Thomas Davis was our most comprehensive philosopher of nationality whose writings during a brief lifetime influenced subsequent national thought and feeling down to our own day.
On the one hand, he appealed to Patrick Pearse as an uncompromising evangelist of separatism, while impressing Arthur Griffith as a flexible thinker whom he could invoke to argue for the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.
Davis’s stirring songs such as ‘A Nation Once Again’ and ‘The West’s Asleep’ were enthusiastically popular with successive generations.
In some important respects, Davis’s concerns - and confusions - are still ours today. His passion for the alliance of orange and green, and his eagerness to get his fellow-Protestants to accept the Irish nation, blinded him to some hard facts.
As a not very serious Protestant himself, he failed to appreciate the strength of religious feeling among his fellow-country men.
The sentiments expressed in some of his best-known verses are admirable but naive. “What matters that at different shrines we pray unto one God, / What matters if at different times our fathers won this sod.”
But of course it mattered a great deal. The land question in one form or another was a chief cause of conflict from the early seventeenth century. And people prayed to Catholic and Protestant gods respectively, conceived in mutually hostile images.
Later on, for example, the god invoked in the Ulster Covenant (1913) was hardly the same deity whose patronage was sought by the 1916 insurgents.
As a satirical Great War ballad put it, “My God, says God, what am I going to do?”.
The harsh militancy of Davis’s endless verses about the ‘brutal Saxon’ would hardly appeal to Protestants he was anxious to coax into a harmonious union of Irishmen.
Davis found it hard to accept that the political allegiance of most Protestants lay elsewhere, just as subsequent nationalists denied the reality of two nations in Ireland.
Davis repeatedly asserted that the Irish language was central to Irish nationality. In doing so, he composed facile maxims which were widely quoted in Gaelic League days and after.
Davis was not the only nationalist to promote the cause of Irish - in eloquent English, while failing to learn Irish himself. Ironically, it was increasing literacy in English that enabled nationalism to be preached and understood.
The growth of Irish nationalism was a product of Anglicisation.
Davis deserves our admiration for his views on education. “Educate that you may be free” is a splendid and imaginative precept which has applications in more ways than Davis dreamt of.
Also extremely enlightened was his view that, in order to transcend old animosities, the youth of Ireland should be educated in common, irrespective of religious belief. Regrettably, it is a teaching that continues to fall on deaf ears.
Finally, we would do well today to emulate Davis’s noble vision of an independent Ireland being led by people of integrity. “For freedom comes from God’s right hand, and needs a godly train / And righteous men shall make our land a nation once again.”