The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Dáire Rooney, the Library of Trinity College Dublin

Photographs in the Michael Davitt Collection

An exhibition of Davitt's photographs held in Research Collections of the Library of Trinity College Dublin


Mirrored studio portrait of Michael Davitt aged 17 (1863)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Michael Davitt (1846-1906), was a radical Irish nationalist and social reformer. He was a champion of marginalised communities in Ireland and internationally. Davitt devoted his life to opposing British rule in Ireland, he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret republican society, at age 19 and participated in their failed rebellion in 1867.

He was charged with treason felony against the British crown in 1870 for smuggling arms into Ireland from Great Britain. After spending eight years in Millbank and Dartmoor Prisons in England, Davitt embarked on a lecture tour of rural Ireland. He determined that only the land question could unite constitutional and revolutionary nationalists.

He was a founder of the Irish National Land League in 1879, which campaigned for agrarian reform on behalf of tenant farmers across Ireland. Their tactics included organising mass-protests, demonstrations and boycotts against Irish aristocratic landlords.

Eviction of Widow Darcy, County Wexford, 1887 (1887)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Michael Davitt's personal papers are held in the Manuscripts and Archives department, the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The collection includes over 6000 letters, 40 diaries, 550 photographs, newspaper clippings and printed material. The majority of the collection details an important period in Irish history, when the focus of Irish nationalism shifted from armed insurrection against the British crown to the Third New Departure and Irish Home Rule, which was spearheaded by Davitt.

The New Departure unified the revolutionary members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the constitutional politicians of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster around a single social goal, land reform for tenant farmers. The Irish National Land League was employed by both groups to pressurise the British government into legislating for land reform and to promote the cause of Irish Home Rule as a stepping stone towards Irish independence from the United Kingdom.

This photograph, which depicts the crowd gathered at the eviction of Widow Darcy at Coolgreany, County Wexford in 1887, is one of two photographs within the collection relating to Davitt's time in the Land League.

Davitt, pictured here in discussion with two Irish Parliamentary Party MPs, John Dillon and Daniel Crilly, is being watched closely by a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Prior to the photograph being accessioned by the Library, Davitt was marked with a pink x on the photograph.

Chinese railway labourers near the Fraser River, Canada (1891)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Davitt's travel photographs

The majority of the photographs within the Davitt collection document the latter half of his career, when he toured the globe in various roles as a journalist, lecturer, tourist and fundraiser for the Irish Parliamentary Party. The photographs record Davitt's visits to North America, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Russia. These images provide a visual record of the immigrant and indigenous communities Davitt encountered traveling in these countries.

Aboriginal Canadians at Moosejaw Station, Saskatchewan (1891)The Library of Trinity College Dublin


Davitt toured the northwest Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1891. He investigated the migration of Scottish crofters from the Scottish Highlands, he met the Irish diaspora in Canada and photographed members of the Canadian First Nations. This photograph, showing indigenous Canadians, was taken at Moosejaw Station, Saskatchewan.

Sale of mining lots in Coolgardie, Australia (1895)The Library of Trinity College Dublin


In Australia, Davitt embarked on a lecture tour in 1895 across the colonies, where he met members of the Irish diaspora that had emigrated from Ireland following the Great Irish Famine. During this tour he investigated the communal settlements on the Murray River, the gold rush in Western Australia and the treatment of Aboriginal Australians in the colonies. This photograph depicts a crowd of men at a sale of mining lots in Coolgardie, a Western Australian mining town.

Kathleen Davitt, Michael Davitt’s daughter (1895)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Kathleen Davitt

Disaster struck during Davitt's voyage from Ireland to Australia, when his six year old daughter Kathleen (pictured here) died of influenza. A telegram from his wife Mary reached him in Colombo, Sri Lanka, informing him of Kathleen's death and urging him to proceed with his mission to Australia.

Aboriginal Australians at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia (1895)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Western Australia

Davitt protested the treatment of Aboriginal Australians in the state of Western Australia. He declared in his book Life and Progress in Australasia, 1898, that 'the white man's law justifies him in stealing the black man's country, his wife, his daughters whenever he wants them; but to take a sheep from this moral professor of the ten commandments is to earn the penalty of a bullet!'.

This photograph displays a group of Aboriginal Australians at Boulder, Koolgardie, Western Australia in 1895.

Samoan children in Apia, Samoa (1895)The Library of Trinity College Dublin


Davitt visited Samoa as a tourist on his return journey from lecturing in Australia and New Zealand. He recorded his impressions of the country in his travel diary, which provides additional context to the photographs of Samoa in the collection. This photograph depicts a group of children outside a Samoan dwelling in Apia, Samoa, 1895.

General Philip Botha and his staff at Osspruit, South Africa (1900)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Boer support for Irish Nationalists

In South Africa during the Second Boer War, Davitt became a fervent defender of the Boers, viewing them as a noble agrarian people protecting their land and freedom from the mighty British Empire. Davitt, along with other Irish nationalists at the time, saw parallels between the annexations of the two Boer Republics with the continued failure of the British Government to grant Home Rule in Ireland. This anti-British bias allowed Davitt and other Irish nationalists to lionise the Boers and to overlook their mistreatment of black South Africans. This photograph of General Philip Botha and his staff was taken at Osspruit Camp, Orange Free State in 1900.

Group of children in Djibouti (1900)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Return journey from South Africa

On Davitt's return journey from South Africa, after the Second Boer War in 1900, he visited several countries along the East African coast. These included Mozambique, Madagascar and Djibouti. Davitt kept a travel diary for this journey, which is accompanied by a number of photographs. This photograph depicts a group of children in The Square, Djibouti city.

Jewish victims of the Kishinev pogrom with Michael Davitt (1903)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Kishinev pogrom

In 1903, Davitt was sent to Kishinev, Bessarabia, a province of the Russian Empire (now part of modern day Moldova). He was sent to investigate a pogrom by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in which 47 Jews died, over 500 were wounded and 700 houses were destroyed. Davitt's photographs and reports were extremely significant as they provided a visual record of the pogrom, the Jewish victims of the mob and humanised the tragedy for Davitt’s American newspaper audience. He is pictured here with Jewish artisans, their wives and children in a yard in the Skulanska Rogotka suburb of Kishinev, where four men and a young girl were murdered.

Michael Davitt in Russia, 1903 (1905)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

A project is currently underway to create an online catalogue for the photographs and publish the collection online. The catalogue has been completed and descriptions for each of the photographs can be viewed on the Manuscripts and Archives Online Catalogue (MARLOC). Digitisation of the photographs is in progress and open access to the images will be available on the Library's Digital Collections by the end of 2018.

This photograph of Davitt in Moscow is from his final tour of Russia in 1905 where he investigated reports of Russian unrest and interviewed Leo Tolstoy at his home in Yasnaya Polyana.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was curated by Dáire Rooney (M&ARL), with technical support provided by Greg Sheaf.

Photography by Gill Whelan, Digital Resources and Imaging Services.

With special thanks to the M&ARL team: Estelle Gittins, Felicity O'Mahony, Jane Maxwell, Ellen O'Flaherty, Leanne Harrington, Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, Aisling Lockhart, Martine Gleeson and Linda Montgomery, for their assistance and support.

Some of the photographs in this exhibition have been digitally enhanced for viewing purposes.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.