Remembering Thomas Davis
Sir, – This month we celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Davis, one of the most attractive figures in the Irish patriotic pantheon. It is strange, however, how many authors have been in error about the date of his birth. Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, in his seminal Thomas Davis, The Memoirs of an Irish Patriot 1840-1846, published in 1890, states that Davis was born on October 14th, 1814. This has been repeated by almost all subsequent writers and historians, including the late eminent historian Prof TW Moody, who wrote eloquently on Thomas Davis at the centenary of the death of Davis in 1945 and in 1966 in a public lecture in association with the golden jubilee of the 1916 rising. In 1995 the Australian historian Prof John N Molony wrote a stimulating biography of Davis entitled A Soul Came into Ireland: Thomas Davis, 1814-1845, in which he again gives the date of birth as October 14th, 1814. The curious thing is that Prof Molony’s book has a full-page photograph of the gravestone of Thomas Davis in Mount Jerome cemetery on which is given the correct date of birth – October 24th, 1814. Presumably all who have written on Davis visited at some time his grave in homage to him but failed to notice his proper date of birth.
Until that is the late Prof Helen F Mulvey produced her Thomas Davis and Ireland: A Biographical Study, the finest and most judicious single volume on Davis, in 2003. Prof Mulvey gives the correct date – October 24th, 1814 – and notes that Kevin MacGrath’s article in the Irish Book Lover in June 1952, which gave important facts about the Davis family, had given the correct date. So as a little product of the celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Davis let us, once and for all, get his birthday right!
There are, of course, many more serious aspects of the bicentenary reflections on Davis than his actual birthday. As Gavan Duffy noted in his final eulogy “the life he led was the greatest lesson” – he remains an inspirational figure because of his unselfish character and his moral courage. As WB Yeats observed in 1914, Davis is “the foremost moral influence on our politics”. John O’Hagan, who knew Davis, writing in 1890, of his “grace of nature and manner” reached for an Italian word to describe his “gentilezza”.
Samuel Ferguson saw the civic virtues taught by Thomas Davis, which he captured in his lines about making Ireland the nation it might be:
“Self-respecting, self-relying, self-advancing,
In union or in severance, free and strong;
And if God grant this, then under God, to Thomas Davis
Let the greater praise belong!” – Yours, etc,