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From: Church & State: Articles
Date: January, 2015
By: Editorial

Bicentenary Of Davis Thomas Davis And The Young Ireland Heritage

Bicentenary Of Davis
Thomas Davis And The Young Ireland Heritage
Thomas Davis, an Anglo-Irish Protestant gentleman who founded The Nation newspaper along with Charles Gavan Duffy in 1842, was born in Mallow, Co. Cork and died in Dublin in 1845. The centenary of his death was a major cultural/political event in nationalist Ireland. The bi-centenary of his birth was scarcely noticed outside of Mallow.
In 1945 Irish independence, both political and cultural, appeared to be so firmly established that the project of undermining it seemed futile. The English newspaper in Ireland, the Irish Times, therefore aligned itself with the Davis/Young Ireland strain in the national culture as a means of averting total isolation from Irish life and adopting a critical comment on it which stood a chance of being listened to. The tactic was to make use of Young Ireland as a lever against the rest. And it might even be that there were some in Anglo-Ireland who felt that they could live in Young Ireland culture.

A generation later it began to appear that the culture of independent Ireland was not as substantial as it appeared—that it was, in fact, brittle. This became apparent in the fluctuating attitude of the Establishment towards events in the North, which veered from one extreme to the other from 1969 to the early seventies. Red-hot anti-Partitionists became de facto Unionists under verbal camouflage. They came to hold a position which they were incapable of expressing coherently and if you can't express what you think, or what you have some vague notion that you might be thinking—then your thought process is aborted.
Conor Cruise O'Brien eventually went the whole hog—from professional anti-Partitionist who was inclined to treat the Ulster Unionists as being colons—the word used to describe the French settlers in Algeria—to member of an Ulster Unionist party. (Other Unionists dismissed him as a cuckoo in the nest.)
At a certain point on this journey he launched a venomous attack on Davis and Young Ireland.

Young Ireland had to be either the best or the worst thing in the history of the nationalist movement because it was the liveliest thing. It was in everyone's mind, even though they mightn't know it. It wrote the songs of the nationalist movement, and songs are as penetrating as water. The British Government thought of prosecuting them in the 1840s. O'Brien as Minister, did ban them from the state media, but they wouldn't go away.

When the Redmondites were recruiting for the Empire in the Great War, they had the bright idea of imperialising some of the Young Ireland songs. Stephen Gwynn and Tom Kettle wrote new words for them. But it was no use. Davis's words could not be exorcised.

Governing circles in Dublin had the extravagant notion that the cause of the War in the North was the way history was written in the South. They called for new history which would be a soporific influence towards peace, and went to England for it. Oxbridge was producing complicated Irish histories with little reach. Then Penguin Books came up with an obtuse and deadening pot-boiler (not really an oxymoron in the era when finance capital seems to determine taste) by Roy Foster, which was put into universal circulation. It was drilled into children.
Here is Foster's Modern Ireland on Davis:

"Young Ireland was a splinter of the Repeal movement grouped around the young journalists who started the Nation newspaper: principally Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy. It also indicated what the Repeal movement, with its middle-class backing, gentry-merchant MPs and deliberate ambiguities was not appealing to. The strength of the alternative tradition is indicated by the runaway success of the Nation: the readership was possibly 250,000… Young Ireland's ideology bore a superficial resemblance to European romantic nationalism; but if it imbibed the cultural sense of nationality inculcated by German philosophy, this was via Carlyle rather than Herder… In many ways, the spirit of the Nation was as modernist and utilitarian as O'Connell. Irish circumstances made adoption of European-style nationalism impossible for one thing. Young Ireland could not define that Irishness linguistically, though Davis tried. This was one reason why Mazzini dismissed their cause as bogus…
"…'The Sword' was deified in Davis's ballads and the rhetoric of T.F. Meagher…
"The banality and doggerel of Nation publicity helped to spread the message… Davis, a Protestant, adopted the necessarily pluralist ideology of the Irish Protestant nationalist… Thus, rather illogically, he emphasised the contribution of Norman blood and Westminster values to the Irish cause, while attacking 'sullen Saxonism' and glorifying the racial violence of the Celt. In the end, though, his celebration of Irish history necessitated backing Catholic nationalism against alien Protestantism. Many of the other Young Irelanders arrived at the same destination more briskly: and the roots of the movement were culturally separatist, essentially Anglophobic and increasingly sectarian. They cherished a certain cult of Carlyle, reading Sartor Resartus while undertaking rapt tours of the Irish landscape. Young Ireland took to logical extremes the feelings that O'Connell alternately pandered to, and conjured away again: (pp310-313).

