A Nation Once Again is an Irish nationalist song in which the singer dreams of a time when Ireland will be independent.
It was written in the 1840s by Thomas Davis at a time when Ireland was under British rule. Indeed, Dublin was regarded as the second city of the British Empire.
Thomas Davis was one of the founders of the Young Ireland movement that campaigned for Irish independence. He was born in Cork in 1814.
His mother was Irish but his father was Welsh, hence the Welsh name.
The family moved to Dublin when Davis’ father died just a month after his birth.
Davis grew up at a time when calls for Irish independence were growing and this appealed to his nationalist instincts.
Davis received a classical education and attended Trinity College Dublin where he graduated in law before going on to practise as a lawyer.
His song A Nation Once Again reflects his classical education and his desire to bring some of the Greek and Roman sense of patriotism into Irish politics. The song begins with these opening lines:
“When boyhood’s fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men.”
The three hundred refers to the Battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and the Persians in 480BC.
In the course of the battle, 300 Spartan soldiers fought a valiant rearguard action to hold off thousands of Persian warriors so the rest of the Greek army could escape and regroup.
Most of the Spartans were slaughtered but the act was seen as a perfect example of heroic sacrifice for the sake of one’s country.
The three men refers to the Horatii who were three triplet brothers who helped to save Rome by defeating three warriors who were also triplet brothers from the neighbouring city of Alba Longa. Two of the Horatii were killed and again, their story is seen as an heroic sacrifice.
The song tells how these heroic stories inspired him to pray that he might one day see “our fetters rent in twain, and Ireland long a province, be a nation once again”.
The line, a nation once again, is then repeated three times in what is only a four line chorus. Set to a stirring tune it became an anthem and rallying call for Irish nationalists for a hundred years after it was written and it remains popular today.
Davis wrote several other nationalist ballads including the Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill. He worked tirelessly for the nationalist cause.
He also helped to establish the nationalist newspaper, The Nation. Davis was a protestant who sought unity with catholics. He didn’t feel that his religion made him any less Irish and felt the two faiths could live peacefully side by side.
Sadly, Davis didn’t live to see his dream come true. He died of tuberculosis when he was only 30.
The Irish group The Wolfe Tones are perhaps the performers most closely associated with this song.
They’ve performed it all across the world and in 2002, their recording was voted the world’s most popular song by listeners to the BBC World Service.
The national song of India, Vande Mataram, came second.