Thomas Davis (Young Irelander)

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Thomas Osborne Davis
Davis in the 1840s
Davis in the 1840s
Born(1814-10-14)14 October 1814
Mallow, Ireland
Died16 September 1845(1845-09-16) (aged 30)
Dublin, Ireland
EducationArts degree
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin
Literary movementYoung Ireland
Notable works"The West's Asleep"
"A Nation Once Again"

Thomas Osborne Davis (14 October 1814 – 16 September 1845) was an Irish writer who was the chief organiser of the Young Ireland movement.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Davis was born on 14 October 1814, in Mallow, County Cork, fourth and last child of James Davis, a Welsh surgeon in the Royal Artillery based for many years in Dublin, and an Irish mother. His father died in Exeter a month before his birth, en route to serve in the Peninsular War.[1] His mother was Protestant, but also related to the Chief's of Clan O'Sullivan Beares, members of the Gaelic nobility of Ireland.[2]

His mother had enough money to live on her own and moved back to Dublin in 1818, taking up residence at 67 Lower Baggot Street in 1830, where Davis lived until his death in 1845. He attended school in Lower Mount Street, then went to Trinity College, Dublin. He became auditor of the College Historical Society,[3] and graduated in 1835 with a degree in Logic. From 1836 to 1838, he studied law in London and Europe; although he qualified as a lawyer in 1838, he never practiced.[4]


Davis gave a voice to the 19th-century foundational 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 and 1830s, which had little in common with each other except for independence from Britain; Davis aimed to create a common and more inclusive base for the future.

As a Protestant, Davis preached religious unity, often building on ideas promoted by the secular United Irishmen prior to the 1798 Rebellion. He was heavily influenced by Romantic nationalism and the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), who argued nationality was not genetic but the product of climate, geography and inclination.[5]

In September 1842, he established The Nation newspaper with Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon. Ostensibly designed to support O'Connell's campaign for repeal of the 1801 Union, Davis made it a vehicle for promoting the Irish language, and an Irish cultural identity separate from that of Britain.[6] This focus can be seen in several letters written shortly before his death in 1843, that emphasise the uniqueness of the Irish countryside, and its inhabitants as a "rising, not declining, people".[7]

His June 1840 speech as the outgoing president of the College Historical Society,[8] contains the first explicit statement of belief in the Irish nation.[9]

"The country of our birth, our educations, our recollections, ancestral, personal, national; the country of our loves, our friendships, our hopes; our country: the cosmopolite is unnatural, base - I would fain say, impossible. To act on a world is for those above it, not of it. Patriotism is human philanthropy."[10]

This placed him in the fore of Irish nationalist thinking; later notables, chiefly Patrick Pearse, suggest Wolfe Tone laid out the basic premise that Ireland as a nation must be free, but Davis expanded this by also promoting the Irish identity.

Relationship with Daniel O'Connell[edit]

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 (see: Catholic University of Ireland)

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.[11]


He died from scarlet fever, in 1845 at the age of 30, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.[12]


Dame Street - Thomas Davis

Davis composed a number of songs, including Irish rebel songs, such as "The West's Asleep", "A Nation Once Again", "In Bodenstown Churchyard", and the "Lament for Owen Roe O'Neill".[13] As well as many contributions to periodicals and newspapers, he wrote a memoir of Curran, the Irish lawyer and orator, prefixed to an edition of his speeches, and a history of the 1689 Patriot Parliament; other literary plans were left unfinished by his early 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.

The main street of his home town of Mallow is named Davis Street, which contains a bronze statue of Davis designed by sculptor Leo Higgins. One of the secondary schools in Mallow, Davis College, is named after him.

A number of Gaelic Athletic Association clubs around the country are also named after him, including one in Tallaght, Dublin and one in Corrinshego, County Armagh.

Fort Davis, at the entrance to Cork Harbour, is named after him.

Thomas Davis Street, off Francis Street in Dublin 8, is also named after him.


  • The Patriot Parliament of 1689: first edition (1843); third edition, with an introduction by Charles Gavan Duffy (1893)
  • The Life of the Right Hon. J. P. Curran (1846)
  • Letters of a Protestant, on Repeal [Five letters originally published in The Nation.] Edited by Thomas F. Meagher (1847)
  • Literary and Historical Essays (edited by Charles Gavan Duffy) (1846)
  • The Poems of Thomas Davis (with notes and historical illustrations edited by Thomas Wallis) (1846)


  1. ^ Moody 1966, pp. 5–6.
  2. ^ Mulvey 2003, p. 22.
  3. ^ various 1892, p. 127,253.
  4. ^ Moody 1966, p. 6.
  5. ^ King 2016, p. 112.
  6. ^ Penet 2007, pp. 433–434.
  7. ^ Cullen 1854, pp. 63–65.
  8. ^ Davis, Thomas Osborne (June 1840). "Address to the Historical Society, Thomas Osborne Davis". Retrieved 19 February 2020 – via
  9. ^ Moody 1966, p. 7.
  10. ^ Potter 2017, p. 27.
  11. ^ Podcast by "Newstalk" radio, accessed 7 January 2015
  12. ^ Hachey 2010, p. 62.
  13. ^ 108. Lament for the Death of Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill by Thomas Davis Colum, Padraic. 1922. Anthology of Irish Verse]


  • Cullen, Fintan (1854). Sources in Irish Art: A Reader. Cork University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Hachey, Thomas E (2010). The Irish Experience Since 1800: A Concise History. M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 978-0765628435.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • King, Brian (2016). "Herder & Human Identity". Philosophy Now (112).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Moody, TW (1966). "Thomas Davis and the Irish Nation". Hermathena. 103 (103): 5–31. JSTOR 23039825.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Mulvey, Helen (2003). Thomas Davis and Ireland: A Biographical Sketch. Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 978-0813213033.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Penet, Jean-Christophe (2007). "Thomas Davis, 'The Nation' and the Irish Language". An Irish Quarterly Review. 96 (284): 433–443. JSTOR 25660516.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Potter, Tony (editor) (2017), The Pocket Book of Great Irish Speeches, Gill Books, ISBN 978-0717172917CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link) CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • various (1892), The Book of Trinity College, Dublin, 1591-1891, Marcus Ward & Co. – via Project Gutenberg

External links[edit]