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  • Thomas Davis, the Arts, and Music:A Reassessment
  • Barra Ó Seaghdha (bio)

The life of Thomas Davis and his thoughts on the nation and history have been comprehensively analyzed by writers such as Helen Mulvey, Richard Davis, and James Quinn. But where Davis's relationship to music is concerned, attention has focused almost exclusively on his attitude toward, and deployment of, popular song as a way of bringing an inclusive Irish national culture into being. As Davis's own focus during his short writing career was on song of this type, it is understandable that little attention has been paid to what can be gleaned from his writings regarding the place of more sophisticated forms of art and music. This article sets out to rectify that neglect by looking at Davis's early thinking and influences, the state of classical music in Ireland in Davis's time, his thinking on and practice of song, and his references to classical music in the newspaper the Nation. It goes on to look at how, beyond Davis's own writings, classical music featured in the Nation, both during Davis's editorship and in the years immediately after his death. Throughout, attention will be paid to the audience that Davis addressed. In addition, Davis's thinking, along with cultural developments in Ireland more generally, will be read in the context of British taste and culture in the same period. From this examination will emerge a fresh understanding of the place of classical music within Davis's philosophy, the cultural world of Young Ireland, and middle-class Irish culture in the subsequent decades.

Thomas Davis was born in 1814 in Mallow, Co. Cork, into a Protestant unionist family. His father died before Davis's birth, and four years later the family moved to Dublin. Davis was conferred with a B.A. in 1836 by Trinity College, Dublin, and after legal studies in London, was called to the bar in 1838. Davis seems to have been more interested in educating himself in history, literature, and social and constitutional issues than in attaining academic distinction [End Page 110] (Mulvey 21–25). His entry into public life was gradual. Like his Catholic friend John Blake Dillon, he became active in the College Historical Society and began to contribute to liberal-minded journals such as the Morning Register and the Citizen (Mulvey 48–49). Davis evolved toward an increasingly nationalist position that entailed active support for Daniel O'Connell's movement for repeal of the Union. When Davis and Dillon met Charles Gavan Duffy, an experienced and dynamic young journalist from Ulster, in 1842, the three of them quickly agreed on the idea of founding an energetic and popular newspaper, the Nation (Mulvey 57–58). Davis, Dillon, and Duffy (the initiators of the movement that would become known as Young Ireland) were idealistic young thinkers who agitated for a reformed, nonsectarian, autonomous Ireland endowed with a full culture of its own.

For Davis, the principal author of the Nation's prospectus (Mulvey 62–64) and its chief writer, the raw materials of the nation-to-be, from mineral and agricultural to institutional and cultural, were not simply to be preserved or restored. Instead, unsatisfactory elements were to be discarded in favor of those with constructive potential. In what was still a semiliterate society, music (primarily in the form of song) was an important form of cultural transmission and solidarity. Davis wrote about song, encouraged the composition of songs with a clear political message, and created songs, including "A Nation Once Again" and "The West's Asleep," that became part of the popular nationalist repertoire in Ireland. Literacy, education, and popular journalism were crucial to the reconstruction of the nation. For this reason Davis enthusiastically supported the project of creating a network of Repeal reading rooms across the country (Mulvey 151–52; T. Davis 220–24). Through activities that included discussion and reading aloud, these social centers for the literate and the semiliterate facilitated the broad diffusion of the Nation's message.

The ability of the Young Irelanders to reach across barriers of religion, class, and location depended on their close alignment with the mass movement led by Daniel O...