On the 16th of September, 1845, Thomas Davis died, and the cause of Ireland’s independence lost its very heart and soul. He it was, and the lofty and generous impulse which his character and writings gave the movement, that won to its side such a man as William Smith O’Brien, and others of his high order of intellect, accomplishments, and honest purpose: and this was what redeemed the Repeal Association from brawling vulgarity and inanity.
But for him, O’Connell’s Agitation would have been all along, as it began (and as, indeed, it ended), a Catholic concern only. Educated and high-spirited Catholics themselves would have held aloof from it; and the most prominent persons, next to the “Liberator,” would have been Mr. Arkins, Liberator’s tailor, and a few Connaught members of Parliament who held their seats by virtue of the fiat of Catholic clergymen.
It is very safe to say, that to the personal influence of Davis, to the grandeur of his aims, to his noble tolerance, to his impassioned zeal, and the loving trust which all generous natures were constrained to place in him, the Association was indebted, not for O’Brien only, but for Dillon, MacNevin, Meagher, O’Gorman, Martin, and Reilly; and to the same influence they were indebted for their fate; pining captivity, long exile, death in mad-houses, or foreign graves. Yes, to them and hundreds more, he was indeed a Fate; and there is not one amongst them, still alive, but blesses the memory of the friend who first filled their souls with the passion of a great ambition and a lofty purpose. In the estimation of the British he was, of course, a Nena Sahib.
One may well perceive that this was no common being. Yet I cannot refer for proof of it to any masterpiece of literary or rhetorical effort. He was not a speaker at all; and “literature,” for the mere sake of literature, he almost despised. He never wrote anything but for some immediate or remote effect which he sought to produce: every sentence was a lever or a wedge.
His writing was the writing of a journalist, and was always done in a hurry. “As for writing,” says his friend Wallis, “there is enough to make men love him, and guess at him – and what more can the best of readers do with the supremist writer, though he lived to the age of Sophocles or Goethe. The true loss is of the oak’s timber, not of its own acorns or of the flowers at its base. The loss of its immediate influence on the events of his time, and on the souls of his contemporaries, by guidance and example: that is the true bereavement; one which possibly many generations to come will be suffering from and expiating, consciously or unconsciously.”
Davis is not an Irish name, but Welsh; and in fact his father was a Welsh gentleman who had settled in Cork county, where, at Mallow, on the banks of the Blackwater, Thomas Davis was born. He always boasted that he Avas of the Celtic race of the Cymry; he would rather have been a Cherokee than English; his nom-de-plume was ever “The Celt;” and his best loved study from boyhood, had been the language and literature, the traditions and antiquities, of the two branches of the great Western European family, the Gael and the Cymry.
Though by profession a barrister, Davis had been a mere silent student till his twenty-fifth year; and his studies had ranged from poetry to statistics, and back again. Of history, in several languages, he was a voracious reader. He had thoroughly mastered the economic and political questions involved in the connexion of Ireland with England; and thought it shame and sin (which, indeed, it was and is,) that our old island should be devoured by strangers; that the people of the ancient clans, who had’ once taught half the schools and won half the battles in Europe, should send tribute of corn and cattle; nay, (as Athens did of old to Crete,) tribute of her choicest youth also, of her genius and her energy, to swell the pride and power of an inferior race.
He longed to see Ireland standing on her own feet, using her own resources for her own behoof, living her own genial life, with her own flag floating above her, – a free and sovereign State among the nations of Europe. And he knew that all this might be achieved, if only the hereditary religious feuds of ages could be healed: and by inculcation of mutual tolerance and respect, by kindling a common love for our own land, by education, by the promotion of Irish art, and re-awakening of Irish military spirit, he hoped to effect it all. It gave him intense pleasure when the Dublin Evening Mail, the greatest organ of Irish Orangeism, came out (for example) with such hints as this: –
“If a British Union cannot be formed, perhaps an Irish one might. What could Repeal take from Irish Protestants that they are not gradually losing ‘in due course?‘
However improbable, it is not impossible, that better terms might be made with the Repealers than the government seems disposed to give. A hundred thousand Orangemen, with their colours flying, might yet meet a hundred thousand Repealers on the banks of the Boyne; and, on a field presenting so many solemn reminiscences to all, sign the Magna Charta of Ireland’s independence. The Repeal banner might then be Orange and Green, flying from the Giant’s Causeway to the Cove of Cork, and proudly look down from the walls of Derry upon a new-born Nation.”
