‘Forward in her progress’: Thomas Davis’s ideas on educating leaders

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Volume 25

The nationalist and patriot Thomas Davis (1814–45) is well known as a political journalist who developed his brand of cultural nationalism in the Nation newspaper and as a dynamic contributor to Daniel O’Connell’s repeal campaign. While Davis has been described as a romantic and an idealist, he displayed considerable pragmatism in his views on educating leaders, some of which have relevance to contemporary Ireland.

By John Conneally

Thomas Davis was witness to the social degradation and economic decline that was evident in pre-Famine Ireland, and he identified a deficit of good leadership as a contributory factor in Ireland’s impoverished state. A new generation of leaders like Swift, Grattan and Wolfe Tone was needed to make Ireland ‘forward in her progress’. According to Davis, patriotic leaders of high moral character were required to lead Ireland into political liberty and economic prosperity. They must be just and fair in their administration of power as landlords, judges, priests and politicians, and he argued that education was the means by which these leaders could be created. He criticised Ireland’s only university, Trinity College, Dublin, because it failed to discharge its national responsibility: to educate wise and useful citizens.

Trinity College—‘an obstacle to the nation’s march’

Above: A view of Trinity’s Long Room from History of the University of Dublin by W.B.S. Taylor (1819).

Davis attended Trinity as a student from 1831 to 1836. He graduated with a BA and took further examinations in Logic and Ethics. The BA curriculum covered three fields: mathematics/physics, classics and philosophy. His memory of Trinity was positive; in his Presidential Address to the Historical Society (hereafter Address) of 1840, he stated that he had ‘not one sad or angry reminiscence of old Trinity’. He acknowledged that it provided him with the opportunity to make good friends. Nonetheless, despite the ‘many pleasant hours’ spent there, he did not overlook its many faults. He criticised its exclusive, Protestant, monopoly and its bigoted laws (only 10% of the student population was Catholic); it was ‘an obstacle to the nation’s march’. This privileged system of education was anathema to Davis’s principle of nationality, which encouraged reconciliation and unity amongst all Irishmen for the benefit of Ireland. A university education should be accessible to all members of the middle classes, regardless of political or religious persuasion.

Davis demanded curriculum reform because he believed that the curriculum at Trinity was anti-national; it promoted knowledge that had little or no relevance to Ireland or the challenges facing its people. It was a curriculum designed to serve the British Empire rather than Ireland. He feared that the inordinate emphasis on the classics in the undergraduate programme meant that students had more knowledge and a greater understanding of ancient Rome than of their own country. If students did not know Ireland, how could they serve it? He encouraged them to acquire knowledge of Ireland so that they could contribute to its advancement. In the first edition of The Nation, 15 October 1842, he argued that national knowledge would generate the national feeling and habits necessary to win liberty and promote individual prosperity. Only when students were educated about Ireland should they study other societies, according to Davis.

Utilitarian approach

Above: Jeremy Bentham—echoing the utilitarian, Davis insisted that useful knowledge should dominate the Trinity curriculum. (NPG)

Echoing the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, Davis insisted that useful knowledge should dominate the Trinity curriculum. The courses in moral philosophy were not creating men with a moral compass that would guide them through the challenges of public life. In his Address he stated that the courses were ‘hazardous commodities’. He argued that many leaders lacked the moral principles required to serve the common good, and he feared that self-interest and corruption would damage Ireland’s struggle for independence. In his view, ‘the violence and forwardness of selfish men, regardful only of physical comfort’, would lead to corruption, anarchy and despotism. Future leaders should study the works of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752) and John Locke (1632–1704) for inspiration and ideas about serving the common good, threats to democracy and religious tolerance. Furthermore, Davis’s sense of morality influenced his political life. In politics he was sensitive to corruption in the Repeal Association but he did not always articulate his concerns in public, fearing that to do so would distract attention from the political goal of independence. In a letter to William Smith O’Brien (1803–64), a leader of the Repeal movement (included in Duffy’s biography of Davis, A short life of Thomas Davis), Davis outlined the imperfections of repeal politics: ‘between unaccounted for funds, bigotry … crude and contradictory dogmas, and unrelieved stupidity, any cause and any system could be ruined’.

