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14 Feb

The Composite Irish Nation

It must contain and represent the races of Ireland. It must not be Celtic, it must not be Saxon—it must be Irish. The Brehon law, and the maxims of Westminster, the cloudy and lightning genius of the Gael, the placid strength of the Sasanach, the marshalling insight of the Norman—these are components of such a nationality.

Thomas Davis, quoted by Sophie Bryant in her 1913 Genius of the Gael (London:T. Fisher Unwin, p. 12), facing chapter 1: “The Composite Irish Nation of Today” (online at archive.org).

The original unabridged quote is from page 268 of:
Thomas Osborne Davis (1914) “Ballad Poetry of Ireland.” in D.J. O Donoghue (ed) Essays, literary and historical. By Thomas Davis. Centenary edition, including several pieces never before collected. Dundalk:Dundalgan Press, pp. 366–376 [online at UCC Celt].

16 Sep

Transition State

There are (thank God!) four hundred thousand Irish children in the National Schools. A few years, and they will be the People of Ireland—the farmers of its lands, the conductors of its traffic, the adepts in its arts. How utterly unlike that Ireland will be to the Ireland of the Penal Laws, of the Volunteers, of the Union, or of the Emancipation?

Well may Carleton say that we are in a transition state. The knowledge, the customs, the superstitions, the hopes of the People are entirely changing. There is neither use nor reason in lamenting what we must infallibly lose. […]
Much may be saved—the Gaelic language and the music of the past may be handed uncorrupted to the future; but whatever may be the substitutes, the Fairies and the Banshees, the Poor Scholar and the Ribbonman, the Orange Lodge, the Illicit Still, and the Faction Fight, are vanishing into history, and unless this generation paints them no other will know what they were.

The Irish Peasantry by Thomas Davis, first published in The Nation 12 July, 1845 (online at UCC Celt)

This review of the work of William Carleton is positive, despite Carleton’s opposition to Davis’ politics. The piece displays Davis’ belief in education as a force for positive change, his focus on recording history and past culture and his desire to save what could be saved of that culture. This is of a piece with the new nationalism he espoused, influenced by Herder and German romanticism, which was cultural rather than constitutional. Language was central: “A people without a language of its own is only half a nation” (Davis, Our National Language).

It also shows Davis’ shortcomings as a prophet. Though his idea of nationality was inclusive, open to all that wanted to identify with it, his romantic nationalism arguably increased faction fighting rather than mitigating it.

20 Nov

What ish my nation?

"Yet could we turn those years again" illustration from Yeats' "September 1913" (c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Yet could we turn those years again”
 illustration from Yeats’ “September 1913”
(c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged[…]
“What ish my nation?”
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, “Ireland,” said Bloom,
“I was born here. Ireland.”
Traditions, Seamus Heaney

Bloom may have been sensible, but his simple statement was not undisputed. A spit on the ground is the response to his reply in Ulysses. MacMorris, the original stage Irishman in Henry V declares “Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal”, a admission unsurprising, Heaney suggests, to an English audience with a low opinion of the Irish. Identity is complicated, Irish identity perhaps especially so.

“[T]he histories of dependant, colonized nations are for the most part histories of ‘accidents'” – whether of births at home, ventures abroad, fortunes of war (Duddy, History of Irish Thought, p. xiii). Simple criteria to try and define the products of such a complicated history inevitably exclude – something Joyce was deliberately targetting when he wrote the words of Bloom’s reply. Could Bloom, nonCatholic and nonChristian, be accepted as Irish?
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24 Oct

What Kind of Nation (Once Again)?

Thomas Osbourne Davis Wikicommons (Public Domain)

Thomas Osborne Davis
Wikicommons (Public Domain)

Thomas Osborne Davis was born two hundred years ago in Mallow Co. Cork on 24 October 1814 (the date is disputed – some say the 14th October). He is best known as a poet (see here), with one of his most famous songs being “A Nation Once Again” (version by the Dubliners here).

Later writers have argued for Davis as more than a poet and writer, however. T. W. Rolleston (in the introduction to The prose writings of Thomas Davis) goes as far as to cite Davis as the mingling of two streams in Irish thought: Swift’s defence from enemies without and Berkeley’s encouragement of improvements by the Irish people themselves. Davis did not write systematically or academically, but he did succeed in his self-set task as populariser. He set out a vision of Ireland that proved influential. Not only were his works (mostly written for newspapers) collected and republished, but he was invoked by Padraig Pearse and Arthur Griffith, and cited as inspiration by Fenian John O’Leary. Most directly, he influenced the group around him, who had joined O’Connell’s Repeal Movement with him in 1841 and who were christened by a reporter “Young Ireland”.
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