Subscribe to the Irish News




Book Reviews
& Book Forum

Search / Archive
Back to 10/96





Parties owe a debt to forgotten leader

(Carmel Hanna, Irish News)

Irish parties that claim their lineage from Sinn Féin include Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the present-day Sinn Féin.

However, the name of Arthur Griffith is rarely mentioned by Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams.

Even the centenary history published recently by Sinn Féin, Cead Bliain, has only a couple of paragraphs on the man and no photograph.

For various reasons, the Irish political class from the 1920s onward found it convenient to excise the name of Griffiths from the public discourse and memory.

Griffith was born in Dublin on March 31 1872 and learned his trade as a printer.

He contracted tuberculosis and for the good of his health emigrated to South Africa, where he worked in the gold mines and reputedly took part in the Boer War.

On his return to Ireland in 1899, he established a newspaper, the United Irishman. As a journalist and propagandist Griffith was prolific, with strong opinions and prejudices, always trenchantly expressed.

He could be bigoted and supported the 1904 pogrom against the tiny Jewish population of Limerick.

He opposed socialism and pacifism as being 'alien' British influences on Ireland and praised the totalitarian German and Russian governments as being superior to British parliamentary democracy.

He made himself ridiculous by railing against JM Synge's 1907 comic masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, now acknowledged the world over as one of the greatest plays ever written. Griffith felt it demeaned Irish womanhood.

Though not personally a monarchist, he advocated the idea of an autonomous Ireland linked to Britain under a dual monarchy. The King of England would also be crowned King of Ireland, based on a similar arrangement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

He also introduced the idea that Irish MPs should abstain from Westminster and establish a separate Irish parliament in Dublin.

It was not until October 1917, a dozen years after its foundation, and after the Easter Rising, that Sinn Féin decided it was indeed a republican party.

That decision, which had elements of farce that Synge could have made into a wonderful play had he been still alive, nearly split Sinn Féin asunder.

When public opinion turned in Ireland as a result of the execution of the 1916 leaders and general disillusion with the Great War then raging, Sinn Féin quickly became the beneficiary of a massive change in public opinion and went on to electoral triumph in the 1918 general election.

During de Valera's 18 months' absence in the US (1919-21), Griffith was named as acting president of Dail Eireann.

Against his will, Griffith was persuaded to lead the delegation of plenipotentiaries to London to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty in late 1921.

The burden of negotiation on the Irish side was carried almost in its entirety by the 31-year-old Michael Collins, who displayed great capability in ably negotiating multiple strands of the treaty against the best brains of the British Empire.

When the treaty was signed on December 6 1921, Griffith's was the first Irish signature on the document, before that of the charismatic Collins. The sad consequences of the split over the treaty are well known.

Nominated as President of the Irish Republic after de Valera's resignation, but exhausted and overworked, and burdened by the strain of vicious quarrels with former comrades and even Collins, Griffith died from a cerebral haemorrhage on August 12 1922. Ten days later Collins was assassinated.

Arthur Griffith's reputation went into decline immediately after his death and he remained almost forgotten for decades.

For physical-force republicans he was reviled as the first Irishman to put his name to the hated treaty. His name had none of the allure of Collins, a man seen by all as someone who had died far too young with vast unfulfilled potential.

Electorally Sinn Féin practically disappeared from the political scene as WT Cosgrave went on to establish Cumann na nGael (later Fine Gael) in 1923 and de Valera Fianna Fail in 1926.

For years after they entered the Dail, Fianna Fail would bait Cosgrave's party for its association with Griffith and his 'King, Lords and Commons of Ireland'.

Even in the 1940s, Liam Cosgrave expressed caution about a proposed biography of Griffith and, though long out of office, asked that his name not be associated with Griffith's.

As late as the 1960s the Facts About Ireland publication from the Department of Foreign Affairs omitted his name, and that of Collins, from a potted history of Ireland.

It was not until 1968, 46 years after his death, that a modest plaque was erected on his home in Dublin.

Griffith was a man of the highest personal integrity, who left public life as poor as he entered it.

The treatment of his widow, Maud, left in great poverty after his death, was truly shameful. With a young a son and daughter, and living on into the 1960s, she was forced to beg for a pension from a native Irish government.

Her words of reproach directed at all the 1916-21 generation still resonate: "He made you all."

Griffith does deserve to be honoured. His ideas of abstentionism and dual monarchy were his way of recognising the futility of violence as a way to effect political change.

Though he had no great personal experience of northerners, either nationalist or unionist, he tried to think in an inclusive way and his dual monarchy idea can be seen as a way of allaying at least some unionist fears.

He also sensed the partiality of a lot of southern Irish Catholics to monarchical ideas.

His idea of Irish national self-reliance might be seen as impractical in the modern world, given the small size of Ireland's population and lack of natural resources.

Whatever his faults, Griffith had a fertile imagination who seized on ideas, good and bad, from many sources.

Of this I am certain: the name of Arthur Griffith was not the first, nor will it be the last, to be airbrushed from Irish history in order to suit the purposes of contemporary political protagonists.

July 24, 2006

This article appeared first in the November 28, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News