The West's Asleep

Sligo's Benbulben
••• Sligo's Benbulben - Where "The West's Asleep" on most days indeed. © Bernd Biege 2016

"The West's Asleep", often (but incorrectly) also called "The West's Awake", is one of the anthems of Irish nationalists, harking back to the Young Ireland movement of the revolutionary mid-19th century, and invoking the indomitable spirit of an even older period in Irish history. It is unashamedly (though indiscriminately) anti-English, evokes a God-given order of things, and likens political aims to the forces of nature.

So let us have a look at the lyrics, the author, and the historical background of "The West's Asleep":

The West's Asleep - Lyrics

While every side a vigil keep,
The West's asleep, the West's asleep -
Oh long and well may Erin weep
When Connacht lies in slumber deep.
There lake and plain smile fair and free,
'Mid rocks their guardian chivalry.
Sing, Oh! let man learn liberty
From crashing wind and lashing sea.

That chainless wave and lovely land
Freedom and nationhood demand;
Be sure the great God never planned
For slumbering slaves a home so grand.
And long a brave and haughty race
Honoured and sentinelled the place.
Sing, Oh! not even their sons' disgrace
Can quite destroy their glory's trace.

For often, in O'Connor's van,
To triumph dashed each Connacht clan,
And fleet as deer the Normans ran
Through Corlieu's Pass and Ardrahan;
And later times saw deeds as brave,
And glory guards Clanricard's grave,
Sing, Oh!

they died their land to save
At Aughrim's slopes and Shannon's wave.

And if, when all a vigil keep,
The West's asleep! the West's asleep!
Alas! and well may Erin weep
That Connacht lies in slumber deep.
But, hark! some voice like thunder spake,
The West's awake! the West's awake!
Sing, Oh! hurrah! let England quake,
We'll watch till death for Erin's sake!

Thomas Osborne Davis

Though "The West's Asleep" is sung to the ancient air called "The Brink of the White Rocks," it is one of the popular songs in every (nationalistic) folk singer's back catalogue that we actually know the author of - Thomas Osborne Davis (born October 14th, 1814 in Mallow, County Cork, died September 16th, 1845 in Dublin,from scarlet fever). Davis was an Irish writer, agitator, and the motor behind the Young Ireland movement.

Davis was the son of a Welsh surgeon in the Royal Artillery, who died soon after his son's birth, and an Irish mother, which claimed a descent from Gaelic nobles. Mother and son moved from Cork to Dublin, where Davis attended school and then Trinity College, graduating in Law and Arts, finally being called to the Irish Bar in 1838.

His main task in life, however, soon became the almost single-handed creation of a new culture of Irish nationalism - Davis wanted to base nationalism on the nation, not on race, religion (he himself was a Protestant) or class, thus offering all Irishmen a common and inclusive cause. He also redefined "being Irish" - neither blood nor heritage making a person Irish, but the will to be part of "the Irish nation". Those of Anglo-Norman, English, or Scottish heritage could thus be Irish by simply claiming to be Irish.

All this was propagated in his newspaper "The Nation", where Davis published his nationalistic ballads, late collected and republished in "Spirit of the Nation". While publishing like there was no tomorrow, most of Davis' literary plans came to nothing due to his early death.

Davis was not the first revolutionary, but he was the first to redefine an Irish identity as not being based on race or religion, but on a conscious political decision. This also brought a split from Daniel O'Connell during a debate on universities - Davis wanting universities to educate all Irish students, O'Connell advocating a separate university for Catholic students, under church control.

Davis is buried in Dublin's Mount Jerome Cemetery.

The West's Asleep - the Background

"The West's Asleep" is a rambling piece of nostalgia promoting a unified Ireland, in which all provinces must pull their weight at the same time, for the same cause.

He singles out the Western Province of Connacht, which was one of the last strongholds of Gaelic independence, but had since fallen into a slumber, with the East (and especially Belfast and Dublin) leading the way now.

Apart from the almost mystical Connacht nature Davis invokes, he also touches upon historical events that would have been well known in nationalistic circles, thus requiring no further explanation. These are High King Rory O'Connor and his involvement in inner-Irish power struggles, which led to the Anglo-Norman conquest spearheaded by Strongbow. The battle of Ardrahan, a Norman defeat in 1225, is mentioned ... as is the Battle of Aughrim, which in 1691 ended the Williamite Wars, not (as it was commonly perceived) in Ireland's favor. There you have it all - triumph and defeat, but always the valor of the Connacht men.

And what is needed in revolutionary times, so the message goes, is a renewal, a reawakening of that valor, to make England (the Westminster parliament and the English crown) quake. Rethinking their position on Ireland.

The West's Asleep or Awake?

Davis published and republished his poem as "The West's Asleep", yet today it is often titled "The West's Awake". Often this might be due to simple error, admittedly the second (though wrong) version certainly sounds more stirring, optimistic, rousing. Thus the wrong title might also occasionally be applied with a political agenda in mind, a subtle shift of emphasis to an "awakened" Connacht, an Ireland behind one common cause.