Thomas Davis died on September 16, 1845 from scarlet fever. He was aged just 30, but his role in founding The Nation newspaper three years earlier and his influence on the Young Ireland movement and later generations, has made him one of the key figures in Irish nationalism.
He was revered by Arthur Griffith, and Michael Collins said of him: “Davis spoke to the soul of the sleeping nation – drunk with the waters of forgetfulness.” All of which might appear overblown and romantic at this juncture but it appealed to later Irish nationalists who related to Davis’ recognition that Ireland was in danger of losing its identity, and not just any hope of political independence. Davis encapsulated the impact of colonialism in the phrase “Anglicism has made us serfs, not a people.”
While Davis may have partly believed that Irish independence and cultural integrity could be brought about by appealing to the enlightened democrats of the sort who were prominent in the revolutionary republican movements of Europe of the same period – as captured in Davis’ address to the Trinity College Historical Society in 1841 – it was among the radical separatists and cultural nationalists that he found his enduring audience.
The revolutionary movement inspired by The Nation was Young Ireland but its insurrectionary mission foundered amidst the chaos and despair of the Great Hunger. The real legacy of the organisation and of Davis was in the journalism and creation of a nationalist literature which they were a key element in giving birth to.
In our digital age that might seem rather quaint but in the Ireland of the dark days of the second half of the 19th century The Nation, which outlived its founders, exercised a profound influence on the country. Much of the ballads associated with 1798 for example are products of that time, as are the enduring songs ‘A Nation Once Again’ and ‘The West’s Asleep’ penned by Davis. It was that example which inspired a later generation, of whom Griffith was the most prolific, to revive its lost radicalism as that century came to a close and a new one began.
Griffith clearly regarded himself as a disciple of Davis and understood his role not as a revolutionary organiser but more as a channel for the disparate voices of nationalist dissent to be given voice at a time when national identity was once again being swamped by the lowest forms of Anglo culture in alliance with a native political elite that was content to play a subordinate role in that scheme of things once it got to wet its own beak.
Plus ca change!
While Davis and others of The Nation are sometimes dismissed as hopelessly naïve intellectuals – James Connolly has little that is not disparaging to say about them in his Labour in Irish History – they were conscious of the central part which the economy and in particular the ownership of lland occupied in any quest for Irish independence and sovereignty.
Davis identified as the “master grievance” the fact that “Ireland exists, and her millions toil for an alien aristocracy, her soil sends forth its abundance to give palaces, equipages, wines, women, and dainties to a few thousands; while the people rot upon their native land. What trifling, what madness, what crime, to talk of prosperity from railroads, and poor-laws, from manufacturing experiments, and agricultural societies, while the very land, ay, Ireland itself, belongs not to the people, is not tilled for the people!”
Presciently, in the light of the impending catastrophe, Davis declared that “tenure is a question of life or death with the people.” Far from appealing to the good nature of the landlord class, as Connolly claimed, Davis regarded them as alien, “the unsought and monopolising partner in your industry is one unconnected with you by blood, hostile to your creed, contemptuous towards your manners and customs, alternately (nay often, at
one and the same time) the traitor and tyrant of your country, insolent to your joys, regardless of your sorrows.” I imagine that Ukrainian peasants viewed the Bolshevik managers of collective farms in much the same light.
Davis also scorned the pre-Famine claim that there were too many people here and so the land had to be cleared and the people forced to emigrate. Which would have fit with quite a few High Revisionist theses in the Irish academy of the 1970s and 80s.
Rather, Davis claimed with the evidence of contemporary agricultural economists that the land of Ireland would be able to support an even greater population if the land was properly administered, which it could not be under colonial landlordism. His proposal in Udalism and Feudalism was that the people who worked the land would own the land, as small proprietors.
A healthy agriculture would then provide a key support for a native manufacturing sector protected by a sovereign government, and free from the abject misery he depicted as existing in the factory mill towns of England. That was the economic vision of Griffith which did inspire for a period the first Fianna Fáil governments until they abandoned it in the face of the resistance of the financial elite.
The writings of Davis are still of interest, particularly as they relate to the relationships between national sovereignty and culture, and the importance of an economic foundation for such. They are also curiously modern in some of their references to ways of thinking about all of those issues, and particularly the connection between the integrity of individuals and their role as economic actors. In a way that the celebrants of global capital and statism are not.
On the 28th February 2019, South Dublin Libraries received a most generous donation of ‘The Nation’ newspaper to their Local Studies research library from Mícheál Beatty.
In 2014, An Post issued a new stamp to celebrate the bicentenary of Thomas Davis, it featured an engraving of Thomas Davis taken from the book Memoirs of an Irish Patriot by Charles Gavan Duffy (in the National Library of Ireland).”