Arthur Griffith has been misjudged too often. Neglected since his sudden death in 1922, his legacy suited no political party neatly. Warts and all, he was a remarkable man whose loving wife Molly called him “a fool giving his all, others having the benefit”.
The founder of Sinn Féin and president of Dáil Éireann when civil war erupted, Arthur Griffith was central to the creation of the present Irish state.
Harry Boland, who fought against Griffith’s side in the civil war is said to have exclaimed of him to a friend, ‘Damn it, Pat, hasn’t he made us all?’ Griffith was ‘the father of us all’, Michael Collins likewise said. If so, he is an Oedipal father-figure whose reputation is slain to satisfy more heroic fantasies about Mother Ireland.
It is time to do Griffith justice, not least because he was also president-substitute of Dáil Éireann during de Valera’s long absence in America for most of the War of Independence we are now commemorating. And in 1921 he courageously signed articles of agreement for an Anglo-Irish treaty. In reality, the battle against partition was then already lost. Partition rated few mentions in Dáil debates about the treaty, despite their bitterness.
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Arthur Griffith defended the literary reputation of Oscar Wilde. The fact that he distinguished between Wilde’s private and professional lives does not fit a caricature of Griffith preferred by his critics.
Nor does the fact that Griffith has been praised for supporting women. They included Maud Gonne, and those like Chrissie Doyle and Mary Butler who wrote for his papers. In 1910 he affirmed the equality of women and stated that, “if in course of time we in Ireland and the remnant of the earth came to live under a gynocracy, I should not repine. I am weary living in a world ruled by men with mouse-hearts and monkey-brains, and I want a change.”
Griffith has been scapegoated variously for Irish anti-Semitism, for The Playboy “riots” at the Abbey Theatre, for the failure of the armed struggle to achieve a 32-county republic by 1922, and for the frustration of socialist revolution in Ireland. This is despite efforts by earlier biographers to do him justice.
Reared among great poverty in central Dublin, Griffith was not glamorous but pragmatic. Ultimately a social democrat, he steadily articulated cultural and economic policies to achieve an independent Ireland. In 1921 Collins said that he used to think of him when young “as Ireland”.
As editor of the United Irishman Griffith damned “blooming censors” when urging people to read essays by James Joyce and Francis Skeffington rejected by a university literary magazine. He was the only editor who dared to publish in full Joyce’s letter detailing problems in getting Joyce’s Dubliners into print. His work inspired Joyce to write articles for the Italian media on Sinn Féin’s aims.
Griffith was an incisive journalist. To Yeats he was “an enthusiastic anti-cleric”. Indeed De Valera, who boasted of his own orthodoxy, apologised to the rector of the Irish College in Rome for Griffith’s tone in a letter sent to the rector during treaty negotiations in 1921. A libel action by a parish priest closed one of Griffith’s papers.
Despite this Griffith has been represented as a social reactionary, partly on the basis of his criticism of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. But he simply did not find that play believable. He worried that it perpetuated a false idea of Irish people and could be used to support the claim that Ireland was not fit to govern itself. But he did also publish a defence of The Playboy and personally praised its actors, while approving some of Synge’s other work.
Griffith’s publication of some anti-Semitic statements, including by F.H. O’Donnell and Oliver St John Gogarty, has damaged his reputation. He strongly denied he was anti-Semitic, and published the socialist Fred Ryan’s condemnation of such “ravings” in his own paper. When Griffith died suddenly in 1922, the Dublin Jewish Students’ Union expressed “dismay” and sent his widow their “sincere and respectful sympathy”.
His detractors usually ignore later favourable references to Jews that he also published, as well as his later affirmation that no nationalist would deny Irish Jews a place in any future Irish cabinet. Some who compare him unfavourably to Michael Davitt and James Larkin ignore unpleasant utterances about Jews by Davitt and Larkin themselves.
While Griffith and James Connolly had a friendly relationship, Griffith did not like Jim Larkin. He considered Larkin a divisive danger. His antagonism to Larkin, and for a period to Yeats (whose early career he had strongly boosted), was based on his fear that their personal agendas might distract from his main objective. Likewise, he did not prioritise votes for women lest that demand derail the priority of national independence.
In 1913 Griffith took part in the Howth gun-running. An old photo in the National Library of Ireland shows him (unidentified by name) drilling with the rifle that he got there. In 1914 the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) invited him to a small, high-level secret meeting that then agreed a policy for securing independence. Most of those present died in the 1916 Rising.
Seán T. O’Kelly, a future president of Ireland, survived but found himself on the opposite side to Griffith in the Civil War. His accounts of that meeting and of Griffith’s role then and subsequently are crucial eye-witness testimony in light of the loss of many of Griffith’s personal papers.
When Griffith dropped dead, O’Kelly was in Kilmainham Jail as a prisoner of the pro-Treaty government. He generously predicted of Griffith that, “Future generations of Irish men and women shall draw inspiration [from a man] whose political philosophy so eloquently taught, and whose long years of toil and sacrifice brought the present generation of Irishmen from their knees to their feet, and rekindled in their hearts the almost extinct flame of liberty.”
It is time once again to acknowledge Griffith’s role as “father of us all”.
The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: ‘Father of Us All’, by Colum Kenny, is published by Merrion Press at €19.95
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