Arthur Griffith: A Neglected ‘Enigma’ captured by Colum Kenny

Peter Donnelly, Opinions Editor, examines Colum Kenny’s recently published book on the Irish leader’s life

Arthur Griffith Colum Kenny Enigma Book Front cover
Source: Merrion Press

What history has continually proven is the ease with which the mind overlooks those individuals who tirelessly toiled for the comfortable benefit of others. It is in many ways a valuable, albeit a disappointing, reality of life. Those that have succumbed to this unfortunate fate too often occupy the outer edges of historical accounts, lest the contemporary mind.

In his most recent work, The Enigma of Arthur Griffith, Colum Kenny captures that very condition of historical and political amnesia, particular to Ireland. It is structured and delivered in a way that Kenny furnishes the reader with an insight into the enigmatic Irish leader in both his private and professional life.

Having been both a subject of poverty and a witness to it through most of his adult life, Arthur Griffith, affectionately dubbed ‘Dan’, later became a man of the world, being raised in the dreary Victorian slums of inner-city Dublin. Griffith recognised the ground truths of poverty and desolation of the average person existing in awful states of depravation in Ireland’s urban districts, not through any innate, academic ingenuity, but from first-hand experience. This central component of his captivating character set him apart from many of his political contemporaries.

The grandeur of the establishment – be it English or Irish – was not a world with which he was familiar or which he wished to frequent. His journalistic writings spoke of this world in a demotic way, particularly those Irish nationalists who he viewed as leaving behind their roots. Griffith argued that class culture had been a complacent witness to the gradual diminution of Ireland’s integrity as a separate economic unit.

Colum Kenny is one of a number of notable Irish writers and academics who have taken it upon themselves to delve deeper into this elusively quintessential Irishman. As the centenaries of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Griffith’s death and the Irish Civil War approach, it is both reassuring to see that the protagonists who shaped the current structures on the island of Ireland are critically and individually examined. Arthur Griffith, admittedly a name which does not rank as high as those of Michael Collins or Eamon De Valera, is one such character who was central to developments in Ireland during the revolutionary period one hundred years ago.

The seemingly ceaseless swathe of Irish centenaries has perhaps left observers wondering when the whole affair will be put to bed. However, such an attitude, which may have well-placed intentions, is as regressive as it is ostensibly progressive.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, says the well-recited adage; with that comes the reappraisal of neglected figures such as Arthur Griffith and shining a light on their contribution to a question which has puzzled the greatest political minds.

The enigma of Arthur Griffith can be viewed as part of his overall journey as a poverty-stricken Dublin boy, through to his working as a printer’s hand, becoming a prolific exponent of nationalist journalism at home and in the South African veldts up to his reaching of political maturity. When he reached the latter remains uncertain. However, he maintained a life-long desire to avert any form of political division.

Kenny consciously underlines this through Griffith’s witnessing the downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell at the summit of his career in 1890 and the subsequent acrimony it aroused in nationalist politics. Factionalism was his greatest phobia.

From 1904, his political philosophy was formulated in his seminal book The Resurrection of Hungary. This would become the original Sinn Féin doctrine of dual monarchy between Ireland and Britain, as existed between the reconciled nations of Austria-Hungary (a parallel which was perhaps more expedient than anything else). This formula was by no means a novel suggestion as a practicable remedy to Ireland’s political ills created by what Griffith saw as the invalid 1800 Act of Union. He took direct inspiration from the 1782 constitutional movement directed by Henry Grattan (a formidable member of the old Irish Parliament) which saw Ireland retain its individual legislative sovereignty in the face of English Parliamentary hostility.

Arthur Griffith’s political philosophy was not one that latched to stringent conceptions of ideology, but rather engaged with reality. As Kenny notes, it was this fundamental position which would come to widen the divisions within the early Sinn Féin movement which had been hastily concealed from its 1917 reorganisation.

As head of the Irish delegation which negotiated the Treaty in London, Griffith demonstrated his commitment to the cause for which he had worked – a meaningful form of Irish independence.

His signing and subsequent acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty’s Articles of Agreement demonstrated pragmatism in the face of republican intransience as embodied in the figures of Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack. Kenny attributes Griffith’s inherent preferment of “politic words”, a fact which would see the growth in antagonism towards him within what became the anti-Treaty Sinn Fein faction. By January 1922, factionalism within the Sinn Fein movement was no longer a fear, it was a reality.

With his deputy Michael Collins framing the settlement in transitional terms (being the “freedom to achieve freedom”), Griffith was content to receive the ultimate substance of the settlement. Ireland possessed its own parliament and acquired executive controls establishing an Irish state, now as a dominion of the Crown.

The British negotiators saw him as a figure who they could rely upon as a faithful party to the execution of the Treaty’s terms. Griffith would be viewed by them as an emerging statesman of ‘nouveau’ imperialism, as Empire transitioned to Commonwealth following the First World War. The Earl of Birkenhead was to remark of Griffith, “A braver man than Arthur Griffith I never met.”

Griffith’s journeys to and from Dublin to London continued; it was gruelling diplomatic exercise. His wife Maud noted how the burdens of his labour weighed heavy on him in the early part of 1922, “…his poor exhausted face will haunt me for as long as I live.” His widow worked to ensure that her husband was accorded the legacy he deserved, as successive Free State administrations scarcely recalled Griffith’s name, least of all his work.

Kenny dedicates a section of his study to Griffith’s association with ‘The Long Fellow,’ Eamon de Valera. It was not a friendship or even a relationship of any great, noteworthy substance. However, de Valera’s ascension within Sinn Féin owes a great deal to the actions of Griffith. His voluntary relinquishment of the party leadership and his subsequent deputising role within the party which was his creation, exemplified Griffith’s humble credentials as a man who had his country’s interests at heart.

It was this sacrificial action which dictated much of his life. Griffith’s rejection of comfortable editorships with more established Dublin newspapers were further testament to this. Instead he devoted his energies to the achievement of his political philosophy, although he did not live to see his ideals firmly enforced.

Griffith’s legacy continues the tradition of lost Irish leaders who failed to arrive at their ultimate objective, however close they came. Griffith occupies that position on this pantheon of constitutional nationalists alongside Daniel O’Connell and John Redmond. Griffith looked upon O’Connell and Redmond as embodying a sense of overt conciliation and compromise; their however hamartia he would come to share.

Griffith’s awareness of emerging realties, particularly as they concerned  the new northern state and the determined position of Ulster Unionists, demonstrated his unique, realist intuition in his final address to the Dáil in 1922:

“The man who thinks we can build an Irish nation and make it function with 800,000 of our countrymen in the North against us…is living in a fool’s paradise.”

Colum Kenny’s work adds to the developing body of research into the worthy and neglected ‘enigma’ that was Arthur Griffith. As the decade of centenaries nears its final years, the past could benefit much from such in-depth analysis and examination as exemplified in this work by Colum Kenny.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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