Noêlle Ffrench Davies: A Transnational Irish Polymath

S Morgan

Dr Noêlle Ffrench Davies

Dr. Noēlle Davies (1889-1983), née Ffrench, of Mount Talbot, Co. Roscommon, was a 20th Century intellectual, educationist, litterateur and political activist across Ireland, Wales, Denmark and Europe. Her story is largely unexplored. Using transnational sources, we can trace and assemble her 50 years’ intellectual output. This has four strands: her life-long commitment to education that was both practical and national; seminal intellectual and political collaboration building a modern Welsh nationalism with her husband, Dr. D.J. (‘Dai’) Davies (1893-1956); her own transnational political writings; and Noëlle’s personal literary output.

It is argued here that much was founded during her formative years in pre-1925 Ireland. This is revealed in her unpublished mémoire[1], DJD: Some Memories of Our Life Together;[2] sources in her National Library of Wales archive and others in Dublin and Roscommon which allow the framing of a biography of this ‘Irish university woman’ who became atypical through her transnationalism. Her pioneering work on the theory and practice of education is the direct result of personal experiences as an ecumenical, nationalist, Protestant, woman teacher challenged by the hegemony of denominational schooling in the Irish Free State. She attempted to build an alternative throughout her life. In Wales, she’s known as co-author with Dai of economic policy during the foundational years of the Welsh Nationalist Party.[3] New research reveals that she was in fact Dai’s co-collaborator, even co-author, of almost all ‘his’ works.[4] He had been appointed as the Party’s ‘Research Department’ in 1930, yet it was, in reality, a joint appointment. Dai confirmed this after writing ‘his’ first book for the Party in 1931, “She could lecture on Economics and almost any other of my subjects, if necessary, as we have largely studied them together”.[5] Her Irish nationalism – applied transnationally – permeated her own political writings along the broad themes of the freedom of small nations against imperial hegemony, international order, national heroes and the fusion of political, literary and ethical approaches.[6] The more literary of the couple, Noëlle wrote romantic and ‘country’ poetry from a young age. Many unpublished, her works, including literary criticism appeared in magazines across Great Britain and Ireland.[7] Her first collection appeared in the mid-1930s with more works later published by the Welsh Nationalist Party as part of its engagement with the new school of Anglo-Welsh writing.[8] Her return to Ireland after Dai’s death intensified her literary activity. Yet she is not included in the standard anthologies of Irish women writers.[9]


Her pre-1925 life prefigures most of her later activities. Born into a comfortably-off farming family at Mount Talbot, Co. Roscommon, as a typical female middle-class Protestant Episcopalian with the financial means to do so, she boarded at the French School in Bray, Co. Wicklow – which she later described as “rather prim and old-fashioned” – from 1914 to 1918, then attended Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a double-first in Classics & Modern Languages in 1922 and gaining its diploma in education a year later. A gifted undergraduate, in addition to many term prizes and distinctions, she was awarded the title of Non-Foundation Scholar in 1922 and the Vice Chancellor’s Literary Prize. Noëlle was active in student affairs, holding office in the Elizabethan Society and Dublin University Student Christian Movement. The former, with all women students eligible for membership, was founded in reaction to TCD’s discriminatory exclusion of female students from its most prestigious student bodies, the University Philosophical Society and the College Historical Society. This institutional distinction was reinforced in other ways, notably by The Eliz having its separate “Reading and Writing room, a small library, and a Lunch and Tea Room”.[10] The Student Christian Movement divided female and male students, with the former’s Women’s Union founded in 1905. Perhaps more important than her societal activities, Miss Ffrench lived at Trinity Hall, the off-campus residence for unmarried female students not residing with parents or guardians. More than a hall, it was “an academic hub which placed a focus on learning”.[11]  Significantly, there she fell under the lifelong influence of the formidable Margaret Cunningham (1872-1940) – ‘’a good and inspiring friend” – its warden and, like Noelle, a modern linguist and nationalist. She lived in Dublin, throughout the Irish Revolution (1916-1922) but, though following it with “ardent enthusiasm . . took no active part in it”.[12] Her apparent distancing requires revision which is revealing of her character. TCD was a decidedly Unionist institution which resisted the Revolution. Miss Cunningham’s pro-independence stance had fallen foul of College authorities, which threatened her dismissal. As an undergraduate, Noëlle depended on their approval, not only in relation to her academic progress but for the myriad of awards that she gained virtually each term, many of which added to her income.[13] Financial security – family and personal – enabled her to pursue her lifelong intellectual goals. But while keeping a low political profile at TCD, off-campus she displayed her nationalism. It seems she met Michael Colllins (possibly in 1917), wrote three unpublished poems in his memory and visited his Glasnevin grave throughout her life.[14] With her sister she carved a commemoration of the founding of the Free State in Gaeilge on a tree at home. This evidence of her personal negotiability – practical realism – is another marked characteristic. After university, Noëlle faced a personal and political dilemma. She had “intended to teach in Ireland, but realised that I had only the vaguest idea of how to impart to Irish Protestant girls an education which would be inspired by a truly national spirit, like that imparted by Pearse at St. Enda’s, and which at the same time would foster the practical and constructive qualities so much needed in the new-born Irish Free State”.[15]  Her response was bold and proved life-changing. She’d read an article by T.J.O’Connell, general secretary of INTO, on Danish Folk High-Schools “which fostered both national culture and practical excellence”.[16] Through her Student Christian Movement contacts she obtained a lectureship at the International People’s College in Helsignör, Denmark to learn more, starting in January 1924. There she met Dai. Their relationship rapidly developed into a deep and abiding love – they became engaged on 1st May – and a symbiotic intellectual partnership, initially through their shared interest in the Danish Folk High-School system. Noëlle had published in Ireland a long essay celebrating the first four years of the International People’s College, emphasising its seemingly classless collegiality, internationalism, practical approach to education and the ‘place’ of men and women. a precursor to what would soon evolve into a campaign against the Free State’s denominational education structure.


