A journalist, poet, and unofficial leader of Young Ireland, noted especially as the first to articulate the idea of cultural nationalism, Thomas Davis (1814–1845) was born at Mallow, Co. Cork, on 14 October 1814. The son of an English army surgeon and an Irish woman, Davis was educated at Trinity College and called to the Irish bar in 1838. In 1841 he joined the Repeal Association with his close friend John Blake Dillon and quickly made a name for himself in nationalist circles for both his comprehensive vision of Irishness and his stirring political ballads.
In October 1842 Davis and Dillon, along with Charles Gavan Duffy, founded the Nation, a newspaper that advocated Irish self-government and national pride. Within a year the Nation had the most paid subscribers of any Irish newspaper and Davis had become the principal editor and contributor, using the editorial page to develop his romantic concept of Irish identity. In his view Ireland was a spiritual reality based on historic cultural tradition, and anyone who adopted Ireland as his homeland, regardless of his religion or when he arrived, was Irish. Davis's editorials, patriotic verse, and enthusiastic support for reviving the Irish language made him the most respected and admired of the Young Irelanders.
Politically, Davis and the other Young Irelanders regarded Ireland's claim to self-government as a fundamental demand that could not be compromised. Davis also believed strongly that Irish national identity should be secular and disapproved of what he saw as undue clerical influence on Daniel O'Connell and the repeal movement. Davis's dissatisfaction with O'Connell's management of the Repeal Association and his opposition to nondenominational education led to a famous verbal clash between the Young Irelanders and O'Connell on 26 May 1845. Reconciliation was achieved, but tensions remained, and a little over one year later the Young Irelanders seceded from the repeal movement entirely, but by then Davis had died unexpectedly on 16 September 1845 after a short illness. Davis was a significant literary and political influence on his contemporaries, but his ideas had an even greater impact on subsequent generations, providing a foundation for the Gaelic revival at the turn of the twentieth century.
Davis, Richard. The Young Ireland Movement. 1987.
Nowlan, Kevin B. The Politics of Repeal: A Study in the Relations between Great Britain and Ireland, 1841–50. 1965.
Sloan, Robert. William Smith O'Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848. 2000.
Michael W. de Nie