Eagerly he thus hailed the overture in the Nation –
“Here it is at last – the dawning. Here, in the very sanctuary of the Orange heart, is a visible angel of Nationality.”
He was too sanguine, as we can now all see. He knew not that such threats from Orangeism were meant only to frighten the British Government into “better terms,” for Orangeism, for the Established Church, for the “Ascendancy.” In the sanctuary of the Orange heart no Angel dwells, – of the better species.
For a year before his death, Davis had been busy in furthering the preparation of a series of small volumes, called the “Library of Ireland;” each of which was to narrate some important period of Irish history, or to present gems of Irish literature, or give a biography of some Irishman of whom we could all be proud. His friends had eagerly responded to his suggestions. MacNevin had written a “History of the Volunteers of 1782;” and Duffy had compiled a volume of National Ballads. He had undertaken, himself, to write a Memoir of Wolfe Tone; but his other multifarious labours had delayed its preparation, and death cut short the task.
From the last chapter it is apparent that Sir Robert Peel had skilfully thrown elements of discord amongst us; his Colleges Bill, his Papal Rescript, his “message of peace to Ireland,” and the like; and that O’Connell and his creatures, as if prompt to aid the Minister, had made Conciliation Hall (and, of course, a thousand minor Conciliation Halls throughout the country) a theatre of angry discussion and recrimination. Davis would gladly have accepted the new Colleges Bill, as he would accept almost any facilities for education. O’Connell and a portion of the clergy denounced it, not because it was an English invention, but because the colleges were to be “godless colleges.”
John O’Connell, the “Liberator’s” son, who had most unaccountably gained much ascendancy over his father’s mind since his imprisonment, was especially prominent and energetic in his opposition to the colleges, and to all who favoured them. The question, was perpetually dragged into discussion; and the grand national movement seemed to have become an organization for settling or guarding Catholic faith or morals. Davis saw too well that his dreams of years were to be dissipated; and though he never relaxed his exertions, the disappointment preyed upon him.
On the 30th of May, there was a great “demonstration” in Dublin. It was the anniversary of the imprisonment of the Conspirators, and it was determined by the Repealers to make an imposing show. A pledge was to be duly registered not to give up the Repeal. It all came off according to programme. Mayors and aldermen from most of the towns in Ireland – the “Eighty Two Club,” in their green and gold – the Trades of Dublin, with their bands and banners, – thronged the Rotundo, where O’Connell, surrounded by the other “conspirators,” held levee. The pledge was read, adopted, cheered (some meaning to stand by it, and some not); and then there was a vast and brilliant procession; and the splendid streets of Dublin were once more thronged with marching men and waving banners.
The next morning, I sat with Davis in his study in Baggot street. The very Monday before, there had been a painful and acrimonious discussion in Conciliation Hall, about “godless colleges” and other trash. We were intent on some exquisite German engravings which he had just received. He was, or appeared to be, in the gayest humour – “Did you hear,” he said, “Tom MacNevin’s principle of action, which he lays down for the Mayo electors?” – (there had long been an anxious wish amongst decent people to get rid of Dillon Browne, member for Mayo, a great Repealer, but a bloated bon vivant and insolvent debtor): “Tom says no man ought to be member for May-owe, but the man who can’t pay!”
We walked out – to the library of the Royal Irish Academy – to the studio of Moore, the sculptor, who was engaged on a bust of our friend Hudson. All the while, not a word of the demonstration of yesterday. At length I said – “Davis, yesterday was a great day for Ireland – ‘the Pacificator never was in greater force.'” He became serious instantly. “These demonstrations,” he said, “are ruining us; they are parading the soul out of us. Why, the Mayor and Corporation of Kilkenny have gone home, satisfied that Kilkenny at least has done its duty; that if Ireland do not gain her independence this year, it is not Kilkenny’s fault; for what could scarlet robes and gold chains do more?”
On returning to his house, he showed me a long row of small volumes, – copies of “The Artillerists’ Manual,” – gave me one of them, and told me that was what we must all study now. I never saw him more.
This chapter I dedicate to the memories of that most royal creature; and thousands who read it will thank me for the minutest anecdote of him. For which reason I shall select, out of many of his letters to myself, two or three. His letters were always short; and he had no time to write long ones. The following note refers to his proposed Memoir of Wolfe Tone; but he was so busy in supplying information and suggestions to his fellow-laborers, that he had no leisure to apply himself to regular literary labour; and as for his editorial articles, he often wrote them with a pencil, using for a desk the top of his hat.