In Denmark, Dublin’s ten-year influence on Noëlle manifested itself in another way. In May, she represented the Irish National Council of Women at the International Council in Copenhagen and was a delegate to the conference of the International Federation of University Women in Oslo in July. On her return to Dublin, she reported to both the National Council and the Women’s Citizens Union on Folk High-Schools. Her connections with these suffragist and feminist movements and their faith in her to represent them reveals her strong ‘university women’ connections and, from this privileged position, offered her future potential at home, if she could find an outlet for her knowledge and skills as a progressive educationist. That was her plan. She returned to Dublin in August 1924 with Dai, both staying in Trinity Hall. With Miss Cunningham’s active support – they were effectively a triumvirate – and using the latter’s high-level contacts within Dublin society, they decided to campaign for the establishment of a Folk High-School in the city. Dai and Noëlle would marry then teach there. Their project would go through three phases between August 1924 and July 1925. First, after extensive personal lobbying by all three, a public committee was established that September “to investigate the proposal to establish in Ireland a school like the Danish Folk High-Schools and, if approved, to take the necessary steps to do so”.[17] Its membership was balanced between labour and business, academia and government, Catholic and Protestant; it was markedly consensual and powerful.[18] Using Miss Cunningham’s management expertise, the three drafted a timetable and curriculum. The latter included Irish History and Literature, Gaeilge and Irish Singing, Gymnastics, Economics, World History and Literature, Arithmetic and Geography, plus English, Civics and Carpentry for one hour apiece per week. In addition to Dai and Noëlle teaching, there would be a Catholic assistant lecturer, visiting lecturers and, if a farm were attached to the school, a farm manager instructing in Agricultural Science.[19] This broad range of subjects was in marked contrast to the narrowing curriculum of State-supported denominational schools. Under the influence of the Catholic hierarchy, the range of compulsory subjects, especially practical ones, was reduced.[20] Even Noëlle’s own Church of Ireland supported the denominational system, to smooth Protestant integration into the Free State and preserve its religious niche against Catholic hegemony.[21] Herein lay the seeds of failure. Nevertheless, by October, a vacant rectory in Co. Dublin was considered as the location. The campaign was further boosted by the arrival in Dublin of Noëlle’s former employer, Peter Manniche, Principal of the People’s College in Helsingör, at the invitation of the school committee. A high-profile meeting in the Mansion House was used to invite prominent people and raise funds. Manniche’s speech particularly addressed the self-interest of the farming community and the following day he met the Farmers Union national executive, the Minister of Agriculture and major Anglo-Irish figures. Despite these efforts, that same month the Committee decided to postpone any opening until Autumn 1925. Although ostensibly for financial reasons, the influence of the Church was being felt. In Noëlle’s own words, “Though some of the Catholic clergy . . had shown friendly interest in it, others were not so friendly; and it was anticipated . . . that objections would be raised if the school started with two people who did not belong to the Church of the majority of its Principals.[22] At the end of the month, “the Committee decided that . . they could not make themselves responsible for helping us in our attempt to start a High-School in concrete form.[23] A later letter from Miss Cunningham to the couple suggests another underlying factor. Expressing her bitter personal disappointment at the project’s failure, she refers to “a lot of us”, an enlivened “big fellowship”, part of a society which is ripe with need but not yet “ready”.[24] This cri de cœur encapsulates the disappointments of progressives, women in particular, with the anti-equality and educational policies of the Cumann na nGaedheal government. Despite being let down by the ‘great and good’ in October, Noëlle and Miss Cunningham persisted with their campaign for six more months. (Dai went to a Danish folk high-school to better equip himself). The National Council of Women arranged a four-day mission for her to Northern Ireland where she lectured to the Co-operative association in Belfast and the Women’s Citizens Association in Belfast and Derry. Back in Dublin, she addressed a joint meeting of the National Council and the Citizens Association on the practical, national and gender aspects of the schools. She wrote a pamphlet for public sale,[25] and two series of articles (thirteen in total) for provincial weekly newspapers. Miss Cunningham directed her efforts to the national press. Their hopes must have still be high because in March 1925, both visited Enniscorthy to view Kilgibbon, a spacious farmhouse, as a possible site. Even after that fell through, a third site was was inspected at Greystones. On Dai’s return in May 1925, “we had a thorough discussion of the various religious and other difficulties and . . finally decided that we had better give up the scheme and go to Wales”.


