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”.
One example of the unsystematic yet influential ideas put forth by Davis was that of land reform. In the early essay “Udalism and Feudalism”, Davis contrasts feudalism, which he sees as the root of the landlord system current in Ireland of the time, and udalism. Davis describes udalism, an earlier form of land ownership, as entailing tribal ownership of land, with crops grown belonging to the grower, and compares this (and Norwegian prosperity built on small owner occupied farms) to Irish penury. He argues against alternatives to small farms such as development of large farms worked by labourers (how can labourers develop a way of life with an uncertain income, and what of the people not required for labour?), or the development of English style manufacturing (which leads to a life “among sickly faces and vicious and despairing looks”, separated from nature and haunted by constant fear of the work house). He rejects efficiency as an ideal: “The equal distribution of comfort, education, and happiness is the only true wealth of nations.” He argues that in any case, those who reap all the benefit from their own toil will work harder.
This identification of the problem (Davis’ italics: “Ireland itself, belongs not to the people, is not tilled for the people“), however, does not come with a systematic investigation of population growth, different conditions, and so forth. Nor does it come with a solution: a way of achieving the desired end. That was a question taken up by others, such as Cairnes and the Land League.
The main thread of Davis’ thought focused on what it meant to be Irish. This is best summarised in the prospectus to The Nation, the paper he founded with Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon in 1842.
Nationality is [the] first object [of the founders of The Nation] —a nationality which will not only raise our people from their poverty, by securing to them the blessings of a domestic legislature, but inflame and purify them with a lofty and heroic love of country—a nationality of the spirit as well as the letter—a nationality which may come to be stamped upon our manners, our literature, and our deeds—a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter, Milesian and Cromwellian, the Irishman of a hundred generations, and the stranger who is within our gates; not a nationality which would preclude civil war, but which would establish internal union and external independence—a nationality which would be recognised by the world, and sanctified by wisdom, virtue, and time.
This is essentially the view of Irishness that Davis outlined in his speech to the Historical Society in 1840, when he was President of the society. He called then on Irish protestants (the vast majority of his listeners) to work for the good of Ireland. “Gentlemen, you have a country…Reason points out our native land as the ﬁeld for our exertions”. Both Duffy and O’Leary describe this inclusive view as hugely influencing them, and it is reflected in the writings of Arthur Griffith.
This may seem a perfectly logical position from the modern perspective. Davis as a Protestant was aware, however, of the fear among Irish Protestants of Catholics holding power. In a letter quoted by Duffy in the Memoirs written to his friend Maddyn in the summer of 1842 he talks of the fear of “papal supremacy”. Duffy writes that, “To educate the young men of the middle class and of both races, and to educate them together, that prejudice and bigotry might be killed in the bud, was one of the projects nearest his heart.” No wonder, then, he was reduced to tears in a debate where O’Connell opposed the measure (to counter the Young Irelanders, according to Rolleston).
Davis also argued that the Irish language should be cherished, preserved and if possible spread, and for the development of interest in Irish learning, art and history. “If Ireland was in health, her history would be familiar by books, pictures, statuary and music.”
Most of all, he wanted to preserve what was best about Ireland. In The Nation on 12th July 1845 he wrote, “There is neither use nor reason in lamenting what we must infallibly lose…be it well or ill we cannot resemble our forefathers.” However, his letter to Maddyn in 1842 suggests he hoped to stem the influx of utilitarian principles into Ireland, “which measures prosperity by exchangeable value, measures duty by gain, and limits desire to food, clothes and respectability.”
There is a certain irony in this anti-utilitarian stance given the suggestion of his friend John O’Hagan that Davis’ first views were those of a Benthamite Radical, with Wordsworth’s poetry being the catalyst for his change towards a love of country. It is plausible that national and cultural movements on the continent also influenced Davis, who read widely, and that he encountered the ideas of 1798 while at Trinity. However we cannot be sure, since he left no account of his influences. He died of scarlet fever aged 31 on the eve of the Great Famine, on 16th September 1845.
Mulvey, Helen E., Thomas Davis and Ireland: A Biographical Sketch (Washington: CUA Press 2002)
T. W. Rolleston (ed), The prose writings of Thomas Davis (London 1890) (online at Gutenberg.org)
Thomas Davis, Prose Writings: Essays on Ireland (1889) (Online at HathiTrust)
Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis, The Memoirs of an Irish Patriot 1840-1846, (1890), (online at OpenLibrary)
Irish Times: Remembering Thomas Davis (letter), An Irishman’s Diary: Thomas Davis – an inclusively radical nationalist, Time to recall Thomas Davis’s ‘republic of virtue’ once again, as we mark his bicentenary
Irish Philosophy: What ish my Nation?