‘An Exile’s Keepsakes’: the times and travels of Clonakilty’s Eugene Davis

Posted on: 10th June, 2016

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

“I have them still, though many years
Life’s load on me have pressed,
Since first I caught them through my tears
Imprisoned on my breast,
As o’er the waves the vessel sped
That bore me far away
From where my kith and kinsmen dead
Lie mouldering in the clay:
A shamrock plucked where Shannon glides
Through meads and verdant leas,
A fern lead from the old hillsides,
A shell from Ireland’s seas
So long as by these triplet ties
To that dear isle I’m bound,
I dream I stand ‘neath Ireland’s skies,
And tread on Irish ground;
And when within the grave I rest,
How joyfully I’d sleep
With these three keepsakes on my breast
From Erin o’er the deep:
A shamrock plucked where Shannon glides
Through groves and winding leas,
A fern lead from the old hillsides,
A shell from Ireland’s seas!”

This past fall, Saoirse Ronan gripped audiences the world over with her portrayal of Eilis Lacey, the young love-struck Irish immigrant torn between two worlds in the film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel ‘Brooklyn’. However, a little over a half century before the fictional Lacey began her journey to her adopted home in the New York borough, that area served as the end scene of the real, yet equally melodramatic story of one of West Cork’s finest poets, Eugene Davis.

Born in Clonakilty in 1857, Davis was the only child born to John Davis, a classics scholar known for tutoring the local gentry, and his second wife, Ellen Murphy. While a stepbrother, the Rev. Charles Davis, would achieve his own level of renown in West Cork as a dedicated advocate of the area’s fishing industry, their father had different plans for his younger son. He set about educating Eugene in the classics and linguistics, in preparation for a career in the priesthood. Accordingly, he was sent to the Irish Colleges in Louvain and Paris to continue his education. While in Paris, he would befriend a number of exiled Irish nationalist leaders, amongst whom were Patrick Egan, the treasurer of the Irish Land League, Irish Republican Brotherhood founder and former leader James Stephens, and the elder Fenian John O’Leary. Ultimately, his interest in the political aims of his newfound friends blossomed, while his ecclesiastical studies floundered. After two years, he withdrew from his course of study at the Irish College in Paris.

Utilising his many connections in the city’s Irish community, Davis quickly set about establishing himself as a freelance writer. With his residence at the Hôtel Bacqué serving as a base, the young Corkonian contributed poems and short stories to local papers, and soon began garnering attention for the highly nationalistic tone of his work.

In the winter of 1881, the British government prohibited the Dublin-based publication of the ‘United Ireland’, the periodical that Charles Stewart Parnell had founded as an organ of the Land League the previous summer. In recognising the rapid rise of print culture in 19th-century Ireland and its potential for increasing one’s political influence, Parnell noted, “The profession of journalism is a great and powerful one in these days…the press is becoming ever mightier than the politician…politics and journalism run very much together, and a tendency is more and more to combine the two.” Taking such into consideration, the discontinuation of the paper could have spelt disaster for the movement. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that rather than allow the pages of the ‘United Ireland’ to fall silent, it was decided that its production was to be outsourced to Paris. Seeking an editor for the revamped paper, Egan approached Davis, who readily accepted. While the experiment would only last six weeks, his position as editor had an unforeseen consequence. He fell under the watchful and active eyes of British intelligence agents, who placed him under constant surveillance.

Perhaps unaware of the British government’s increased interest in his activities and associations, Davis continued to openly associate with Stephens and other high profile Fenian exiles, and although he was never a member of the organisation, regularly provided journalists with sensationalised reports of supposed Irish nationalist plots. In one such meeting on 21 February 1885, he spoke with one John Lipton Knubley, a British intelligence agent posing as a reporter for the New York Herald. Whether Davis’s embellishments went a step too far or Knubley invented the information that he had purportedly obtained during their lunch meeting is unknown. However, the get-together would be the beginning of the end of Davis’s life in Paris. Knubley claimed that Davis, as well as the elderly Stephens and a number of their associates were deeply involved with various anarchist groups and were in the advanced stages of planning to overthrow the British establishment. Despite the fact that neither was politically active at the time, Davis and Stephens were promptly arrested by French authorities and expelled from the country.

After spending time travelling throughout much of Europe, Davis briefly settled in Dublin where, like his famous namesake Thomas Davis had 40 years earlier, he took up an editorial position with the Nation. During this time, he also continued to develop his own writings, culminating in the 1889 release of a collection of his poetry and songs, entitled ‘A Vision of Ireland’. Fittingly, he released the work under the nom de plume ‘Owen Roe’, a nod to the famous lament written by Thomas Davis in the 1840s. After the Nation folded in the summer of 1891, Davis saw a lack of opportunity in Ireland, and decided to immigrate to the United States. Following his arrival, he continued his literary works, contributing to various American literary magazines and newspapers. After marrying the widowed daughter of fellow Irish poet Charles Graham Halpine, Davis and his new bride settled in Brooklyn. It was there that on 25 November 1897, while in the process of writing a new novel, the Clonakilty-born poet passed away at the age of 40.

Like Tóibín’s Lacey, whose tale was rife with notions of the spatial disconnect felt by young migrants, Davis’s work was often marked by the transnational nature of his own life. Of his aforementioned poetry collection, reviewers noted that much of his best work had been done while the Cork poet was traveling on the Continent. One review in the Irish Monthly remarked, “If Ireland was out of sight, she certainly was not out of mind. The thought of her inspires what is best in these pages…” One particular piece from the volume, entitled ‘An Exile’s Keepsakes’, perfectly foreshadowed his eventual demise on the other side of the Atlantic, and provides an ideal epitaph for the poet and perpetual traveller.

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