Thomas Davis Statue & Memorial Fountain, Memorial in Dublin
Thomas Davis, the bicentenary of whose birth occurs on October 14th, was arguably the 19th-century nationalist thinker who had the greatest influence on the generation who achieved Irish independence in the 20th century.
Nationalists as different as Patrick Pearse and Arthur Griffith strongly acknowledged his influence. In his pamphlet Ghosts, Pearse described Tone and Davis, Lalor and Mitchel as his four nationalist evangelists, and he also referred to Davis as “the father and evangelist of Irish nationality”.
Arthur Griffith spoke of Davis in the Treaty debate of 1921-22 as “the prophet I followed throughout all my life, the man whose words and teachings I tried to translate into practices and policies”. He also said: “I have never departed in my life one inch from the principles of Thomas Davis.”
Davis was born in Mallow, shortly after the death of his father, who was an army surgeon. In 1818, his mother moved her four children to Dublin and the family settled in Lower Baggot Street. He attended school in Lower Mount Street and university at Trinity College, from where he graduated in 1836. He was called to the Irish Bar a year later and spent some time in England and on the Continent, where he learned languages and built up his library, becoming an omnivorous reader.
He came under the influence of continental thinkers on nationalism, especially the German philosopher Herder, who espoused what is usually called “romantic nationalism”. Thus Davis came to believe that Ireland would never be independent until it built up its own cultural, spiritual and economic life.
He was typical of romantic nationalists in his attitude to the Irish language. “A people without a language of its own is only half a nation. A nation should guard its language more than its territories – ‘tis a surer barrier and more important frontier, than fortress or river ... To lose your native tongue, and learn that of an alien, is the worst badge of conquest. To have lost entirely the national language is death ... the fetter has worn through.”
In 1837, he joined Daniel O’Connell’s National Repeal Association. He frequently spoke at Trinity’s Historical Society and in an important address there in 1840, pleading for the study of Irish history, he urged his Protestant audience to work for Ireland, saying famously: “Gentlemen, you have a country.” For Davis, it was vital that all Irish work together for the good of the nation and, like Tone, he wished to break down the barriers separating Catholics and Protestants.
He began writing for The Citizen, a monthly publication established by leading members of the Historical Society, and also for the Dublin Morning Register. In 1841, he and his college barrister friend John Blake Dillon met Charles Gavan Duffy, a journalist, and they decided to set up a newspaper, which they called The Nation. It proved to be a publishing phenomenon, soon having a readership of 250,000, well ahead of every other Dublin journal of the time.
Davis wrote a huge amount for the paper and soon found he could write stirring and immensely popular poems/songs, such as A Nation Once Again, which became the nationalist anthem for generations afterwards, and The West’s Asleep. The most popular songs were published in one volume in 1843 as The Spirit of the Nation.
He also served on the committee of the Repeal Association but was becoming increasingly disenchanted with what he saw as its sectarian character. He and his associates (known as Young Irelanders, after Mazzini’s Young Italy movement) also thought that O’Connell’s aims were too limited. There was an open breach between Davis and O’Connell in 1845 over the Colleges Bill, which proposed interdenominational university colleges. Davis wanted non-sectarian education but O’Connell denounced such colleges as “godless”.
It is impossible to say if Davis would have supported John Mitchel and the Young Irelanders as they moved towards rebellion in 1848. He died from scarlet fever at the young age of 30 in September 1845.
Sir Samuel Ferguson wrote the beautiful Lament for Thomas Davis: “I may lie and try to feel that I am dreaming, / I may lie and try to say, ‘Thy will be done,’ / But a hundred such as I will never comfort Erin / For the loss of the noble son.”
A statue of Davis, created by Edward Delaney, was unveiled on College Green, Dublin, in 1966. The Four Angels Fountain is a secondary piece to the memorial; the angels are blowing their trumpets to awaken the four provinces of Ireland.