Former Commercial Hotel & Michael Davitt

Detail from a postcard of Commercial Hotel c 1895
National Library of Ireland
A painting of Michael Davitt MP
William Orphen - 1879-1931. Dublin City Gallery
A sketch of Michael Davitt in his prison cell taken from "Leaves from a Prison Diary: Lectures to a Solitary Audience" Vol 1. Davitt learned from adversity while in prison. He came to the conclusion, as he records in his diary, that violence was self defeating. He decided that membership of an underground, armed conspiracy merely invited the counter-productive attention of State Agents who infiltrated it and recruited informers.
Stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Michael Davitt. A stamp was previously issued in 1946 to commemorate his birth centenary.

Further along Main Street on the right, is the site of the former Commercial Hotel, now a flower shop.  It was from an upstairs window in this building that Michael Davitt delivered a famous speech in front of a huge gathering of Land Leaguers.  He had travelled by boat across Lough Mask and entered the town by the Bower’s Lane see no. 11 in order to avoid being arrested by the British soldiers and constabulary.

Michael Davitt, born in Straide, Co. Mayo in 26th March, 1846 the second of five children born to Martin and Catherine Davitt.  His father had a good education and could speak English and Irish. Michael had first-hand experience of eviction from their home in Straide, due to arrears in rent, which he wrote about in his book, “The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland” (1904):

“Almost my first-remembered experience of my own life a of the existence of landlordism was our eviction in 1852, when I was about five years of age.  That eviction and the privations of the preceding Famine years, the story of the starving peasantry of Mayo, of the deaths from hunger – and the coffinless graves on the roadside – everywhere a hole could be dug for the slaves who died because of ‘God’s providence’;  all this was the political food seasoned with a mother’s tears over unmerited sorrows and sufferings which had fed my mind in another land, a teaching which lost none of its force or directness by being imparted in the Gaelic tongue, which was almost always spoken in our Lancashire home”

The family had entered the workhouse but when his mother discovered that male children over 3 years of age had to be separated from their mothers, she promptly decided her family should travel to England to find a better life (see Workhouse article).  Like thousands of Irish people at this time they travelled to Dublin with another local family and when they finally reached Liverpool they made the 77 kilometre journey to Haxlingden in East Lancashire by foot.  When finally settled, Michael was brought up in the closed world of a poor Irish immigrant community with strong nationalist feelings and, in his case a deep hatred of landlordism.

Life in England

Davitt began working at the age of nine as a labourer after attending junior school.   He worked in various jobs before taking a job in Stellfoxe’s Victoria Mill, near Baxenden.   He worked there operating a spinning machine, and in May 1857 he lost his right arm after having been entangles in a machine. Unlike now he did not receive any compensation.

Unable to work in the cotton mills, he attended the local Wesleyan school, and took evening classes in the Mechanics’ Institute and became a typesetter.   He was mostly self-taught and learned French and Italian as well as Irish.

The Fenian Movement

In 1865 he joined the Fenian movement, which was a secret revolutionary society organized in Ireland and the United States to achieve Irish independence from the British by force. The name derives from the ancient Irish Fenians, a professional military corps that roamed over ancient Ireland c.3rd century in the service of the high kings.

In 1868, he was made organising secretary of the Fenians in Scotland and England and was their chief arms purchaser.  In order to cover up his revolutionary activities, he became a firearms salesman.  In 1870 he was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in Dartmoor prison on a charge of treason, where he suffered dreadfully from the inhumane regime.  He was released after seven years in 1877, due to the efforts of Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell, and the Amnesty Association, a long with other political Prisoners.

The British Government had introduced a concept of ‘fair rents’ in the year of his arrest, but he continued to hold that the common people of Ireland could not improve their lot without the ownership of their land, and frequently insisted at Fenian meetings that “the land question can be definitely settled only by making the cultivators of the soil proprietors”.

The Land League

As a result of this and his early memories and experiences, he founded the Land League in Castlebar on 16th Aug. 1879 with meetings every Sunday, and was supported by Charles Stewart Parnell.  Michael Davitt was one of the secretaries with Parnell, its President, and it united nearly all the different strands of land agitation and land movements since the Tenant Rights League of the 1850s .

The League campaigned for reform of land legislation, and organised resistance to evictions and sought reductions in rents, as well as aiding the work of relief agencies.  Landlords’ attempts to evict tenants led to violence, but the Land League denounced it.  This League of Mayo as it was known had three aims, the “Three Fs” – Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale.

Davitt’s ambition that the ownership of the land would be transferred to the tenants from the landlords was realised but he was unhappy with the generous inducement to the landlords to sell their estates to the tenants.  Finally the Irish Land Commission agreed to collect land annuities instead of rents.  This was to emphasise that landlords were not to receive compensation for acreage that Davitt believed belonged to the state.

One of the actions the Land League took during this period was the campaign of ostracism against the land agent Captain Charles Boycott who lived outside Ballinrobe in the autumn of 1880.

Davitt later came into conflict with the Catholic Church, when he supported the Liberal Party’s policies of state control of schools, rather than segregated denomination education.

Davitt is commonly regarded as one of the founders of the British Labour Party; his support for socialism in his latter years was based on the premise that Ireland could only achieve independence with the support of the British working class.  He was an inspiration for many and in later years Mahatma Gandhi attributed the origin of his own mass movement of peaceful resistance in India to Davitt and the Land League.

In 1898 an article from the Ballinrobe Chronicle states

“There was police force used in Ballinrobe when the U.I.L. met there in late October. Michael Davitt, the Land League leader, addressed the public in Ballinrobe the following week. The main thrust of his speech was the breaking up of the large grazing ranches, and the  distribution of the land among small land holders”.

1899 Ballinrobe Chronicle

“Michael Davitt returned to speak in Ballinrobe in February 1899”.  

Another U.I.L. meeting was held in Ballinrobe in March and Michael Davitt attended a U.I.L. meeting in the Neale in August 1899.


In January 1899 a resolution was passed by the Ballinrobe Board of Guardians condemning Colonel Knox, the local landlord, for evictions around Ballinrobe. Michael Davitt returned to speak in Ballinrobe in February 1899.  Another U.I.L. meeting was held in Ballinrobe in March and the Ballinrobe U.I.L. met in September 1899.

There was a large meeting of the U. I. L. in the Town Hall in December 1902. No disturbances were reported.

Final years

Davitt commanded great respect and affection among the majority of Irish people, and is closely connected with Ballinrobe and the surroundings areas.   He was known as the ‘father of the Land League’ and had adopted the slogan ‘the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland’.

Davitt’s death

Michael Davitt died of acute septic poisoning in a Dublin Hospital on May 30th 1906 at the age of sixty. Not wishing to have a public funeral, Davitt’s body was brought quietly to the Carmelite Friary, Clarendon Street, Dublin. Over 20,000 people filed past his coffin the next day, his coffin was then brought by train to Foxford, County Mayo.   A huge crowd attended his funeral in the grounds of Straide Abbey, in the shadow of the church where he was baptised.

No 12 on the CDC Town Heritage Walk


Comments about this page

  • Thanks so much Averil for covering this so well. Since my mother paternal family owned the Commercial Hotel in Ballinrobe until about 1910, it was really heartening to see that you made note of this most significant occasion. I remember reading a description of the event taken from the Ballinrobe Chronical many years ago and was looking for some sources as to what happened. Lo and behold there it was on your web site.

    Thanks again. Declan

    Reply: Thank you Declan for your interest in our site.

    By Declan Lyons (12/11/2015)

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