Thomas Osborne Davis

What they said when he died:

T.W. Rolleston said: “the finest qualities of the population that inhabit this island seemed to be combined in him, developed to their highest power, and coloured deeply with whatever it is in character and temperament that makes the Irish one of the most separate of races”

Thomas Francis Meagher said, in an oration at Conciliation Hall, Burgh Quay, Dublin: “In the day of victory, to which he had so often looked with a panting heart and a glowing soul, they will beckon us to the grave, bid us pluck a laurel from the nation’s brow, and place it on his tomb.”

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, described Thomas Osborne Davis as “the most notable Irishman of the generation to which he belonged”

In the report on his funeral the ‘Nation’ wrote: “Irish soil holds no more precious dust than his…..Souls like his never die, but make a part of the history and the heart of their country forever.”

Seventy years after his death, Arthur Griffiths said “The prophet I followed throughout my life, the man whose words and teachings I tried to translate into practise in politics, the man whom I revered above all Irish patriots was Thomas Davis.”

How many know the name ‘Thomas Osborne Davis’ – this man, on whose ‘tomb we should place a laurel from the nation’s brow,’ this man who was the ‘most notable of his generation’ and whose dust ‘is more precious’ than any other to Irish soil?

Changed?

It is said of Thomas Davis that he ‘changed’, it has been wondered what caused him to change character so much that he could rise from obscurity to one for whom ‘repealer and protestant came together,’ at his funeral and ‘led their tears in mutual sympathy for their common bereavement, that he was Irish and gifted was only remembered’.

Thomas Davis did not change, he simply matured, developed, and began to do what he had set out to do. We find this knowledge in words used by others referring to Davis and in his own words – when we listen. He said “most writers underrate the power of improving or forming faculties. When I see a man who knows or foreknows his powers, and plans his own faculty formation, I think of Napoleon, who when someone said it was impossible to do a certain thing, replied, ‘Do not let me hear that foolish word again’. This is the creed of a man of action, rather than a speculator” Davis was a man of action, a very intelligent individual, passionate, sensitive, ‘one who was what he seemed to be’ and extremely disciplined, he knew he could do anything he set out to do, a very rare individual indeed. He spent his youth and early adulthood learning, he learned about life in a way that very few do. Normally we as people learn about life as we go along, parents always advise their children on the basis of their own experiences and yet they know that their children won’t ‘really’ listen, that they have to learn for themselves. Thomas Davis it would seem ‘listened’ to all, experienced, and advised based on his experiences, but more importantly he practised what he preached!

People have told us that Thomas Osborne Davis was sensitive, that he was intelligent. He has told us, that he trained himself and did not accept that a thing could not be done by a man who was willing to do it, who had decided to do it. He has told us that he trained or disciplined himself and that he set out to rouse pride in a people who were in abject misery. He said these things indirectly, through his various writings and speeches. He set out to give the people back what they so needed, in order to be able to achieve what they had to for themselves.

He is the man who said “If you suppose it possible to be great orators, great statesmen, greatly known, without having expanded hearts and mighty imaginations, without being great men, you sadly deceive yourselves” Thomas Osborne Davis was a great man, a man who was sincerely loved by all who knew him personally, and so many who only knew the words he wrote in the Nation, we know all that because so many mourned his passing, because so much was written about him on his death, because his loss was felt by so many.

Even Today

Many of his words of one hundred and fifty years ago are as pertinent today as they were then and as they were ninety years ago – his words on education, reading, speech-making, writing – they are relevant the world over. Those words on nationality and language which influenced people in the 1840’s and early 1900’s are relevant to Ireland now, read his piece on National Monuments, which could as easily be printed in any Irish newspaper of today. For todays genealogists his words should even be of interest, here as an example is his note on the Griffiths Valuation which is of such importance to those who search their Irish Ancestry, in this he gives us simple explanations of the Valuation and the various terms used.

Early Life, Character

There is little material available on the early life of Thomas Osborne Davis but even what is there, can give us some kind of an idea as to the man who was to be.

Thomas Osborne Davis, a Protestant, was born after his father’s death in Mallow, Co. Cork on October 14th, 1814. (Irish superstitions would have us believe that a child born after the death of a father is destined to have special powers!) There were three boys in the family, John Atkins, the oldest son followed his fathers profession, James Robert became a lawyer and Thomas Osborne was called to the Bar but did not practise (or so we are told, Gavan Duffy met himself and Blake Dillon in the Four Courts in 1842).

The family moved to Dublin when he was four years of age and Thomas was educated at Mr. Mongan’s mixed seminary in Lower Mount Street, of which he stated years afterwards during a debate with Daniel O’Connell “I learned to know, and knowing, loved my countrymen”

A woman relation has described him as being a quiet child, she said “He could scarcely be taught his letters”, and she often heard ‘the school-boy stuttering through ‘My name is Norval’, in a way that was pitiable to see.” We would gather from that remark that he was not an intelligent person, definitely not university material. The same woman also said “When he had grown up, if you asked him the day of the month, the odds were he could not tell you. He never was any good at handball or hurling, and knew no more than a fool how to take care of the little money his father had left him.” She saw him “more than once, in tears listening to a common country fellow, playing old airs on a fiddle, or sinning in a drawing room as if he were dazed, when other young people about him were enjoying themselves.”

Thomas possibly tells us of his childhood in poetry:

‘What thoughts were mine in early youth! like some old Irish song,
Brimful of love and life and truth, my spirit gushed along,
I hope to right my native isle, to win a soldier’s fame,
I hoped to rest in woman’s smile, and win a minstrel’s name.’

Charles Gavan Duffy interpreted him in a different way: “He lived a life of day-dreams for the most part, the first and most subtle discipline of a man of genius.”

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