While oratory formed part of the BA curriculum at Trinity, Davis believed that this subject should be reformed. Much had been written on the principles of persuasion and the tactics of debate by writers on metaphysics and rhetoric ‘from Aristotle to Mill, and Quintilian to Whately’, but in Davis’s view ‘their advice was general’ and was difficult to put into effect. His utilitarian mindset focused on identifying problems that his contemporaries faced and suggesting practical solutions. He advised his contemporaries to study the styles of orators who had distinguished themselves by serving Ireland, including Edmund Burke (1729–97), John Philpot Curran (1750–1817) and Lord Plunket (1764–1854). This would fulfil a dual purpose; it would allow students to learn the skills of an orator and would imbue them with patriotic sentiment. Davis appreciated the oratorial talents of Demosthenes and Cicero and he was sure that students would develop skills by studying their speeches, but to recommend orators from the age of antiquity rather than Irish orators would be anti-national and would not serve the cause of nationality.

English and Irish

Above: Thomas Davis. (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Davis was concerned that such an important, relevant subject as English was not on the curriculum in Trinity (not until 1856). He was aware that his contemporaries required a good standard of English to equip them for the demands of public life. The politician, lawyer and clergyman would benefit from a formal study of the English language to perfect an effective writing style and to enhance their ability to convince and persuade. In order to succeed it was essential that public men were able to communicate effectively. Davis encouraged his contemporaries to engage in English philological studies as being useful to the formation of style. Philological studies would provide a greater understanding of the rules of grammar, of how language works and of the meaning of words. He recommended a number of authors for their clarity of language and because they informed his thinking on a range of issues—including Henry St John, first Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), English politician and philosopher, who informed Davis’s view of history, and Swift, who Davis described as one of the mind-chieftains in the civil strife of Ireland—while Cobbett’s Grammar would provide guidance on how to use words effectively. He was also concerned at the decline of the Irish language and he explored this issue in the columns of The Nation.

Above: In the first edition of The Nation, 15 October 1842, Davis argued that national knowledge would generate the national feeling and habits necessary to win liberty and promote individual prosperity.

Irish history
Davis also argued that Trinity students should have access to courses in Irish history. He informed his Trinity audience that they were the inheritors of a proud history and that it was their duty to study it, to learn from it and to honour it by serving their country. In his Address he stated that knowledge of history was invaluable to future leaders of society. History was ‘teacher of the head and heart’; it was ‘the birthright of her sons’. He understood that students would benefit from knowledge of the motives, experiences and actions of men in the past. Knowledge of history would protect the people from the failings of an aristocracy and could ‘keep the people from beginning to shed blood’. It would also provide future leaders with role models to inspire them. He had a contradictory approach to writing history: while he suggested that history must be impartial, he struggled to apply this principle in his own analysis of the past—for example, in his analysis of The Irish Parliament of James II, 1689 he interpreted history to serve his political agenda. For Davis the use of propaganda was necessary to define the Irish nation and to justify it.

Davis’s criticism of Trinity also extended to how subjects were taught. Too many ‘dunces’ were emerging from college after five years of idleness. He criticised the system of instruction for its excessive focus on the memory rather than on developing an ability to reason and to use the imagination. His concern resonates with present-day challenges in the education system. Davis insisted that students should be trained how to think, and he encouraged students to make deductions based on analogy and to study subjects rather than accepting the view of a single author. These methods would promote critical thinking—a skill that was necessary for effective leadership. He argued that future leaders should display independence of mind in the struggle for liberty, as law-makers and civic leaders, and that a university was integral to this process of mind-making.

Trinity did introduce reforms in the 1850s but there is no evidence to suggest that the college was influenced by the suggestions in Davis’s Address (in the public domain since 1840). His views on university education did, however, feature in an 1845 debate in the Repeal Association on the Queen’s Colleges Bill. Davis and O’Connell engaged in a public dispute over the principle of non-denominational university education. O’Connell rejected this principle because he hoped that a more favourable bill could be achieved for Catholic Ireland; Davis supported multi-denominational education, as long as it was compatible with his nationalist principles. Neither side was successful in influencing the content of the bill but the dispute contributed to increased distrust between O’Connell (Old Ireland) and Davis (Young Ireland).

Many of Davis’s thoughts on the formation of leaders are still relevant today. The problems of modern times, both at home and abroad, suggest that there remains a need for moral leaders to work for the common good rather than political faction or narrow self-interest. Knowledgeable and just leaders will always be required to uphold the principles of democracy. Davis’s advice that leaders should seek out useful knowledge to develop the skills and competencies necessary to deal with the challenges that they face is still valid.

John Conneally has completed a Ph.D thesis on Thomas Davis’s education policies at the School of Education, University College Cork.

J.N. Molony, A soul came into Ireland: Thomas Davis 1814–1845, a biography (Dublin, 1995).
H.F. Mulvey, Thomas Davis and Ireland: a biographical study (Washington, 2003).
T.W. Rolleston, Prose writings of Thomas Davis (London, 1889).


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