878 during the Irishman’s first visit to America. Davitt had just received his “ticket of leave,” or parole, from Dartmoor Prison, where he had served half of a 15-year sentence for treason related to his Fenian activities.
Davitt returned to Ireland in 1879 and helped found the Irish National Land League. Hurlbert, then editor of the New York World, said he dispatched a correspondent to Ireland to interview Davitt. He quotes Davitt from the nine-year-old interview as saying “the only issue upon which Home Rulers, Nationalists, Obstructionists, and each and every shade of opinion existing in Ireland could be united was the Land Question.”
(Davitt wrote at least one piece about the Land League for the New York World, on 4 June 1884, a year after the newspaper changed owners and Hurlbert departed as editor.)
In the 1888 London interview, Hurlbert reported that Davitt, then 42, was supporting English poet and writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in an upcoming by-election in Deptford, England. Blunt had become a supporter of Irish nationalism a few years earlier. According to Hurlbert, the parliamentary candidate told Davitt that Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour “meant to lock up and kill” the four “pivots” of the Irish movement: William O’Brien, Timothy Harrington, John Dillon and Davitt.
“How did you take it?” Hurlbert asked.
“Oh, I only laughed, and told him it would take more than Mr. Balfour to kill me, at any rate by putting me in prison,” Davitt replied. “As for being locked up, I prefer Cunninghame Graham‘s way of taking it, that he meant ‘to beat the record on oakum.’ ”
Graham was a journalist, socialist and Scottish nationalist M.P. who spent six weeks in prison for participating in the November 1887 Trafalgar Square Riots against unemployment and coercion in Ireland. He reportedly displayed great stoicism and refused to accept special privileges while incarcerated. As for oakum, the hard labor of unraveling old ropes was a common punishment in Victorian prisons; work Davitt had done during his Dartmoor imprisonment, despite having lost one arm in an industrial accident at age 11.
Blunt lost the by-election two weeks after Davitt’s interview with Hurlbert. In his own book about the Land War in Ireland, published in 1912, Blunt recalled his first meeting with Davitt in 1886 at the Imperial Hotel in Dublin:
“He is a most superior man, with more of the true patriot about him than any of those I have yet met. He knows the west of Ireland well, and is more interested in the Land Question even than Home Rule; an odd looking man, dark, sallow, gaunt, disfigured by the loss of his right arm, which is gone from the shoulder.”
Hurlbert also praised Davitt:
“If all the Irish ‘leaders’ were made of the same stuff with Mr. Davitt, the day of a great Democratic revolution [in Ireland] … might be a good deal nearer than anything in the signs of the times now show it to be. … I have always regarded him as the soul of the Irish agitation, of the war against ‘landlordism’ … and of the movement towards Irish independence. Whether agitation, the war, and the movement have gone entirely in accordance with his views and wishes is quite another matter. … [But] he has never made revenge and retaliation upon England either the inspiration or the aim of his revolutionary policy.”
NOTES: From pages 159 to 164 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Davitt’s 1879 quote on page 17. Blunt quote from page 50 of The Land War in Ireland: Being a Personal Narrative of Events. Davitt’s 1884 freelance story noted in Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World, by George Juergens, Princeton University Press, 2015, pages 258-259.
NEXT: More Davitt
Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan