RTE’s long-running Thomas Davis Lectures began in September 1953, making the best in Irish scholarship available to the general public.
They’re named in honour of the poet, writer and leader of the Young Ireland movement, Thomas Davis 1814 – 1845. In this decade we’re preoccupied with the events of the early 20th century so we could easily miss the bi-centenary (in October) of Davis’s birth.
He was born in Mallow, County Cork, the son of a British army officer and an Irish mother. Shortly after his birth and the death of his father, the family moved to Dublin. There he went to school and on to Trinity College where he took an arts degree. A lecture theatre in Trinity is named after him and his statue stands just outside in College Green.
Davis dedicated his life to Ireland. In 1916, 71 years after his death, Patrick Pearse paid tribute to him. Davis was a “father” of the Irish nation, said the 1916 leader. Davis’s romantic belief in nationhood appealed to Pearse but Davis also had a more practical impact on the later revolutionary. Unsurprisingly, for a Protestant from his background, Davis had an inclusive concept of Irishness. What mattered, he said, was a person’s willingness to be part of the Irish nation. The nation “must contain and represent the races of Ireland. It must not be Celtic, it must not be Saxon – it must be Irish,” said Davis. This thinking was reflected in Pearse’s Proclamation in its reference to, “… The whole nation, and all of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” Davis co-founded a newspaper, “The Nation” in 1842. Within a year it had a readership of 250,000. It supported O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Act of Union. Davis contributed many articles, poems and songs. Probably his most famous song is A Nation Once Again. It was once voted the world’s best known song in a BBC poll and it acquired the status of a “rebel” song when it was recorded by The Wolfe Tones in 1964!
Davis was writing in the half-century following abolition of the Irish Parliament in Dublin. It was the high water mark for unionism but Davis (and others) kept alive the vision of internal union between all classes and creeds in a nationalist Ireland. It was a difficult time. O’Connell achieved Catholic emancipation but his monster rallies for repeal alarmed the authorities without delivering a result.
Of course, Davis lived well before the Gaelic language, games and cultural revival towards the end of the century. In A Nation Once Again he wrote: “When boyhood’s fire was in my blood/ I read of ancient freemen …/And then I prayed I might yet see/Our fetters rent in twain. Considering he died of scarlet fever when he was just 30, he didn’t himself live long beyond, “boyhood’s fire”. Considering the shortness of his life, his vision made a remarkable impact after his death. I was thinking of Davis’s vision of an inclusive, educated nation in the week that an Orange Grand Master warned Protestants against learning Irish. George Chittick’s objection to Irish is that the language has been politicised by republicans. Ironically he was also politicising it by calling on people not to learn it. So, if it’s not OK to learn Irish, is it OK with Mr Chittick to learn Irish history? I wonder if the BBC or RTE will ever have a series of “George Chittick Lectures”.