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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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06 Aug

Daniel O’Connell and Free Speech

Daniel O'Connell [The O'Connell Centennial] (c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Daniel O’Connell [The O’Connell Centennial]
(c) Library & Archives Canada/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Given his political philosophy, it is not surprising that Daniel O’Connell was a champion of free speech. The history of the eighteenth century in Ireland was a history of speech restricted, with all political writers from Molyneaux and Swift to Wolf Tone facing possible accusations of treason. Religious freedom was still being fought for.

O’Connell’s passion for free speech extended, as it should, to those he disagreed with. Not that he was necessarily entirely polite to them, if the following account by Wendell Phillips (1875) is to be believed:
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15 May

A Giant Among Men: Daniel O’Connell’s philosophical influences

 Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation

Alarmed at the progress of a Giant of their own Creation.
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The satirical picture above (1831) from the National Portrait Gallery London depicts Daniel O’Connell approaching the Irish Channel, with Anglesey (Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) and Stanley (Chief Secretary of Ireland) attempting to restrain him by a large document headed PROCLAMATION. O’Connell holds a paper on which is written “Repeal of the Union”, in his other hand a paper bearing “Agitation within the letter of the law”.The implication is that O’Connell “is a monster produced by human machinations” (more details available from the British Museum).

Depicting O’Connell as Frankenstein’s Monster is appropriate, philosophically speaking: the DoIP notes that in his early life O’Connell had been “receptive to the leading radical philosophies of the day, including the revolutionary humanism and egalitarianism of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft” (p. 255).  These two philosophers were, of course, the parents of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Godwin’s Political Justice greatly influenced the young O’Connell regarding the nature and purpose of government. Godwin confirmed O’Connell’s abhorrence of political violence. O’Connell came to see the end of government as the happiness of the many, and since everyone was governed, everyone should participate in governing. O’Connell’s political path was set during his law training in Dublin and London from 1794-7: “in the spring of 1797 he was already a democrat in politics and a Deist in religion” (Thomas E. Hachey, Lawrence J. McCaffrey (eds) Perspectives On Irish Nationalism, University Press of Kentuckyp. 105.)

O’Connell had been converted to Deism by his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason. He rejected it after a decade as a “miserable philosophy” and returned to Catholicism. He remained radical however, seeking Catholic Emancipation from the Penal Laws (successfully, in 1829), and then repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. He insisted however that “no political change whatsoever is worth the shedding of a single drop of human blood”.

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