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Tread Softly

In September 1845 Thomas Davis died at his mother’s house on Baggot Street; he was in his thirty-first year and had been struck down by scarlet fever. Davis was born in Mallow two hundred years ago last month and, apart from an eloquent tribute by John A Murphy in The Irish Times (http://bit.ly/1wR1Zb0), the anniversary seems to have barely noticed. Davis’s statue (about which there have been mixed feelings) is the rigid-looking one with a water feature in College Green ‑ the one into which unimaginative students put foaming soap liquid with great regularity. It is not suspected that any pointed disrespect for Davis is intended.

The site previously featured an equestrian statue of William III, which was removed in 1929. Throughout the nineteenth century students from Trinity dressed the statue with ribbons on important days in the unionist calendar. Davis’s statue is unlikely to be removed in the near future but it could ‑ soon enough ‑ become one of those kinds of monument found in most cities which are noted chiefly for being a mystery to the citizenry. There are a fair few around Dublin. The Crampton Memorial on D’Olier Street was one such and in Ulysses, as Leopold  Bloom passes, he wonders who Crampton was. The ornate memorial was removed in the 1950s to facilitate traffic flows onto College Green. There may have been a letter from Sean Citizen in the Evening Press but not much more by way of objection.

While Davis was long regarded as a major figure in the Irish pantheon of political heroes his star has slipped quite a bit in recent decades. The centenary of his death in 1945 was the occasion of extensive and lengthy commemorative ceremonies. The great and good, from James Dillon to Eamon de Valera, were in attendance and the major intellectual slot on national radio was named after Davis. So what was he about and why is he no longer revered?

It is perhaps cold comfort for remaining admirers of Davis ‑ which include the Mallow Development Partnership, Professor Murphy and the present writer (with some qualifications) ‑ that Thomas Davis is not alone in slipping down the rankings. Wolf Tone has also taken a dive. (Robert Emmet is sort of holding his position ... for now.)

Davis kickstarted romantic nationalism in Ireland and is regarded as the man who introduced soul into our politics. Basically he was part of a younger noisy generation who were both O’Connellites and challengers of O’Connell. This new generation was seeking political room and was armed with a new “national” vocabulary, a vocabulary which when employed in The Nation newspaper created or stirred into life a massive and politicised lower middle class. Readership figures for The Nation were similar to the huge numbers that attended O’Connell’s famous monster meetings.

Davis was celebrated for introducing a spiritual tone into national politics, but there were plenty of other romantic nationalists around throughout the century. The reason Davis had such an effect on twentieth century nationalist intellectuals was his championing of inclusivity and the common name of Irishman. Wolf Tone – around whom there was an even greater twentieth century political cult, surviving still but in severely reduced circumstances - is best known for the inclusive ideal and Davis was pretty much his successor. In the prospectus to The Nation newspaper, which he co-founded in 1842, Davis spoke of “... a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, Milesian and Cromwellian ...”

One would have to say it’s a rather nice idea and by contemporary standards pretty much politically correct. So it’s not really surprising that the “common name” ideal and its twin aspiration, “unity by consent”, moved and motivated what were probably the most admirable, if somewhat deluded, elements within southern nationalism through most of the twentieth century. Garret FitzGerald comes to mind, but their numbers were legion. So why then has this long established political trope all but disappeared from public discourse?

The answer is fairly simple. The political credibility of the ideals attributed to Tone and Davis could not withstand the very direct message which daily emanated from Ulster Protestantism throughout the Provo war. From bigots like Paisley to hush puppy types in the Alliance party the message was unequivocal: northern Protestants did not want a United Ireland ‑ period. The south was a slow learner on this one but when the knowledge was finally interiorised that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell the Protestants of the north would become United Irelanders, the state set about working for the full civil rights of the beleaguered minority in the North who had been obliged to live under the political authority of those for whom inclusivity was anathema – a term which they would have avoided owing to its papal resonances. Of course paying attention to the civil rights of Catholics in the North is arguably what the southern intelligentsia should have been doing all along instead of dreaming dreams of Davis and Tone.

12/11/2014