This refers chiefly to the years before Davis died. Soon after his death the Famine set in. Then:

"Extremist Young Irelanders… grouped around Mitchel's United Irishman…, set the tone of Francophilia, 1798 revivalism, and separation. The rhetoric was militaristic and republican; an insurrectionary ethic founded on an almost psychotic Anglophobia. The Famine was the rationale for accusing the British government of genocide, but the roots went deeper than that" (p315).
"Mitchel was sentenced to transportation, and enabled to follow a career of frantic Carlylean attitudinizing" (p316).

Who was this Carlyle, from whom Davis etc. got their romantic nationalist notion, and with whom they went on "rapt tours of the Irish landscape" while reading a book of his, Sartor Resartus?
Fifty pages later Foster tells the reader that Irish emigrant families in Britain maintained strong kinship ties with Ireland because they were confronted in England with a "wall of anti-Irish prejudice, conveniently articulated by Carlyle, Kingsley and Elizabeth Gaskell" (p361).
So Carlyle was a fierce anti-Irish propagandist! Even though he had close relations with the Young Irelanders, and taught them romantic nationalism! A very weird paradox!

In fact there is no paradox because Young Ireland was not a romantic splinter from O'Connell's middle-class Repeal movement; and it did not "tour the landscape" with Carlyle; and it did not get nationalism from him; and Sartor Resartus is a kind of anti-landscape book.

Young Ireland was a consistently middle-class development of the middle-class element in O'Connell's movement.
Carlyle, who was an enormous influence on British social development for almost a century, was anti-whingeing rather than anti-Irish, but he was aware of the Irish of O'Connell's movement as whingers. His relationship with the Younger Irelanders was based on their determination not to be whingers.
Carlyle regretted the passing of the mediaeval community, but he insisted that it was gone for good, and that there was a future only for those who faced up to the fact that heartless capitalism was here to stay and made themselves capable of dealing with it.
His tour of Ireland was made after Davis's death, and it was not a tour of "landscape" but a tour of the consequences of the Famine.

During the Famine there was a rupture in relations between Duffy and Mitchel. Mitchel wanted a revolution. Duffy saw that there was no possibility of revolution. If there had been, it was he rather than Mitchel who would have made it, but he had no patience with revolutionism, particularly when it threatened to disrupt such alleviating measures as were practicable.
Mitchel was convicted and transported and wrote the Jail Journal. Duffy made tenacious use of such legal resources as were available to defend himself in a series of trials, avoid transportation, and launch the tenant-right movement which undermined landlordism in two generations. But Mitchel has been much better remembered than Duffy by intellectuals, even revisionist ones.
However, Mitchel's characterisation of Government conduct during the potato blight as "genocidal" could only be described as "psychotic" (Foster) by somebody in the grip of hysteria. Isaac Butt, who was very much a member of the British ruling class in Ireland barely restrained himself from describing Government policy as exterminatory. Butt was an Imperialist. The resources of the Empire were vast. With the Act of Union Ireland had become part of the homeland of the Empire. But the Government let people starve by the million instead of feeding them from the Empire and consolidating Ireland as part of the state. But, in view of what the Government did, what use was the Union to Ireland? So Butt founded the Home Rule movement.

Foster does not trouble the reader (all too often a student) with explanations. He utters little dogmas that are to be believed, even when they are mutually inconsistent.
Davis set out with "the necessarily pluralist ideology of the Irish Protestant nationalist", but through "glorifying the racial violence of the Celt", he ended up "backing Catholic nationalism against alien Protestantism".
What was "Protestant nationalism"? The nationalism of the Protestant colony established in control of Ireland under Westminster's sovereignty after the Battle of the Boyne, which in 1780 asserted its independence of Westminster. It was the Irish nation of the era when official Ireland consisted of the small Protestant colonial minority of the population. But Protestant nationalism was not "necessarily pluralist" in ideology. If it had been pluralist, the course of history in Ireland would have been fundamentally different. It remained exclusively Protestant up to the moment when England bribed it to abolish its Parliament.

