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Arthur Griffith


Arthur Griffith               Gerry OShea

Arthur Griffith played a central role in the political story which led to Irish independence around a hundred years ago. We can date these historic events from the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912 to the end of the civil war in 1923.

Mr. Griffith, whose father worked as a printer with the nationalist newspaper, The Nation, was born in 1871 and lived in Upper Dominick Street in Dublin. He attended a local Christian Brothers school and apprenticed as a compositor in his father’s business, an invaluable training for his subsequent shoe-string journalism.

He emigrated to South Africa in 1896 where he supported the Boers in their war with the British. While not considering the native people equal to the white Afrikaners, he condemned the denigrating treatment of the tribespeople.

After two years he returned to Ireland and was pleased to observe a rejuvenation of many facets of Irish nationalist culture – games, music, literature and respect for the Irish language. There was an assertive pushback by the people against the colonial notion that English games, poetry and music were somehow inherently superior to local cultural expressions.

Responding to this burgeoning national spirit, he co-founded the weekly newspaper, United Irishman, with William Rooney, a talented friend from his school days. Rooney was a respected poet and writer but, unfortunately, he passed away at a young age in 1901.

This paper folded in 1906 because of a libel suit. Griffith responded by starting another nationalist paper, Sinn Fein, which briefly became a daily in 1909 but survived as a weekly until the British closed it down in 1914. In response, he opened another nationalist journal called Nationality.

From his early writing he began articulating a Sinn Fein program which defined his contribution to nationalism for the remainder of his life. He espoused restoring an Irish legislature in Dublin, based on what is known as Grattan’s Parliament (1782-1800), that would again govern the whole island. Unlike the original legislature which, during the Penal Laws, excluded Catholic participation and which showed little interest in economic development, Griffith spoke and wrote of this proposed assembly as a dynamic body that would respond to the needs of the people all over the island.

In particular, he wrote extensively about the need for major growth in the development of local industry, like coal, already, he claimed, lying fallow all over the island. He asserted that such policies could end emigration by providing employment that would justify supporting a population of 20 million – a wildly optimistic prognostication.

He argued for a solution to the challenge of accommodating the two traditions in Ireland along the lines achieved by Hungary in its conflict with the militarily superior Austrian Empire. In his book The Resurrection of Hungary he praised the Hungarians for refusing to sit in the Austrian parliament until they were granted their own legislative assembly and only then accepting the Austrian monarch in the largely ceremonial role of Head of State of both countries. This book was so popular among nationalists that it went to a few printings.

He felt that this provided a useful paradigm for dealing with the two distinct communities in Ireland. In a further outreach to the unionists in 1920, he offered to allow the Ulster Volunteers to continue as a Loyalist force in a united country, and he promised them sole control over the ebullient linen industry in the Lagan Valley area.

Although a supporter of Parnell, he came around to strong opposition to any Irish representatives serving in the London parliament. The Third Home Rule Bill, passed in Westminster in 1912, was hugely popular with all brands of nationalism and Parnell’s successor, John Redmond, got a heroes’ welcome when he returned to Dublin after the Bill passed.

However, the Great War lasted much longer than anticipated and  Redmond yielded to pressure for two parliaments in Ireland, one in Dublin and one in Belfast. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, wanted to introduce conscription of new recruits for his army fighting in the trenches in Europe and these plans included compulsory service by young Irishmen.

This was vociferously opposed by all Irish nationalists and Griffith, who while a strong proponent of non-violence, wrote that the people would be fully entitled to resist such a law by force. In the end the bill was not introduced in Westminster.

Griffith was enthusiastic about the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 as a counterbalance to the Ulster Volunteers. He saw the training involved as a positive contribution to citizenship. He joined the force himself and participated in the landing of guns in Howth which was strongly opposed by the authorities. He proudly held on to one of the rifles from that escapade until the British confiscated it.

