He is one of Mayo’s most famous sons who came to be known as a world renowned social activist, human rights campaigner, a statesman and an author, described as the Nelson Mandela of his era.
And yet the only museum in the country dedicated to preserving the spirit and legacy of Michael Davitt is struggling on a shoestring budget to keep its doors open.
The Michael Davitt Museum in Straide, close to the birth spot and last resting place of one of Ireland’s great historical figures, reopened its doors in November after being forced by funding shortages to close for a year.
The reopening was only made possible when the local Community Employment Scheme was extended, allowing the museum to take on eight staff members and providing a small amount of FÁS funding through the Department of Social Protection.
However, the funding is unlikely to be enough to ensure the Land League founder has a dedicated space to his memory in the county.
Yvonne Corcoran-Loftus is the supervisor at the museum. She welcomed the museum reopening but admitted they are still facing severe financial constraints and staff who are being trained and gaining experience in this specialist area are only contracted for one year under the scheme.
“It’s a struggle to stay open,” she said. “At the end of the day, the bills are coming in and we have to pay them. We get a certain amount of funding, although quite small, but it really isn’t enough.”
In a bid to attract more visitors, staff at the museum are now hoping to expand their examination of the life and achievements of Davitt, who is said to have been the inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi’s system of non-violent civil disobedience.
Davitt was born at the height of the Great Famine in Straide but the family immigrated to England while he was a child.
He lost his arm while a child labourer in a mill but in spite of these early challenges he went to get a good education. He became involved in Fenian activities and it was these activites that led to his imprisonment.
John Reid, a keen Davitt historian working at the museum, says there can be some parallels drawn between Davitt and Nelson Mandela.
“He suffered great oppression, was imprisoned, became involved in politics and went on to become a great statesman,” said Reid.
“He travelled the world standing up for the rights of minorities and the oppressed worldwide, such as the Aborigine people of Australia, the Maori in New Zealand and the Jewish people in Russia. He campaigned for education and prison reforms and worked on behalf of the urban poor in Glasgow.
“He had a fascinating life and was well ahead of his time,” said Mr Reid. “He was involved in many causes that weren’t in the mainstream at that time.”
Mr Reid said the museum is a huge asset to the area. “We’d like to think we are contributing to the educational, cultural and tourism aspect of the whole area. Hopefully, we will have a busy season ahead.”