When did Davis celebrate Celtic racial violence? Presumably when he wrote songs about the resistance of Celtic Ireland to English conquest.
This is very old-fashioned Imperialist ideology indeed: it is racist for a society to resist Imperial conquest!

When did Davis back "Catholic nationalism"? Presumably when he did not dispute O'Connell's forceful assertion of the fact that the great bulk of the population in the British Protestant state in Ireland was Catholic and gave way on the scheme which he had formed with Duffy for non-denominational College education backed by the Protestant State.
O'Connell certainly was Catholic nationalist in the sense that he set about developing a national spirit in the vast majority of the population that had been excluded from public life, and had much of its private life interfered with, under the regime of the Protestant British State in Ireland, whether colonial up to 1800 or Unionist after that. And, after he began to exert effective reform pressure on the regime, he was concerned that the regime would try to accomplish in the name of reform what it had failed to achieve by honest repression.
In doing this O'Connell had ruptured relations with Ulster Protestant reformers who had supported Emancipation. Davis and Duffy, basing themselves on what O'Connell had achieved in the way of national construction over thirty years, tried to re-build bridges that O'Connell had burnt. O'Connell didn't like this. He remained suspicious of the forces on the other side of the bridge. Though Davis could not carry the day against O'Connell, he continued with his efforts to build Bridges, as Duffy did after him. The comprehensiveness of their failure indicates that the Protestant communities in Ireland simply were not willing, even though they were in decline, to take part in a common national life with the population at large.
If that outcome is to be called Catholic-nationalism, then the cause of it must be called Protestant Imperialism.

Was there "illogicality" in honouring the Normans while deploring the Saxons? There was a conventional English distinction between Normans (Cavaliers) and Puritans (Saxons). The Normans who came to Ireland had blended with the Irish and England had to be on the alert to ensure that it was not confronted with a Norman/Irish state. There was no danger of that with the Saxons/Puritan colonisation, following the conquests of Cromwell and William of Orange, by (in Edward Walsh's translation of Eoghan Rua O'Sullivan) "the dull, plodding plunderers, Sean Buidhe".

Davis himself was Welsh on his father's side, and on his mother's he descended from a Cromwellian and O'Sullivan Beare, which possibly accounts for his liveliness and the range of his sensitivity.
Foster wrote nonsense about him, but an educational system which had become disorientated existentially by the ignorant response of the Dublin Establishment to the War in the North, ensured that this nonsense levelled everything before it. Davis is now pretty well absent from Irish literature in print—apart from Aubane and Athol Books.
Athol Books has Duffy's Conversations With Carlyle.
Aubane has Duffy's biography of Davis, and a selection of extracts from The Nation for the years 1842-44.
The editorial of The Nation on 29th October 1842 was War With Everybody:
The Empire was at war with everybody—as it is still doing its best to be, in alliance with its American offspring. And the centrepiece of its universal war in 1842 was, of course, Afghanistan! (See AHS selection from The Nation, p29).

Thomas Davis And The Young Ireland Heritage. Editorial
Listen Wilson John Haire (Holocaust/Famine Poem)
Islam In The West. Editorial on The Charlie Hebdo Affair
Free Speech? Report on Dieudonné Silencing
Vichy And The Holocaust: A New Book. Cathy Winch
Charlie Hebdo. Nick Folley (Suppressed Letter)
Signed Plastered Of Paris: (Poem) Wilson John Haire
Vox Pat by Pat Maloney: Same-Sex Marriage; W.T. Cosgrave; Mary O'Rourke; Humanists; Kierkegaard; McCreevy's Mate; Population; Apples And Eggs; Fate Of King Billy; Pre-Nups; Bradlaugh; The Devil's Bark; Gogarty; Kieran Conway; The Old Fenian
Against Ulster Nationalism: Some Clarification. Brendan Clifford
A Tale of Two Synods. D. Vincent Twomey SVD
Social Policy Of Pope Francis. Report
The Augustus Debate:
1. Some Golden Apples. Stephen Richards
2. On Constantine And The Origins Of The German Catholic Church. Peter Brooke
Fanning Misses The Point. Brendan Clifford
Cabeza de Vaca and What the Indians Wanted. John Minahane (Spanish Colonial Policy, Part 6)
Róisín Dubh