The ‘West’s Asleep’ by Thomas Davis

Introduction to the ‘West’s Asleep’

This song is a ballad from a poem written by Thomas Davis. A Newstalk show1 provides some background to this ballad saying that it’s a kind of montage, like in the movies, of iconic events in the history of Ireland since the 12th century. The interviewee says that Thomas Davis, was an Irish patriot born in Mallow in County Cork on 14 October 1814 not long after the death of his father (quoting the Irish Times for this) who was an army surgeon. Four years later his family moved to Dublin and settled in Lower Baggot Street. He went to school in Lower Mount Street and in later years went to Trinity College, and from there onto study law, and was called to the bar a year or so after he graduated. The show also discussed why the song is often referred to as the ‘West’s Awake’ instead of asleep – the title being changed to make it more evocative ! 1.

Some other interesting information is that this song is considered the Galway anthem and as a theme for the GAA Galway team, and one source said it was a national rallying cry.

Who was Thomas Davis ?

There is a lot of material in multiple reference sources which I haven’t included as there were too many ! Some information I found and paraphrased (or just copied and pasted!) follows which I hope I have about right and apologise for any errors and duplication across the points:

  • he had a tragically short life : born 14 October 1814 and died at only the age of 30 of scarlet fever just before the great famine – he died within a week of it’s onset; I think one source said he could have changed the course of ‘An Gorta Mór’ (the Great Famine of Ireland) if he had lived
  • was a writer and a protestant nationalist, very much influenced by Wolfe Tone, and a prominent organiser of the ‘Young Ireland’ movement
  • was very well published ; wrote ‘A Nation Once Again’
  • was an idealist; instead of asking ‘why?’ , asked ‘why not?’ imagining how things ought to be !
  • he advocated for the Irish Nation, the Irish language, and preached unity between protestants and catholics; although he was not a native speaker like the Nationalist Leader Daniel O’Connell
  • with Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, he established and was a founding editor of ‘The Nation’, the weekly nationalist newspaper of what came to be known as the Young Ireland movement – a voice for modern Irish nationalism. While embracing the common cause of a representative, national government for Ireland, Davis took issue with Daniel O’Connell by arguing for the common (“mixed”) education of Catholics and Protestants and by advocating for Irish as the national language
  • fourth and last child of James Davis, a Welsh surgeon in the Royal Artillery based for many years in Dublin, and an Irish mother. His father died in Exeter a month before his birth, en route to serve in the Peninsular War. His mother was Protestant, but also related to the Chiefs of Clan O’Sullivan of Beare, members of the Gaelic nobility of Ireland.

The West’s Asleep

The ‘West’s Asleep’ is included in ‘The Poems of Thomas Davis (with notes and historical illustrations edited by Thomas Wallis) (1846)’2. Note I checked that there is no interpretation in this work about the ‘West’s Asleep’ !

The West’s Asleep : a Munster air / poetry by Thomas Davis ; music arranged by Dermot MacMurrough (coincidentally, the same name as the King of Leinster ! – see (iv) below)3.

The West’s Asleep was published in the Spirit of the Nation4. The music is in the Air of ‘The Brink of the White Rocks’.

There are some notes under the song which attempt to explain some of the historical events which appear throughout it.

The West’s Asleep

1.When all beside a vigili keep,
The West’s asleep, the West’s asleep—
Alas! and well may Erinii weep,
When Connaughtiii 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.

2.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’ disgraceiv
Can quite destroy their glory’s trace.

3. For often, in O’Connor’s vanv,
To triumph dashed each Connaught clan—
And fleet as deer the Normans ran
Through Corlieu’s Pass and Ardrahanvi.
And later times saw deeds as brave;
And glory guards Clanricarde’s gravevii
Sing oh! they died their land to save,
At Aughrim’s slopesviii and Shannon’six wave.

4. And if, when all a vigil keep,
The West’s asleep, the West’s asleep—
Alas! and well may Erin weep,
That Connaught lies in slumber deep.
But, hark! some voice like thunder spake:
“The West’s awake! the West’s awake!”—
“Sing oh! hurra! let England quake,
We’ll watch till death for Erin’s sake!”x

i) This may refer to the other provinces of Ireland keeping the vigil with the Anglo-Normans who had invaded Ireland in the 12th century.

ii) Erin = Ireland = the term sometimes used for Éire in poetry and music.

iii) Connaught = Cúige Chonnacht = the province of Connaught = ‘The West’.

iv) This could be the King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada – why his actions constituted a ‘disgrace’ could be because of the following sequence of events unfolding in the 12th century:

  • Diarmait kidnapped the wife of the King of Breffney, Tiernan O’Ruark in 1153
  • O’Ruark formed an alliance with Rory O’Connor (Ruaidrí mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair – the last High King of Ireland (1166 -1198) also King of Connaught (1156 -1186)
  • O’Connor led the Gaelic chiefs in driving the King of Leinster into exile in 1166
  • the King of Leinster fled to France, and then England where he persuaded Richard de Clare – 2nd Earl of Penbrooke aka ‘Strongbow’, to lead an army in 1169 to retake his kingdom, in return for the hand in marriage of his daughter Aoife, and then succession to become the King of Leinster
  • Strongbow claimed Leinster following Diarmait’s death in 1170
  • in October 1171, King Henry II of England landed with a large army to assert control over both the Anglo-Normans and the Irish
  • the Norman invasion was a watershed in the history of Ireland, marking the beginning of more than 700 years of direct English and, later, British involvement in Ireland5.

v) ‘van’ = ‘vanguard’ being the foremost part of an advancing army or naval force.

