Thomas Davis, The Memoirs of an Irish Patriot

By: Charles Gavan Duffy, 1890. 398 Pages

Reviewed By: Mairtin O’Griobtha (Martin Griffin)

Though Thomas Davis, (1814-1845) life spanned a mere thirty years -- he was in fact a month shy of his thirty-first birthday -- the legacy he bequeathed Ireland is as rich and full as that of a man who lived thrice as long. His political and vastly productive literary career barely exceeded three years duration and was of such variety and extent that there were few areas of either field not touched and forever altered by his genius. He also became one of the increasing number of well rounded Irish revolutionaries who combined academic, folk, literary and military concepts into his radicalism. 

Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution offers a sequential explanation of the development of the species, Davis’s life as exhibited by his biography details a necessary   series of events leading to the incremental maturation of    an emerging nationalist ideology. Thomas Davis’s thinking on the entire spectrum of what makes or unites a “People”, the sharing of an Island, proximity to one another, common language, traditions, music, art and literature were all objects of his exertions. Davis believed the most important of weapons to be trained was the mind, more than being a renaissance man he was himself a renaissance. 

There were many shades of nationalism at the time from O’Connell’s Repeal Movement, to Irish Whig federalists. Young Ireland’s members were initially members of the Repeal Movement who came into increasing conflict with Daniel O’Connell and his sons, especially John O’Connell who during his father’s rapid decline had an increasing influence over the revered “Liberator”. 

O’Connell was a long time Member of Parliament, who like Charles Stewart Parnell or John Redmond sought Ireland’s liberation through legislative action and political alignments. To be frank though the parliamentary actions of these men did improve the condition of their constituents at the end of the day Ireland remained a colony and these men were typical politicians playing the British game on their home pitch. 

In some ways O’Connell’s Repeal Association with its hall and possession of patronage plums when in alliance with Whig governments had some shady similarities to New York’s Tammany Hall political machine. There became a time when the great man himself was compromised by his own conflicts of interests.  

How much of the seemingly erratic thinking of his last couple of years was due to the encephalomalacia or cerebral softening will never be known; but there is no doubting that upon release from his imprisonment he was no longer the same man. It was during this period that O’Connell and Davis came into conflict. The Liberator by means foul and fair sought to disparage the young protégé he had previously expressed a paternal love and admiration for. 

Through Thomas Davis’s teaching many Nationalists become adherents of Wolfe Tone style Republicanism as was well shown when the Young Irelanders incited the uprising of 1848, or, the Famine Rising. 

Charles Gavan Duffy, a contemporary, friend, co-worker, and admirer does a very able job as the biographer of a man he held so closely to his heart, drawing heavily on Davis’s own public writings as well as his private correspondences, many of which are addressed to Duffy himself. 

Thomas Davis’s died just as Ireland was about to pass through her darkest period. The fields of Irish farmers were no doubt already infected by the blight, which over the succeeding five years would kill and dislocate so large a percentage of Ireland’s population that the event itself would be called the greatest natural disaster to ever befall Europe. 

Thomas Davis was not the prototypical radical. In many ways his greatest contribution to his country was the effect that he had on his contemporaries, men who later became famous as Fenians and members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  

Thomas Davis inspired all those around him to greater efforts; he himself was a late bloomer. Members of his university class had a low opinion of his abilities due to his natural reticence, which was mistaken for a lack of intellectual capacity. 

To return to the purpose of this essay -- reviewing a vintage on-line book rather than praising Davis no matter how worthy he may be – let me now offer the just criticisms. One of the drawbacks of reading a book on-line is coping with footnotes. While reading the body of the text and coming upon the indicative asterisk of source attribution of whatever the particular footnote consists of you are required to either: scroll down to the actual footnote and remain focused on the particular thoughts being expressed; or holding off, following the text as it develops and when finally coming upon the actual note itself remembering it genesis.  

If that sounds like a difficult process that is because it is. In a regular book you merely have to look to the bottom or foot of the page to read the footnote in an e-text you may have to scroll down what seems to be several pages in order to complete what should be a much easier task. The end result is that either way the flow of the text is rudely interrupted and extremely frustrating. This does not make the book unfit for reading, the lives of both Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy are immensely important to the study of Irish history. 

If there is any area where Thomas Davis’s life could be open to criticism is the fact that his understanding of the actual Irish Catholic peasant was intellectual rather than existential. Davis while not a rich man did not have an understanding of what is was like to be uncertain of ones next meal. He criticizes the people of the lower class for lacking certain attributes that can in reality only be acquired during the leisure afforded by relative economic security. Davis was not a “classist”, his reproofs to the people were gentle, avuncular, a goad to their improvement. 

 An example of the above was his angst at some instances of agrarian violence in Munster where tenant farmers killed several landlords or their agents. He feared that the killings were the expression of sectarianism while they were most likely the response to a growing insecurity felt by the people of the land to the policies of the day that intended to turn tillage to pasturage depriving these tenants of their livelihoods.  

Davis at the time was unable to see that the decision of a landlord to evict tenants who had been on a particular plot of land was in the end similar to killing them at least in their minds, as they didn’t have the ability to pick up and move to a new farm. While the action of the tenant led him to the hangman to his way of thinking or -- better yet reacting -- his fate was the same either way, death.

Thomas Davis died as unexpectedly as he burst upon the Irish political and literary scene. His death was a shock to his contemporaries who because of his youth and intellectual vigor took his being with them for a long time for granted. Davis’s fragile, slight physique was masked not only by his aforementioned mental prowess; but his silence on any issues unrelated to his cause. 

Those he left behind and the ideas and ideals he left them with make up the subsequent history of the Irish Nationalist/Republican struggle. The Irish People’s struggle from Thomas Davis on becomes more Republican than Nationalist in nearly every aspect including the permanence of armed struggle.


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