No. I. (Postmark, July 7, 1845.)
“MY DEAR MITCHEL: – James Duffy’s advertisement is wrong I cannot have the Tone then; and what between the Nation, and the bigots, and the quantity of exercise needed to keep me in health, there is small chance of my writing at all for the series, though I would greatly like to do so.
MacNevin’s ‘Volunteers’ has succeeded, though I wish it were more narrative and less speculative; two thousand copies sold. The series will do whatever we like with Ireland. When printing your ‘Aodh O’Neill,’ reconsider the passage on the Reformation. I have not leisure to be accurate, much less infallible.
The aspect of affairs were better without its sacerdotal Press; but we must bear it. O’C., under Johnny’s culture, promises to throw up more bigotry.”
Yours, “T. D.”
I was then living in the County Down, about seventy miles (English), from Dublin, and like many others, had frequent recourse to Davis for everything I wanted. I ought to have mentioned that I was engaged at that time on one volume of the series in which he took so deep an interest – a Memoir of Aodh O’Neill; and his next letter refers to some inquiries about that, and to an article of mine in the Nation newspaper.
JUNE 17th, 1845
“MY DEAR MITCHEL: – I have written to Petrie for answers to your queries. Meantime borrow (if from no nearer person, from Charles Duffy) the Battle of Magh Rath – vulgo Moira – and you will find a valuable essay on Irish Flags, etc., in the Appendix.
I entirely agree in your view of Lord Stanley’s Bill, and had written to that effect for last Nation – but a thick-skulled printer left my article out. I wish your contributions were more frequent.”
Yours, “THOMAS DAVIS.”
I find another short but very singular note, referring to my antipathy against the new colleges, which, indeed, I detested as much as the Archbishop of Tuam, but for a different reason, – not that they were “godless,” but that they were British: –
“MY DEAR M.: I think your title perfect in all ways. The prefatory remarks will do good.
We are not likely to agree on Education, or Religion. I have deep faith in mere Truth, and in informal humanity; and moreover, I feel that an artificial education prevents that faith from being still deeper and more practical. This is a very abstract way of suggesting my religious position; but ’tis enough.”
Most truly yours,
One more letter, written on the very day that he was struck by his fatal sickness.
BAGGOT-STREET, SEPT. 6th.
“MY DEAR MITCHEL: – C. G. D. told me you had heard many particulars as to Wolfe Tone from the Rev. Mr. Thackeray, of Dundalk. Would you spare an hour to put them down; especially anything as to his manner and views of future events in Ireland. Mr. Thackeray kindly answered my note, but seems to distrust his memory.
Truly yours, “THOMAS DAVIS.”
“N.B. The sooner I hear the better.”
Three years’ incessant labour and excitement, operating on an ardent temperament and unresting brain, had done their work; and he died in. his harness. Disappointment and despondency, too, had their share in wearing down his frame. He saw the powerful organization wherein he had trusted, gradually weakening, lowering its tone, and eating its words, until its heart died within it: and through the gloom, even his eye of faith could hardly discern an outlook to a brighter future: the Green Flag of sovereign Irish nationhood, that had streamed so proudly through the day-dreams of his youth, was fading into distance like the glories of Hy Brasil.
I cannot expect the ordinary reader to fully appreciate the character I have been describing, or the labours of his life; because, to the eye of a distant observer, his life was a defeat, and his labour was utterly lost. I do not believe so. I would not have dwelt upon it thus, but for a strong faith that the seeds he planted in that kindly soil will bear ripe fruit yet.
He was thirty-one years of age when he died. His figure was not tall, but compact and active. He walked fast, and with his head held slightly forward, as is the wont of eager and impulsive characters. But he was no mere revolutionist. In the antiquarian re-unions at the Academy, none was heard with more respect; in the gay drawing-rooms of Dublin, none was a more welcome guest. He laughed seldom, but heartily. He had not time to marry; but he loved passionately, as such men must; and over his early grave a fair woman shed bitter tears.
How felt O’Connell? Davis had been much in his way; and O’Connell was somewhat of a despot. Davis had been independent of him and his opinions while he gave impetus to his movement; and O’Connell saw no use in independence, and abhorred impetus, unless when he could bridle it himself. “Young Ireland” had been a thorn in his side, had applied lire to his back, and singed his beard. Yet, withal, the heart of Daniel O’Connell was large and loving: Davis had ever treated him with the most reverential respect; and he, on his side, could not but do homage to the imperial genius, nor fail to be won by such a gallant and gentle nature.