vi) These are Coirr-sliabh pass for Curliew Pass (Curlew Mountains – northeastern Connacht), and Ard Rathain (a village in the south of County Galway) (Ard Rathain means height of the ferns as Gaelige). These presumably are referring to the Battle of Curlew (15 August 1599)6 and Ard Rathain (1225)7 – two famous and iconic victories for the Irish / Gaels over the Normans and English.

vii) ‘Clanricarde’s grave’: note this means clann Ricarde = Richard’s family and descendants ; likely a reference to  the Irish nobleman Ulick Burke , fifth earl of Clanricarde, as supreme commander of the Irish and Royalist forces during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland8. The siege of Galway was part of the Irish Confederate wars (1641-1653):

  • The siege of Galway took place from August 1651 to 12 May 1652 during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. Galway was the last city held by Irish Catholic forces in Ireland and its fall signalled the end to most organised resistance to the Parliamentarian conquest of the country
  • Clanricard tried to assemble an army at Jamestown County Leitrim to relieve Galway.

(viii) The Battle of Aughrim (12 July 1691)9 in County Galway was the end of the war of the two kings with victory to the protestant King William of Orange.

xi) The river Shannon. Abhainn na Sionainne = as Gaelige ; it means the river of possessor of wisdom.

  • Throughout the seventeenth century, the river was used in the Irish Confederate Wars to divide the locals from the English Parliamentarians, who struggled to cross it.

(x) An allusion from the West turning from asleep to it’s awakening. This could possibly be a reference to the last rebellion and rising in the run up to Davis’ short life.

  • In 1795 Theobald Wolfe Tone, who was born in Dublin and leader of the United Irishmen, fled to France to seek alliance with the French for the invasion of Ireland (L’Expédition D’Irlande)10
  • The invasion fleet was unable to land in Bantry Bay in 1796 due to various factors including the stormy seas and partial destruction of the fleet at sea and it failed
  • However, in 1798, there was another attempt when the French landed almost 1,100 troops at Cill Chuimín Strand, in north west County Mayo. This was to assist the Irish revolution begun by Theobald Wolfe Tone’s Secret Society of United Irishmen
  • A combined force of 1,000 French troops and Irish patriots from Connacht routed a force of 6,000 loyalist militia in what would later become known as the “Castlebar Races” or “Races of Castlebar”
  • On 31 August, the rebels proclaimed a “Republic of Connaught” in Castlebar- which lasted 12 days before being retaken. This rebellion also ultimately failed11
  • More on this is provided at reference 12 ; it says that:
    • Apart from skirmishes in the Wicklow Mountains the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion was seemingly crushed after the siege and subsequent shelling of the rebels encampment at Vinegar Hill in June 1798
    • Two months later however, in August 1798, a small French fleet beached near Killala in County Mayo. Men from Ireland’s most western counties Sligo, Mayo and Galway joined the French army and brought the rebellion back to life
    • Initially the combined French-Irish army, commanded by General Humbert, achieved some great successes in a campaign commonly known as the Races of Castlebar. The successes of this small army filled up with untrained civilians, were primarily due to the lack of crown forces in the west
    • French reinforcements arrived too late and the advance came at a standstill when they met the English forces near Ballinamuck in County Longford. The ensuing Battle of Ballinamuck marked the end of this French invasion of Ireland.


  2. The Poems of Thomas Davis (with notes and historical illustrations edited by Thomas Wallis) (1846)
  4. The Spirit of the Nation: Ballads and Songs with Original and Ancient Music, Arranged for the Voice and Pianoforte (Dublin: James Duffy, 1845): 73Google Scholar.
  7. Annála Connacht (Author: [unknown]) ; Annal 1225 – See Appendix.

Appendix – the battle of Ard Rahain 1225

It is really hard to get a clear picture of the battle of Ard Rathain referenced in the song as you have to painstakingly work your way through the the Annals of Connacht7 for 1225 which is an English translation of what the monks wrote down in old Irish. It’s really hard to read !! It seems that Cathal Crobhdearg, King of Connacht to 1224, brother of Ruaidhrí Ó Chonchobair (Rory O’ Connor – the very last high king of Ireland) was succeeded by his son Aed mac Cathal Chrobhdearg. Aed mac Cathal’s rivals were the sons of Ruaidhrí, Toirrdelbach and Aed. To cut a long story short and skipping over heaps of detail – and probably getting this completely wrong !, this led to a great rebellion in Connacht in 1225. The belligerents were the King of Connacht Aed mac Cathal supported by the Galls (the foreigners – the Anglo-Normans); while on the other hand the rivals for the Kingship of Connacht being the two sons of Ruaidhrí who were supported by some other minor kings of territories within Connacht [and Aed O’ Neill but he and his armies/forces weren’t in the conflict)]. The civil war was about claims to the Kingship of Connacht. Ultimately, Aed mac Cathal won and the sons of Ruaidhrí had to go back to the O’ Neill territory in the north. There’s reference to at one point to Connacht being filled with armies (three of them Galls’ armies). Anyway, the action happens when Fedlimid, brother of Aed mac Cathal, his principal men, and a large force of Galls, are sent to raid Eogan O’ hEdin (Owen O’Heyne) in Uí Fiochrach Aidni (a kingdom in the south of Connacht), and before raiding the whole ‘country’ in the early morning (which must mean Uí Fiochrach Aidni), encamp for the night at Ard Rathain. Rory O’ Connor’s sons’ allies (O’ Flaithbertaig and the sons of Muirchertach) get intelligence of this and their forces of Gaels surround Ard Rathain and are sent in to rout the Galls early in the morning – which they successfully do to the Galls fleeing east but not so successfully to those fleeing to the west as they received losses themselves. Before all this happened there was all kinds of plundering, slaying and so on going on, with the plundering having attracted so many Gall forces to come into Connacht at that time. It was all followed by plague and famine at the end.


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