Before leaving, they married at St. Philip’s Church, Milltown with a wedding breakfast in Trinity Hall. Although a constant traveller across the Irish Sea, Noëlle would not live permanently in Ireland again for over thirty years. She retained an intellectual feminism, in keeping with the times but with unrelenting self-confidence in her own equality. While the history of women within Welsh nationalism is largely unwritten,[26] it can be claimed that Noëlle and many contemporaries practised proto-post feminism, who acted despite patriarchy. This was forged in Irish ‘alternative’ women’s networks in the face of Free State reaction. Despite her receiving a classic bourgeois woman’s education, Noëlle transcended typicality via liberating new networks, which also feature in her life in Wales. Although eschewing the Irish Revolution’s violence, she embraced its Romanticism, as evidenced in her literary works. Her full story is a work in progress.


[1] The French term is used by the author to allude to Noëlle competence as a Francophile

[2] National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Ref. Henceforth referred to as Memories.

[3] The Party was founded in 1926. The recognised joint works are Cymoedd Tan Gwmwl (1938), Can Wales Afford Self-Government? (1939, 1947, 1949), Wales: Land of Our Children? (1942), Is Monmouthshire In Wales? (1943). These generated additional newspaper articles, presentations, debates and a prolific output of letters to the press.

[4] The Economics of Welsh Self-Government (1931), The Economy of South Wales Before 1800 (1933), Deddf Uno 1536 (nd) WA Bebb (ed.), Monmouthshire: The Case for Wales (1938) (ed. Dafydd Jenkins), Diwydiant A Masnach (1945), Memorandum: Welsh Coal Industry (nd) (with HP Richards), The Welsh Coal Industry (1948) (with HP Richards), Towards An Economic Democracy (1949).

[5] Handwritten copy of note written to Saunders Lewis, June 1931. NLW Ref.99/36.

[6] Typical are her works Grundtvig of Denmark (1944), Æ (1945), Connolly of Ireland (1946)

[7] These include Voices in the Wind (London), Focus: A Monthly Review (Dublin). This bibliography is substantially incomplete at present.

[8] Middle Country (1936).

[9] Examples include Irish Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide (2006), (ed.) Alexander G. Gonzalez, Westport: Greenwood Press; The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vols. 4 & 5 (2002), (Eds. Angela Bourke et. al.), Cork: CUP.

[10] University Calendar, 1919-1920, Vol. 1, p.57.

[11] Aislinn McCann, A Relic of the Times, in TCD’s University Times’ In Focus, 4th February 2017.

[12] Memories, p.20.

[13] In addition to the Non-Foundational Scholarship in 1921, she gained awards every academic year which enhanced her income.

[14] D. Hywel Davies (2017), DJ and Noëlle: Shaping the Blaid, Cymdeithas Hanes Plaid Cymru, 14pp.

[15] Memories, p.20.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Memories, p.25.

[18] Chaired by TJ O’Connell, the members were Miss Cunningham, Mr. Cormac Walsh, Thomas Johnson TD, Professor Joseph Johnson, Mr. E.M. Stephens, Mr. Séan O’Cuiv and Mr. M.F. O’Hanlon.

[19] Memories, p.26.

[20] Antonia McManus (2014), Irish Education: The Ministerial Legacy, 1919-1999, Dublin: The History Press, p.21.

[21] Ibid, p.34.

[22] Memories, p.26.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Margaret Cunningham to Dai and Noëlle, 10th November 1924, Memories, pp.27-28.

[25] Noëlle Ffrench (1925), Folk High-Schools: How Denmark Faced Her Reconstruction Problem: A Suggestion For Ireland.

[26] See Charlotte Aull Davies, (1994), Women, nationalism and feminism in Our Sisters’ Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales, (eds,), Jane Aaron et. al., Cardiff: University of Wales Press, pp.242-255.

S Morgan researches identity studies in Swansea University’s Morgan Academy and is a PhD candidate exploring the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1951. This transnational history necessarily examines the rôle of mediators (key figures) in enabling the parties’ interrelationship. Noëlle Ffrench Davies is one such person who is of particular interest as an ‘invisible’ woman. Morgan is writing a biographical chapter of this polymath as a personal agent within formal party relations


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