Posted by Jim on August 17, 2012
By Brian Maye (for the Irish Times)
The Sinn Fein founder, Arthur Griffith, died 90 years ago this week.
He was the man who founded Sinn Fein 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 Fein representative on Dublin
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
Michael Collins, WT Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy and Desmond FitzGerald are
among the leaders on the pro-Treaty side who recorded their debt to
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
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 Fein 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 Fein (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
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
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 Fein 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 Fein
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.