He was, that month of September, at his house of Derrynane Abbey, far in the wilds of Kerry, among the cliffs of the Atlantic coast, trying to freshen his worn life in the vital air of his mountains, and persuading himself that he could still, when the fox broke cover, listen to the ringing music of his hounds with a hunter’s joy. But the massive and iron frame was bent; the bright blue eyes had grown dim; and on that over-wearied brain lay the shadow of death. And his heart was heavy; for, surely, the phantom of “Repeal” haunted him among the mountains; and to his inner ear pierced a cry that the ocean roar could not drown, the passionate cry of his nine million People, – Where is our Freedom?
One morning, comes news of the death of Davis – and the old man is shaken by a sudden tempest of wildest grief. Well might he cry out, “Would God that I had died for thee, my son!” From Derrynane his habit was to send a long weekly letter, to be read at the meeting of the Association. This week his letter was very short – nothing but a burst of lamentation: –
“As I stand alone in the solitude of my mountains, many a tear shall I shed in the memory of the noble youth. Oh! how vain are words or tears when such a national calamity afflicts the country!
Put me down among the foremost contributors to whatever monument or tribute to his memory may be voted by the National Association. Never did they perform a more imperative, or, alas! So sad a duty.
I can write no more my tears blind me and after all,
‘Fungar inani munere.'”
O’Brien’s sorrow was less demonstrative, but not less deep, and much more lasting. Duffy, who almost idolized Thomas Davis, seemed for a time bewildered and stunned by the blow. The Nation was as a fortress ungarrisoned. “The Party” had lost its centre; and those young men who had been held in their sphere by the strong attraction of their chief, though they still remained friends, comrades, and zealous nationalists, were no longer a compact body informed by a single soul. To me it seemed that every survivor of that band lost a part of himself, of his power, purpose, capacity; part of him was buried; and in some cases the better part.
Before quitting this personal topic, I shall tell you how it fared with MacNevin. Brilliant, accomplished, and vivacious, with a pungent dash of sarcasm, he would probably never have been anything but a wit, of the sneering species, if he had not known Davis. Not one of our company was more devotedly attached to Davis, nor so entirely dependent on him, possessed by him. Though assuredly MacNevin was no intellectual pauper, and with strong literary ambition; yet he took his literary tasks submissively at the hand of his friend; and almost saw and felt as the more potent nature willed that he should see and feel.
To him Davis had assigned to write for the Library a narrative of the “Plantation of Ulster;” and he was far off at Rose Park, in Galway, his father’s house, busy on his history when Davis died. A few days after, on October 2nd, he wrote to me, inquiring about some authorities for his book; and suddenly remembering, he exclaims –
“Poor Davis! how his overflowing treasury would have opened to my importunacy! The more I think of this death – and day by day it grows even more terrible – the more I am afraid to look its effects on the country and ourselves in the face. How well we could have spared a million lives for that bright, pure, manly spirit!”
Thus, throughout the letter, he interrupts himself with outbreaks of despair. The book was written. MacNevin seemed to regard it as a sacred task, imposed on him by the dead: but almost immediately after its publication his intimates perceived that his tasks in this world were over. He was going mad. From the moment of his friend’s death, he had been drifting like a ship without a helm; his compass was lost; his pole-star gone out. At last he whirled into the vortex, hopelessly insane, and died in a lunatic asylum.
So far I have lingered on memories both sad and proud. Here I wave to the Dead farewell and requiescant.
We are next to see what was destined for the living. Before the grave had yet closed on Thomas Davis, began to spread awful rumours of approaching famine. Within the next month, from all the counties of Ireland, came one cry of mortal terror. Blight had fallen on the crop of potatoes – the food on which five millions of the Irish people had been reduced to depend for subsistence; three millions of them wholly and exclusively. We are at the beginning of the first, year of the six years’ Famine.
To Sir Robert Peel it would have seemed an impious tempting of Providence to neglect this weapon thus graciously placed in his hand for the consummation of the conquest on which he was bent. If the “Repeal” could not be crushed out by coercion, nor bought out by corruption, it might now be starved out by Famine. The thing was done by a process of “relieving” and “ameliorating;” – for, in the nineteenth century, civilized governments always proceed upon the most benevolent motives; – but it was done; and so effectually done for that time, that, a few years afterwards, the London Times (perhaps prematurely) thought it might announce – “The Celts are gone – gone with a vengeance. The Lord be praised.”