Thomas Davis Commemoration
Thomas Davis' graveside, Mount Jerome Cemetery, Kimmage
10 April 2014
It’s an honour and a pleasure to be here today.
It’s an honour on behalf of Trinity College – the alma mater of Thomas Davis. And it’s a personal pleasure, because Davis is someone I read a lot about, and always admired.
Trinity has, of course, many literary and political alumni - and many, like Davis – who are both. And we are proud of them all – of Tone and Grattan and Emmet, of Swift and Burke, of Butt and Hyde and Carson, to, in our own day, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Our alumni run the gamut from unionist to nationalist, from tory to revolutionary – but I believe all would describe themselves as patriots.
We honour them all. Davis in particular resonates with me – or he has done in the past few years since I became Provost. That’s why I was particularly delighted to get this invitation to attend this commemoration.
What is it about Davis that draws me? I think I can find the answer in his early public address, in June 1840, to the Trinity College Historical Society, or ‘the Hist’, as it was called, then and now.
His address had a provocative title: “The utility of debating societies in remedying the defects of a university education.”
In it, he outlined his educational beliefs, his politics and his future strategy. I say ‘outlined’ but that sounds too like a committee meeting. ‘Threw down the gauntlet’ is a better way of putting it.
This speech became instantly famous and as ‘Davis-ites’ you are probably well aware of it, so I won’t try to summarise it. Let me just point out what strikes me, reading it.
He was addressing Trinity students – though not exclusively, because the Hist was then convened outside College grounds. It had been ‘banished’ if that’s the word, during the troubles of the 1790s, and it didn’t get back inside college walls until 1843. So there were non-students among his audience – and indeed he himself was no longer a student. He had graduated four years earlier and was now a trainee barrister.
His audience was mostly Protestant and upper-class, like himself – but, again, not exclusively. There have always been ‘sizars’ – that is, students on grant support - in Trinity, and there have always been Catholics. But most of the audience were ‘scions of the ruling classes’ – to use that 19th century phrase.
Davis faced them and told them it was time to wake up. The world, he said, was changing. In Ireland, the new system of national schools was resulting in widespread literacy, and pupils from these schools would soon be questioning the country’s leadership. Davis welcomed this – he called it a “first bold attempt to regenerate Ireland”, but he warned his listeners to shake off complacency: they were facing competition which their fathers and grandfathers never had.
This was happening not only in Ireland, but round the world. Everywhere, the middle classes were growing. Citing Tocqueville’s recently published Democracy in America, Davis spoke of the coming democratic age.
He told his Trinity audience to “strip for the race”. And then he tore into the college curriculum. At the time, Trinity, like Oxford and Cambridge, focused very much on the Classics. Davis felt the curriculum was not preparing students for a rapidly changing world. He urged the serious study of modern languages and demanded more political science and economics, though he didn’t use those exact terms. He did specify the study of: local government, parliamentary representation, press freedom, the jury system, the penal code, and public finance.
He exhorted his audience not to retreat from the challenge: in earlier times, withdrawal from the world might have been excusable, but now for the educated and privileged, for the young men of Trinity, there was a compelling obligation not to hide their knowledge, not to wrap themselves in selfish unawareness, but to act for the public good. How could they best do this?
In answer, he uttered his famous line: “Gentlemen,” he said, “you have a country”.
Few could influence the ‘world at large’. But they could act at home for the good of the country.
He ended with a plea to set aside barriers of class and religion. Only if the country united like ‘the leaves of the Shamrock’ could there be progress. The university must lead the way, since education and knowledge are key to progress.
This was a forceful statement of his beliefs and aims. And in the short time he had left to live, he never deviated from this position.
His address speaks to us still. How brilliantly he saw how the age was changing! How shrewd were his solutions! His idealism was grounded in pragmatism. The world was changing whether the elite liked it or not. He could foresee the 20th century: universal suffrage, universal access to higher education, the end of privileges based on birth, the end of empire.
Faced with such inevitable social change, he saw only one solution: to embrace it and prepare for it.
Davis was a liberal, but not a radical. He didn’t seek to destroy the fabric of society. His friend, the historian Daniel Maddyn, a fellow Mallow man, said of him: ‘He had no superstitions or veneration for ancient things, but neither had he any of that sour antipathy … which marks narrow-minded radicals who are utterly incapable of appreciating immemorial usages and time-honoured customs.’
Which is to say that, as regards Trinity, Davis appreciated its customs and its heritage, but he didn’t venerate them. He wasn’t afraid to call for improvement where it was needed. He wasn’t afraid to shake up the curriculum, or confound the students’ belief systems.
I don’t know where this privileged son of an English doctor got his insight, his empathy, or his courage. That is one of the mysteries of genius. Perhaps he imbibed it from his early years in Mallow and from his Cork mother!
What Davis wanted eventually came to pass. In Trinity today we do indeed study ‘modern languages, political science, economics, local government, press freedom, the penal code, and public finance’ – and many more subjects that Davis couldn’t have dreamt of. We disdain class and religious barriers. And we are always aware that “we have a country”. My stated aim, since becoming Provost, is that Trinity “perform for Ireland on the world stage”. That is, I am proud to think, a Davis-ite aim.
But if Davis stands for anything it’s against complacency. In this era, when the world is again rapidly changing, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We should ask the question: Are universities doing all they can to prepare students for a changing world? That is a question all educationalists must ask themselves. And we should be as brave as Davis in coming up with solutions. We are in a privileged position – because, in Davis’s words, ‘education and knowledge are key to progress’.
The subject which Davis most wanted the college to put on the curriculum, was Irish history. He said (I quote): “I have never heard of any famous nation which did not honour the names of its departed great, … … study the annals of the land, and cherish the associations of its history.”
I don’t imagine he was thinking of himself – but today, thanks to the Mallow Group, we are indeed honouring the name of a departed great, in this his bicentenary year.
May we continue to remember Thomas Davis – and to learn from him.
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