Thomas Davis was born in the town of Mallow, Co Cork, the son of a Welsh father, a surgeon in the Royal Artillery, and an Irish mother. Through his mother he was descended from the Gaelic noble family of O’Sullivan Beare. His father died one month after his birth and his mother moved to Warrington Place near Mount Street bridge in Dublin. In 1830, they moved to 67 Lower Baggot Street. He attended school in Lower Mount Street before studying in Trinity College, Dublin. He graduated in Law and received an Arts degree in 1836, before being called to the Irish Bar in 1838.
To a large extent Davis created the culture of modern Irish nationalism. Formerly it was based on the republicans of the 1790s and on the Catholic emancipation movement of Daniel O’Connell in the 1820s-30s, that had little in common with each other except for separatism from Britain; Davis aimed to create a common and more inclusive base for the future. He established The Nation newspaper with Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon.
He wrote some stirring nationalistic ballads, originally contributed to The Nation, and afterwards republished as Spirit of the Nation, as well as a memoir of Curran, the Irish lawyer and orator, prefixed to an edition of his speeches, and a history of King James II’s parliament of 1689; and he had formed many literary plans which were unfinished by his early death.
He was a protestant, but preached unity between Catholics and Protestants. To Davis, it was not blood that made a person Irish, but the willingness to be part of the Irish nation. Although the Saxon and Dane were, Davis asserted, objects of unpopularity, their descendants would be Irish if they simply allowed themselves to be.
He was to the fore of Irish nationalist thinking and it has been noted by later nationalist notables, such as Pádraig Pearse, that while Wolfe Tone laid out the basic premise that Ireland as a nation must be free, Davis was the one who built this idea up promoting the Irish identity.
He is the author of the famous Irish rebel songs The West’s Awake and A Nation Once Again. He also wrote the Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill.
Davis supported O’Connell’s Repeal Association from 1840, hoping to recreate the old Irish Parliament. They split during a debate on the proposed new Queen’s University of Ireland, when Davis was reduced to tears by O’Connell’s superior debating skill. Davis was in favour of a university that would inclusively educate all Irish students; O’Connell and the Catholic hierarchy preferred a separate system for Catholic students within Ireland that would remain under church control.
O’Connell generally referred to his inexperienced allies as “Young Ireland”, initially as a dismissive term, that from the 1870s became the accepted term for nationalists inspired by Davis. He also preferred a federal arrangement with Britain in the 1840s while Davis sought a greater degree of autonomy. Both agreed that a gradual and non-violent process was the best way forward. Despite their differences O’Connell was distraught at Davis’s early death.
He died from scarlet fever, in 1845 at the age of 30. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. A series of state events were staged around Ireland for a week in September 1945 on the 100th anniversary of his death.
A statue of Davis, created by Edward Delaney, was unveiled on College Green, Dublin, in 1966, attended by the Irish president, Éamon de Valera. One of the secondary schools in Davis’ home town of Mallow, Davis College, is named after him. A number of GAA clubs around the country are also named after him; including one in Tallaght, Dublin and one in Corrinshego, Co Armagh. Fort Davis, at the entrance to Cork Harbour, is named after him, as well as, Thomas Davis street, off Francis Street in Dublin 8 is also named after him.
Photo: Thomas Davis Monument, Grande Parade, Co Cork