Arthur Griffith
Arthur Griffith


By Brian Maye (for the Irish Times)

The Sinn Féin founder, Arthur Griffith, died 90 years ago this week.

He was the man who founded Sinn Féin and led the Dail delegation to London that signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the founding document of Irish independence. He contributed much to bringing about that independence but it would be probably true to say that in the Ireland of today he is largely forgotten. It was not always thus.

A small Dublin weekly paper called the Spark, edited by John Doyle under the pen-name Edward Dalton, conducted a poll in February 1915 based on the question: “Who is the Irish nationalist whom Dublin wishes most to honour?” Griffith was the first choice, followed by Eoin MacNeill and Alderman Tom Kelly, a longtime Sinn Féin representative on Dublin Corporation.

Dalton wrote: “The name Arthur Griffith has been chosen by a majority of readers of the Spark . . . What Ireland owes to Griffith, to his patriotism, to his self-sacrifice and to his ability and earnestness will one day be told. The man’s modesty prevents it being known to his contemporaries.”

Michael Collins, WT Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy and Desmond FitzGerald are among the leaders on the pro-Treaty side who recorded their debt to Griffith’s teachings.

Their testaments should not surprise us. But what about the leading anti-Treatyites who were equally strong in recording their debt to his influence? “He was the greatest intellectual force stimulating the national revival,” wrote Erskine Childers, a particularly gracious tribute given that Griffith, in an uncharacteristic outburst during a Dail debate, referred to Childers as a “damned Englishman”.

Harry Boland declared to Dr Patrick McCartan: “Damn it, Paddy, hasn’t Griffith made us all!” Sean T O’Kelly wrote that “Griffith’s political philosophy, so eloquently taught, and his 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.”

The centenary of Griffith’s birth was 1971 and it is revealing to contrast that year with the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Michael Collins (1990) from the point of view of commemorative events. Collins’s centenary was marked by the publication of a major new biography, by television and radio programmes and newspaper articles. And by a wreath-laying ceremony at his birthplace, a function at which every shade of political opinion in the State was represented.

Compare this to the muted manner in which Griffith was remembered nearly 20 years before. A campaign was undertaken by a few private citizens to have a commemorative postage stamp struck in his honour, but then taoiseach Jack Lynch dismissed the idea in the Dail with the comment that Griffith was “a Civil War figure”. A thought-provoking piece in the periodical Studies by Griffith’s foremost biographer, Sean O Luing, and a few newspaper items were all that recalled him in 1971.

So why has he been forgotten and why should he be remembered? The extract from the Spark quoted above referred to his modesty. He never sought positions of leadership. Although he founded Sinn Féin in 1905, he became its leader six years later only when he could not find anyone else to take the role. And in 1917 he willingly stepped down in favour of Eamon de Valera in order to prevent a split in the movement. De Valera overshadows him in Irish history because of his longevity and domination of Irish political life for so many of the 90 years that the State has been independent.

Griffith was that non-glamorous person, the writer, intellectual and philosopher, the one who worked quietly on policies in the background while others claimed the limelight. Collins overshadows him because of his role as orchestrator in the War of Independence and all the tales of derring-do, close escapes and heroism, and the brilliant counter-intelligence campaign he ran which turned the tables on the British. Collins also has the romance associated with dying in action and dying young - the lamented “lost leader” who might have achieved so much had he lived.

It is not easy to do justice, in an article of this length, to the extent of Griffith’s contribution to the Irish independence movement from around 1900 to 1922. But there are three facets of that contribution to which particular attention should be drawn.

Firstly, what mattered most to Griffith was not political independence but economic independence, because he saw the former as useless without the latter. As a result, he devoted much of his writing as a journalist, editor and pamphleteer to making the case for Ireland’s economic self-sufficiency, which is summed up in the name of the movement with which his name will always be associated: Sinn Féin (Ourselves).

The economic philosophy he preached may be summed up as “economic nationalism”, of which protectionism was the core. It is one of the ironies of Irish history that it was not his lineal political successors in Cumann na nGaedheal in the 1920s but his anti-Treaty opponents in Fianna Fail from the 1930s onwards that put his economic ideas into practice. And it is important to realise that the economic policies pursued by successive Irish governments from 1932 up to the 1960s were based on ideas that Griffith had advanced in the early decades of the 20th century.

Secondly, whatever about his attitude to or actions during the 1916 Rising, it was absolutely vital that the programme he had evolved in the previous 20 years was there in the aftermath of the rising. That programme provided the blueprint and framework on which future progress could be built after 1916.

Terence de Vere White expressed this interaction between Griffith’s programme and the sacrifice of the men of 1916 well: “Pearse and his comrades . . . provided by their sacrifice whatever mystical and romantic inspiration was lacking in Griffith’s work” but “he had created the political philosophy and hammered out the framework” on which their dream could be realised. Albeit they discarded his idea of a dual monarchy.

Thirdly, and perhaps most enduringly in terms of his contribution, Dail Eireann was primarily one of Griffith’s long-advocated theories put into practice. From the beginning of the 20th century, he had called on the Home Rule MPs to abstain from going to Westminister (because that, to him, was to recognise the legitimacy of the British conquest) and to set up their own parliament in Dublin. Griffith had always argued that the way to achieve independence was to establish a rival administration at home which would win the confidence of the Irish people.

That is exactly what the victorious Sinn Féin candidates in the general election at the end of 1918 did and on January 21st, 1919, Dail Eireann met for the first time. For Griffith, who had been elected to the Dail but who was in jail in Gloucester at the time, the meeting of that assembly in the Mansion House in Dublin was a dream come true.

To Arthur Griffith, the establishment of a separate parliament in Ireland was part of the process of winning independence by peaceful means. He was thus one of the earliest advocates of the theory of non-cooperation or passive resistance. And its greatest 20th-century exponent, Mahatma Gandhi, recorded his debt to the founder of Sinn Féin in his campaign to free India from British rule.

When Griffith collapsed and died, probably from a heart attack, on August 12th, 1922, it is said that the only money found in his pockets was one penny. But he left behind a legacy of selfless dedication to his country for which he deserves to be remembered.

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