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, 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 1842–45 Davis assumed the leadership of those who left the Repeal movement to form a new political group known as the ‘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 £500 year for his work, a large sum at that time. Soon people started sending in their own poems and articles—at least twenty poems a week were coming in at the beginning of 1843. In that year a collection was made of the best works from the paper and printed under the title The Spirit of the Nation. In July 1843, it was selling at the rate of a hundred copies a day.
Davis was convinced that it was vital to reverse the anglicisation of Irish culture and he argued for the revival of the Irish language, declaring that ‘a people without a language is only half a nation’. He tried to foster a nationality of the spirit by uniting the Irish of all religious traditions. His passionate spirited rhetoric had mass appeal, and his polished journalism inspired contemporaries with a vision of an Ireland free to pursue its own destiny. Davis was personally loyal to Daniel O’Connell, but was disappointed by his movement away from Repeal in 1844–5 and his alliance with the Whigs. Davis strongly supported the Colleges (Ireland) Act of 1845 but O’Connell was deeply opposed to the ‘godless’ Queen’s Colleges and harshly criticised Davis.
Davis died of scarlet fever at just 31 years of age in his mother’s house at 67 Baggot Street, Dublin, on 16 September 1845. Thousands attended his funeral, including representatives from the Corporation of Dublin, Young Ireland, the Eighty-Two Club, the Committee of the Repeal Association, and the antiquaries and scholars of the Royal Irish Academy. His fiancée, Annie Hutton, died heartbroken in the summer of 1853, aged just 28.
Despite his youth and early death, Davis played a vital part in the birth of a strong cultural nationalism and has been celebrated as one of Ireland’s greatest patriots. His prose and verse kindled enthusiasm and inspired his contemporaries with a vision of a free Ireland. His best known poems included ‘A nation once again’, ‘The West’s asleep’, ‘Lament for the death of Owen Roe O’Neill’, ‘Fontenoy’, ‘Clare’s Dragoons’, ‘Tom’s grave’ and ‘My Land’. T. W. Rolleston edited his prose works in 1890. His friend Charles Gavan Duffy wrote A Life of Davis (1896) and a lengthy introduction to Davis’s The Patriot Parliament of 1689 (1893). Davis was named by Pearse, Griffith and O’Leary as ‘their master’. Griffith described him as ‘the prophet I followed throughout my life, the man whose words and teachings I tried to translate into practice in politics’.
Writings, Biography, & Studies. T. W. Rolleston (ed), The prose writings of Thomas Davis (London 1890) [on line at www.celt.ie]. Arthur Griffith (ed), Thomas Davis: the thinker & teacher: the essence of his writings in prose and poetry (Dublin 1914). D. J. O’Donoghue (ed), Essays, literary and historical … by Thomas Davis (Dundalk 1914). Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis: the memoirs of an Irish patriot, 1840–46 (London 1892). J. M. Hone, Thomas Davis (London & Dublin 1934). M. J. McManus (ed), Thomas Davis and Young Ireland (Dublin 1945). J. L. Ahern, Thomas Davis and his circle (Waterford 1945). T. W. Moody, Thomas Davis, 1814–45 (Dublin 1945). T. W. Moody, ‘Thomas Davis and the Irish nation’, Hermathena 103 (1966) 5–31. Eileen Sullivan, Thomas Davis (Lewisburg PA 1978). John Neylon Moloney, A soul came into Ireland: Thomas Davis 1814–1845, a biography (Dublin 1995). Sean Ryder, ‘Speaking of ’98: Young Ireland and republican memory’, Éire-Ireland 34 (1999) 51–69. Patrick Maume, ‘Young Ireland, Arthur Griffith, and republican ideology: the question of continuity’, Éire-Ireland 34 (1999) 155–74. Gerry Kearns, ‘Time and some citizenship: nationalism and Thomas Davis’, Bullán: an Irish Studies Review 5:2 (2001) 23–54. Helen Mulvey, Thomas Davis and Ireland: a biographical study (Washington DC 2003).
Donnchadh Ó Corráin & Tomás O’Riordan