To Griffith’s discredit, his early writing reveals strong anti-Jewish prejudice that was fairly common at that time in Ireland and throughout Europe. He wrote, for instance, that “all Jews are pretty sure to be traitors if they get the chance.” Responding to a baseless boycott of Jewish businesses in Limerick led by a local priest, he supported the spurious claim that the action was not directed against any religion but was justified because of the prevalence of Jewish usurers.

Historian Colum Kenny identifies a noticeable change in his rhetoric on this issue in the last fifteen or so years of his life. He points to a laudatory article he wrote in 1909 dealing with the Jewish contribution to European civilization, and In 1915 he railed against the then-powerful Irish Parliamentary Party for asserting that Jews should be barred from public office.

Arthur Griffith was a puzzling, enigmatic man as his relationship with Jews suggests. Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 rebellion, complained  that he was “too hard, too obstinate, too narrowminded and too headstrong --- but he had virtues possessed by nobody else.”

Others also spoke of the paradoxes in his character, seeing him as a gray eminence, apparently dull and retiring, but still someone who could be witty and gregarious and acerbic when dealing with people who crossed him.

In 1905 he founded Sinn Fein which for the next eighteen years gradually assumed a central role in the freedom struggle. In 1911 he was elected president of the growing organization and held that position until he ceded it to de Valera in 1917 while continuing as vice-president.

Under their joint leadership the party won a record 72 seats in the British election in 1918, ending the power of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Significantly, the unionists in Ulster enjoyed similar electoral success in their corner of the island.

Mr. Griffith joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in his early activist years. It seems that he viewed it primarily as a cultural organization with only loose ties to the Fenian tradition of armed militancy. He left it after a few years complaining about its secrecy and pointing to the admired patriot, Thomas Davis, a strong advocate for open discussion and for public espousal of nationalist causes.

He argued for passive non-violent resistance to British rule. A devout Catholic, this approach fitted well with pronouncements by the hierarchy in those days.

 This ideology was out of step with the violent revolution that started in Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary in January, 1919 and that culminated with the truce agreed between the two sides in July 1921. Griffith did not change his philosophy, railing, for instance, against the killing of policemen in Tipperary and the execution of alleged spies ordered by Michael Collins.

The IRA knew of his advocacy for passive resistance and that he looked askance at their violent actions and so the members were often suspicious of his counsel. However, he refrained from public condemnation of the revolution in his newspaper, preferring to highlight excesses by the police and especially by the despised Auxiliaries and Black and Tans.

He was unaware of the plans for the Easter Rising in 1916 until a day before it began. He applauded Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order and he promulgated this message to some of the Sinn Fein leaders in the vicinity of Dublin.

However, when he realized that the rebellion was going ahead, he joined his friend, Michael O’Rahilly, who had been driving all over the southern counties conveying MacNeill’s cancellation instructions, in deciding that he couldn’t stand idly by when shots were fired for Irish freedom. He headed for the General Post Office to offer his services, but Sean McDermott advised him that he was far more valuable with the pen than the rifle, and he went home to continue his work as a propagandist.

Yet he was arrested a week later and interned first in Wandsworth and then in Reading Jail. He asked his wife Mollie Sheehan, a Cork woman, to send him a copy of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”, which he had signed by his fellow internees and that document is now kept in the National Library in Dublin.

He was appointed by de Valera to lead the negotiating delegation to London in October 1921. This was a strange choice because Griffith never fully subscribed to the republican agenda. His dual monarchy proposal, based on the Hungarian model, was anathema to most members of the IRA who swore an oath to the visionary all-island republic.

The two thorny issues that the negotiators confronted involved the level of sovereignty for the new state, which, as proposed, would enjoy Dominion Status within the British Empire, and the legitimacy of the statelet of Northern Ireland, comprised of six counties and already functioning since the passage of the Government of Ireland Act (1920).

