Davis, Thomas Osborne (DNB00)

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DAVIS, THOMAS OSBORNE (1814–1845), poet and politician, was born at Mallow on 14 October 1814. His father, James Thomas Davis, who was a surgeon in the royal artillery, and had been acting deputy-inspector of ordnance hospitals in the Peninsula, died at Exeter, on his way to the continent, in October 1814. His mother, whose maiden name was Atkins, was an Irishwoman, and came of a branch of the Atkins of Firville, co. Cork. As a child, Davis was shy, unready, and self-absorbed. With much difficulty he learnt to read, and he took but little interest in boyish games. After receiving an education at a mixed preparatory school, he was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, where he was chiefly known as a steady, plodding reader. He took his degree in the spring of 1836, and in the following year published an anonymous pamphlet on the ‘Reform of the Lords. By a Graduate of Dublin University.’ Between 1836 and 1838 he spent much of his time in London and on the continent, studying modern languages and collecting a library of books. He was called to the bar in Michaelmas term, 1838. Though he sometimes joined in the debates of the College Historical Society (of which he was elected auditor in 1840), his speeches were distinguished more by their learning than for their eloquence. He contributed several papers to the ‘Citizen,’ a monthly magazine established in Dublin by some of the leading members of the Historical Society. Up to this period Davis had not yet avowed the nationalist principles of which he afterwards became one of the chief exponents. In 1839 he joined the Repeal Association and entered the field of practical politics. In 1840 he wrote a number of articles on the state of Europe for the ‘Dublin Morning Register,’ and early in 1841 became joint editor of that paper with his friend John Dillon. Their connection with the ‘Register’ did not continue long, and in July 1842 Davis, Duffy, and Dillon founded the ‘Nation’ newspaper, the first number of which appeared on 15 Oct. 1842. Written with much vigour and great singleness of purpose, the ‘Nation’ immediately sprang into popularity, and obtained a circulation more than three times as great as the chief conservative paper in the country. Its principal object was, as stated in the prospectus (which, with the exception of a single sentence, was written by Davis), ‘to direct the popular mind and the sympathies of educated men of all parties to the great end of nationality.’ Much of its success was due to the stirring national poems which appeared from time to time in its pages. A great number of these were contributed by Davis, who, until the starting of the ‘Nation,’ had never written a line of verse in his life. It seems almost incredible that such a ballad as the ‘Sack of Baltimore’ (the last poem which Davis wrote) should have been the work of an almost unpractised hand. ‘Máire Bhán a Stoír,’ ‘The Flower of Finae,’ and ‘My Grave’ are excellent examples of his tenderness and pathos, while the ‘Geraldines’ and ‘Fontenoy’ are full of genuine fervour and patriotic sentiment. In 1843 Davis projected a series of carefully edited volumes containing the speeches of the orators of Ireland with historical introductions, and started the series by an edition of the ‘Speeches of the Right Honourable John Philpot Curran, with a Memoir. By a Barrister,’ which was published by Duffy, the Dublin publisher, in 1844. In point of style Davis's prose writings are by no means equal to his poems, and are too often wanting in ease and simplicity of expression. In spite of his many occupations Davis worked laboriously on the committee of the Repeal Association, though he but rarely spoke at the meetings. His speech at the Conciliation Hall on 26 May 1845, where he was furiously attacked by O'Connell, was almost the last time that he spoke in public. He died of fever in his mother's house, No. 67 Baggot Street, Dublin, on 16 Sept. 1845, in the thirty-first year of his age, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, where a marble statue by Hogan was erected over his grave. Though Davis was a protestant and brought up among tory surroundings, one of his chief objects was to break down the fierce antagonism between the Roman catholics and the protestants of his country. He joined the Repeal Association, though under O'Connell's influence it was practically a Roman catholic society. Within this association, under Davis's leadership, the party of Young Ireland, impatient of O'Connell's constitutional methods and limited aims, was gradually developed. Davis was an indefatigable worker, a man of much learning and intimately acquainted with the history and antiquities of Ireland. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and interested himself much in the work of the Art Union, the Dublin Library, and other artistic and antiquarian societies. He was absolutely honest and sincere in his convictions, and though his political opinions were of an extreme character he promised to be something more than a mere revolutionist. At the time of his death he was engaged in writing a ‘Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone’ for Duffy's Library of Ireland; but though the scheme of the volume had been methodically drawn up, only the dedication and the introductory chapter had been written. The completion of the work was entrusted to John Dillon, but it was never carried out. Davis's ‘Poems’ were collected and published after his death, and formed one of the volumes of Duffy's Library of Ireland for 1846. His ‘Literary and Historical Essays,’ which had been contributed by him to the ‘Nation,’ were also published in the same year, and formed one of the same series. In the preface to this volume other selections from his writings were promised, as well as his ‘Life and Correspondence.’ They have, however, never been published. Among his papers was found a plan for the republication of the notices of James II's Irish parliament. He proposed to undertake the editorship of the volumes and to name them ‘The Patriot Parliament of 1689, with the Statutes, Biographical Notices of King, Lords and Commons,’ &c. An ‘Essay on Irish Songs,’ which was written by him, forms the preface to M. J. Barry's ‘Songs of Ireland’ (1845). The only portrait of Davis painted in his lifetime was by Henry McManus, R.H.A., and is in the possession of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, formerly editor of the ‘Nation.’ With the aid of this Burton drew from memory a portrait, which has been several times both lithographed and engraved. Two portraits, slightly differing one from another, will be found in the volumes of the ‘Dublin University Magazine’ and the ‘Cabinet of Irish Literature’ referred to below. In the preface to ‘Parra Sastha’ (1845) William Carleton paid an affectionate tribute to Davis's memory, and Sir Samuel Ferguson, deputy-keeper of the records in Ireland, wrote a ‘Lament for Thomas Davis,’ commencing with the line ‘I walked through Ballinderry in the spring-time.’

[Sir C. G. Duffy's Young Ireland (1880); Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography (1878), p. 123; Wills's Irish Nation (1875), iv. 78, 612–614; Read's Cabinet of Irish Literature (1880), iii. 180–9; Miss Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life (1853), i. 18–26; Irish Quarterly Review, v. 701–9; Dublin University Mag. xxix. 190–9; Nation for 20 and 27 Sept., 4 Oct., 8 and 15 Nov. 1845; Gent. Mag. 1814, vol. lxxxiv. pt. ii. p. 505, 1845, new series xxiv. 550; Catalogue of Graduates of Dublin University (1869), 147; Notes and Queries, 5th series, i. 32–3; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.