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“When I think of the kindness and courtesy shown to me by your citizens I shall carry home the recollections and your Irish brethren will listen to the account of my reception in Butte City.”
Quotation by Michael Davitt, Irish Land League President, addressing a Butte audience of 1,100 at the Butte Opera House on October 20, 1886.
Hello this is John Conlan, host of The Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF and welcome to this episode of the Harp Without the Crown where I will be discussing the October 20, 1886 Butte visit of Michael Davitt, the founder of Ireland’s Land League.
Land ownership in Ireland during the 19th century was dominated by English land use and ownership policies that enforced evictions and made it impossible for most Irish citizens to own land. Also, during this century the famine years of 1845-1852 did not allow many Irish farmers to harvest a crop and one million died of starvation and millions emigrated to other countries. These events would allow for a deep sense of nationalism to emerge in Ireland among the population and the Butte Irish that emigrated to the United States.
One important Irish nationalist was Michael Davitt and he came to Butte in October of 1886 as part of an American tour to gain support for land reform and Home Rule legislation in Ireland. He had experienced English repressive land laws first hand at age five when his family property was taken by the English gentry and his family was thrown into poverty in County Mayo, Ireland. His family was evicted and eventually moved to England into an Irish community. In his young adult years, Davitt became a Irish nationalist committed to Irish land reform and later reluctantly accepted the goal of Home Rule. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1870 for activities related to smuggling firearms to Ireland and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement and hard labor. Eventually he was paroled after seven years but was later imprisoned from 1881-82, and during 1883 for treason that involved making seditious speeches.
In between prison sentences Davitt started the Ireland Land League in 1879 which confronted English land policy through organized resistance to absentee landlordism and attempted to relieve the poverty of farmers. The goal of the Land League was to abolish British Landlord policy that held a majority of Irish in poverty. Its slogan, “the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland,” resonated with the Irish population, where 70 percent of the land was owned by only 2,000 people while three million Irish owned nothing at all. In 1880 Irish American activists knew of Ireland’s land issues first hand and established the American Land League with nearly 1,000 branches in major cities and the mining districts towns in Colorado and Butte. A Butte Auxiliary Land League existed as early as 1882 and held meetings at the Old Good Templars Hall.
Davitt arrived in Butte on October 20, 1886 and was described by the Butte Miner to be, “one of Ireland’s bravest and distinguished sons ever to visit.” The details of the Butte visit shows how
highly respected Davitt was by the Butte Irish and more importantly reveals a strong support for Irish nationalism, land reform and Home Rule among the Butte Irish community.
Michael Davitt arrived by train in Butte at 12:20 P.M. from Helena accompanied by Helena’s Postmaster Charles B.Curtis and was met in Butte by Pat Conlan and DJ Hennessey of the Butte Land League. Conlan was founder of the Butte Branch of the Irish National Land League and proprietor of Arcade Chop Shop while Hennessey was an entrepreneur and successful businessman. Davitt was met at the train station by a dozen or more carriage loads of people and music was provided by Orton’s Band. He was then escorted to the residence of the Copper King Marcus Daly, that was located just north of the Courthouse. He graciously hosted an open reception at the Daly home for the citizens of Butte. Later that evening he was escorted by the Robert Emmett Guards, dressed in full uniform, to the Grand Opera House located on Broadway Street.
The 1,100 seats of the Opera House were filled for Davitt’s speech where he discussed the Irish land question, the cause of the Land League, and Home Rule. The Butte Miner reported he was met with thunderous applause and that kindness and courtesy was given in return by Davitt. Davitt explained to the audience that the potential passing of a Home Rule bill in the English Parliament would alter Ireland’s relationship with England by giving Ireland more political autonomy in how it was governed. Under Home Rule, Ireland would have Dominion status, similar to Canada at that time.
In Ireland and Irish America a continual debate raged over the direction and method of obtaining independence from England. Independence could be achieved either by accepting Home Rule, the more gradual peaceful constitutional change, or by a more violent military action and rebellion. Home Rule advocates mainly rejected the violent revolutionary approach taken by some reformers in Ireland and this was the position given to the Butte audience. During Davitt’s speech, he dove into the issue of land reform in Ireland and emphasized it was the burning issue of the day and was the key to gaining independence from England. Davitt felt that Home Rule would be an intermediate step toward total independence and would predict in his Butte speech that it would succeed in two or three years. Unfortunately, Home Rule failed after three attempts and this failure radicalized some Irish Patriots who later became the heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising and later the Irish Republican Army.
What did it mean to Butte to have such a leading political leader and proponent of Home Rule and land reform reach out to them? The reception given by Davitt and by the Butte Irish community and its social and political leaders likely legitimized his argument that Home Rule was a necessary and non violent approach for achieving independence. This position was still very much the thinking in Ireland at the time, thereby keeping Butte aligned with Ireland for the time being. The tremendous Butte reception for Davitt as well as monetary support shows the Butte Irish community was still very much tied culturally and politically to Ireland. Davitt raised $726 in Butte for the Land League which was significantly more than the $279 raised in Helena, significant amounts for that time period. The positive reception given to Davitt by the community
and political leaders, such as Marcus Daly, shows that this visit was an important event in the early history of Butte. Specifically, it indicates that during this time period the Butte Irish accepted the fact that Irish independence would take years to achieve. However, this thinking would run contrary to the nationalist organizations in Butte and Ireland, who favored and supported armed rebellion, not gradual constitutional change.. However, there was no visible conflict within the Butte community concerning the ideal of obtaining Irish independence. There could not have been a better advocate for land reform and Home Rule for Ireland than Michael Davitt when he came to Butte in 1886.
This has been John Conlan, host of The Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF. Thanks for listening.