The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 18. Thomas Osborne Davis

We may here revert to the group of Irish writers who made national Irish politics the vehicle for their literary propaganda and, wise in their generation, thus secured a far wider hearing than Petrie and Otway gained by means of their three magazines. Thomas Osborne Davis, the son of parents of strictly unionist principles, and with but little Irish blood in his veins, went, as a protestant, to Trinity college, Dublin, but then began to show his independence of mind. He did not lay himself out for college distinction, which he could easily have gained, but read omnivorously, won influence with his fellowstudents and, ultimately, became president of the Historical society, the leading university debating-club. Called to the bar, he began to practise in the revision courts and to dabble in political journalism. This latter work attracted the attention of Charles Gavan Duffy, the brilliant young editor of a Belfast national journal, and a Roman catholic. The two men became friends, and a walk taken by them and John Blake Dillon in Phoenix park led to the establishment of The Nation, from which sprang what was soon known as “The Young Ireland Movement,” and which, as Duffy afterwards wrote, “profoundly influenced the mind of his own generation and made a permanent change in the opinion of the nation.”

At first, Davis, who was joint editor of The Nation, with Duffy, was opposed to the introduction of verse into this journal. Afterwards, however, he recognised how readily his countrymen would respond to this kind of appeal; and, in the third and sixth numbers of the paper, respectively, there appeared two of his finest political lyrics My Grave and his Lament for Owne Roe O’Neill. Thereafter, he wrote much verse in The Nation, little of it, however, deserving the name of poetry. Nor was this surprising. He had not time to polish his lines; besides, he wrote for “the enlightement and regeneration of the people,” and his verse, therefore, tended to become didactic. Yet, in his few leisure hours, when he could carefully think out and finish a poem, or when he was under the inspiration of an ardent personal patriotism, he was a true poet—as in his Boatman of Kinsale, O the Marriage, the Marriage and his historical ballad The Sack of Baltimore. But Davis will further be remembered by his essays. Gavan Duffy, also, broke into spirited, unaffected verse in The Nation; witness his Lay Sermon, The Irish Chief, Innishowen and The Patriot’s Bride. But there were two other constant contributors to The Nation who excelled both him and Davis in poetic craft—Denis Florence MacCarthy and Thomas D’Arcy McGee. One of Maccarthy’s finest poems is in honour of the clan MacCaura, of which he came, and his lyrics The Pillar Towers of Ireland and Waiting for the May have become popular—the first, deservedly so; the latter, in spite of its somewhat sickly cast of thought. His translations of Calderon’s dramas are accepted as standard works of the kind; while his Shelley’s Early Life from original sources is interesting as showing what that poet’s efforts were for the amelioration of the government of Ireland.