Republicans never advocated taking the North by force. First, because there was the important consideration of 100,000 armed Loyalist volunteers whose sole raison d’etre, clearly expressed, involved opposing participation in any kind of government in Dublin.

 Secondly, the philosophy of the freedom fighters, the IRA, was tied to the founder of the movement, Theobald Wolfe Tone, who preached unity of all Irishmen in a revolution against what he called the common enemy: England. Internecine killing between two religious groups on the island would inevitably lead into a dark valley.

The negotiators settled for a Boundary Commission made up of three representatives – one from each of the Irish governments in Belfast and Dublin, and the third member, who would act as chairman, appointed by Westminster. Sinn Fein leaders hoped that this commission would agree to transfer to the Dublin jurisdiction counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, based on the strength of the Catholic populations in those areas.

Nationalists believed economic pressure would end partition after a few years. Griffith and company read this situation incorrectly because, a hundred years later Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom. However, even with hindsight it is difficult to find a viable alternative. How to accommodate two strong opposing traditions remains a huge challenge in Ireland.

The other matter which created major divisions among nationalists and especially republicans concerned the level of sovereignty that the new state would accept. Dominion Status enjoyed by Canada and Australia seemed attractive. Those countries - then and now - follow their own independent governing policies and protocols while maintaining formal ties to the English monarchy. Apart from partition, accounting for two internal parliaments, Dominion Status fitted easily into Griffith’s dual monarchy thinking.

Lloyd George demanded a pledge of fealty to the crown by all Irish legislators. This would not involve the new government following any policy directives from Westminster, just an open acknowledgement that the monarch is considered the formal head of the Irish government.

De Valera had met privately on two occasions during the summer of 1921 with the British Prime Minister, and the sovereignty issue loomed large in the disagreements between the two. The Irish leader drew up a compromise statement setting down a system of what he called External Association which would recognize the importance of the monarch in the relationship between the two countries but with no oath or pledge required.

On two occasions during the London negotiations Griffith and Collins proposed this arrangement, contained in what was named Document Number Two, but Lloyd George publicly rejected it outright while privately explaining that as the head of a coalition government he could not bring the conservatives with him if he yielded on this matter.

The heated debate in the Dail, which lasted for multiple days on either side of the Christmas holidays, focused on the proposed pledge of fealty to the British monarch. By comparison, partition was barely mentioned.

Emotions ran very high with spiteful words like treachery and sellout being used against former comrades. Arthur Griffith, the semi-pacifist, and Michael Collins, who led the IRA physical force revolution, both argued strongly that accepting the invitation to negotiate in London inevitably meant compromising purist republican principles.

They pleaded that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to greater freedom as time went on. For now, they said, the British were leaving after 700 years and handing over power to an Irish parliament, which would establish its own priorities and debate its own policies.

Opponents, led by de Valera, Austin Stack and Cathal Brugha, who were especially disparaging of Griffith and his advocacy of dual monarchy, pointed to the binding oath to the symbolic Republic taken by every member of the IRA, most of whom opposed the deal.

Cumann na mBan also overwhelmingly said no, and all the female TD’s led by Mary McSweeney, who took more than two hours explaining her determined opposition, voted against accepting.

Griffith was convinced that the people were behind the treaty as negotiated mainly because they did not want a return to war. While the Dail vote was very close – 64 in favor and 57 opposed – the results of a subsequent national election in June validated Griffith’s perspective.

In the ballot for the presidency of the Dail, Mr. Griffith defeated the incumbent, Mr. de Valera, by just one vote.

The Civil War between those favoring and opposing the treaty lasted for eleven months with extreme military actions taken on both sides.  Arthur Griffith was the official leader of the new state with onerous duties in a country that faced crises every day.

He died at age 51 of a brain hemorrhage on August 12th 1922, ten days before his colleague Michael Collins was killed in an ambush in his native Cork. Apart from his wife, Mollie, he left two children, one boy and one girl.


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