In my youth, my role model patriots were James Larkin (mainly because of his strong working-class credentials as well as the fact that his parents hailed from here) James Connolly and John Mitchel. Where repression, discrimination and exclusion dominate, one tends towards the extremes.
John Martin was admired too, but seen more as an orthodox, ‘constitutional’ politician – something he became only after his return from enforced exile for his radical political ideas. The ‘constitutional’ adjective had somewhat of a pejorative ring in our political vocabulary, because it implied acceptance of British occupation.
Curiously I never took Thomas Davis under my notice, until finally I browsed an historical series that bore his name, the Thomas Davis lectures. Then suddenly I became aware of a Newry street named for him, a Pipe Band and a GAA Club. All this makes me indebted to the enlightened Newry folk who chose this name: and shiver to hear the GAA go in search of moneyed sponsors instead after whom to name their stadia!
Yet Thomas Davis was named by Patrick Pearse, Arthur Griffith and John O’Leary as ‘their master’. Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein described him as ‘the prophet I followed throughout my life, the man whose words and teachings I tried to translate into practice in politics’.
I set out to learn more.
Poet, journalist, and cultural nationalist, Thomas Davis was born on 24 October 1814, in Mallow, Co. Cork. He was the son of a British army surgeon, who died before he was born, and an Irish Protestant mother, Mary Atkins.
In 1818, the family moved to Dublin where he was enrolled at Mr Mongan’s School on Lower Mount Street. He proved to be a difficult pupil. In 1831 he entered Trinity College, Dublin where he studied history, law, political philosophy and works on travel. There he met people who remembered Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, both of whom had been Trinity College students and both of whom promoted the idea of a ‘free and independent Ireland’. Davis found that his time spent at Trinity helped to broaden his mind. He graduated in 1836 and decided that he would travel to London and the Continent. In 1838 he returned to Trinity to complete his law studies and became Auditor of the College Historical Society. He was called to the bar in 1837, but never practised. His eldest brother, John Nicholas Atkins Davis, a doctor, was also a famous genealogist, known by the nickname ‘pedigree Davis’.
Davis first expressed his ideas of Irish nationality to the Dublin Historical Society in 1839 and subsequently in the Citizen (later the Dublin Monthly Magazine) and Morning Register. As Auditor of the Historical Society in 1840, he urged his audience to devote themselves to Ireland and the search for a national self-identity and used the famous phrase ‘Gentlemen, you have a country’.
He pleaded for serious Irish historical studies as a means of developing nationality (the reason that Lecture Series was named after him) but above all he argued for Ireland’s independence. During this time Daniel O’Connell was holding monster Repeal meetings all over the country in an attempt to persuade the British government to give Ireland back its parliament. Shortly after graduating from Trinity College, Davis joined O’Connell’s Loyal National Repeal Association, thus beginning his political career. Davis had great respect for O’Connell the ‘Liberator’ but the two did not always agree.
In the years 1842-45 Davis assumed the leadership of those who left the Repeal movement to form a new political group known as ‘Young Ireland’. Like O’Connell the Young Irelanders demanded repeal of the Union. However, Davis challenged O’Connell’s opposition to non-denominational education arguing that mixed education was essential for unity. Davis was disillusioned with constitutional methods and believed that Irish independence should be achieved even at the cost of bloodshed. He was more interested in promoting a vision of the future where a united Irish society would be governed by a proud and self-confident nationalism.
In 1840 Davis, with John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy, sub-edited the Dublin Morning Register. On 15 October 1842 he co-founded, again with Dillon and Duffy, the Nation, a weekly newspaper. Davis was its editor. In his editorials and poetry, he publicised his theories of self-government in countless articles on Irish history and culture, antiquity, poetry, art, music, scenery, ethnology and language. His first poem, ‘My Grave’ appeared in the third issue with the signature ‘A True Celt’. His nationalist verse gave the paper its distinctive character, introducing stirring and popular works to awaken a spirit of Irish nationalism. The Nation was a great success. It was read by more than a quarter of a million people, and its circulation was greater than that of any Dublin journal.
In the three years that Davis worked on the paper he wrote over 80 songs and ballads, as well as many articles and essays. In the first year alone, he wrote about 210 essays and editorials. He was paid nearly