- Gender and the Nationalistic Ballad: Thomas Davis, Thomas Moore, and Their Songs
Thomas Davis was a powerful force behind the wave of cultural nationalism that swept Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. A cofounder of the influential Irish weekly The Nation, Davis used the journal as a platform to promote a brand of Irish nationalism distinctive for its nonsectarian appeal. Fiery editorial prose carried his message to the public, but so, too, did poetry and song, modes of cultural expression increasingly linked to nationalist agendas throughout Europe at the time. “Young Ireland,” as Davis and his followers became known, focused much of their attention upon the traditional Irish song.1 Celebrating the genre as an exemplar of their cultural heritage, they harnessed its emotional power to strengthen their political cause. The songs printed in The Nation—most of them chosen by Davis, and many of them outfitted with newly penned and topical texts of his own making—quickly became one of the journal’s most popular features.
When Davis’s nationalist campaign began in 1842, however, there was already a reigning “Bard of Ireland” in the figure of Thomas Moore. Moore had ceased publishing new volumes of his popular Irish Melodies songbooks nearly a decade prior, but his legacy remained firmly engrained in the Irish cultural milieu.2 The foremost Irish poet and lyricist of his time, Moore was the first to draw international attention to the beauty of Irish music and to the travesties of the nation’s political woes, crafting popular parlor songs from existing melodies and his original lyrics. A fixture within English aristocratic circles, Moore developed a paradoxical reputation as both a nationalist poet and a drawing-room dandy. [End Page 68] Moore and Davis offered contrasting models of Irish nationalism, a contrast apparent in the content of their songs. In pairing his lyrical poetry with Irish traditional melodies, Moore put forth an overly romanticized image of Ireland as a proud but defeated nation, forever weeping; to many observers, it was an image coded with feminine traits. Davis, with his vigorous and unpolished lyrics, sought to reclaim the narrative of Irish nationalism and to supplant Moore’s lyrical effusions. 3
Thomas Moore began his nationalist life as a radical. As a student at Trinity College, he was associated with the United Irishmen Society within the university and even contributed to the group’s Dublin newspaper, The Press. On December 2, 1797, Moore’s “Letter to the Students of Trinity College” appeared anonymously in the journal’s pages. His strongly worded epistle attacked the professors who outlawed the United Irishmen from Trinity and attempted to rouse his fellow students with fiery language:
Can you see poor Ireland, degraded, tortured, without burning to be revenged on her damned tormentors? . . . Can you behold without indignation, that horde of foreign depredators, who murder the happiness of our country, and gorge on the life-blood of Ireland?
Moore concluded his letter: “Let us show these ministerial minions . . . that Ireland has sons untutored in the school of corruption, who love her Liberties, and, in the crisis, will die for them.”4 He became close friends with Edward Hudson and Robert Emmett, who were both active in the United Irish cause. In later life, Moore would attribute his love for Irish music to the times he spent with Hudson at the piano, playing through Irish airs.5
By the spring of 1810, with the publication of the third volume of his Irish Melodies, Moore had considerably softened his tone. Prefixed to the volume, Moore’s “Letter on Music to the Marchioness Dowager of Donegal” described the target audience for his songs:
there is no one who deprecates more sincerely than I do any appeal to the passions of an ignorant and angry multitude; but that it is not through that gross and inflammable region of society, a work of this nature could ever have been intended to circulate. It looks much higher for its audience and readers—it is [End Page 69] found upon the piano-fortes of the rich and the educated—of those who can afford to have their national zeal a little stimulated, without exciting much dread...