Remarks by FELIX M LARKIN at the launch of Cut and Paste: Remembering Arthur Griffith, 2019
Contributors: Des Gunning & Cormac O’Hanrahan
Dublin Adult Learning Centre, Mountjoy Square, Dublin
I am delighted to be associated with the launch of this booklet, which is a valuable source of information about Arthur Griffith – a forgotten man of Irish history. But he deserves to be remembered both for his journalism and for the part he played in the foundation of the modern Irish state. He was a brilliant polemicist, and his ideas shaped the final phase of Ireland’s struggle for independence and the early politics of the new state.
He was born in Dublin in 1871, and trained as a printer. Active in advanced nationalist circles from an early age, he first came to prominence in opposing the Boer war; he had spent a brief period in the Transvaal in 1897–98. In 1899 he started the United Irishman, the first of a number of radical newspapers that he edited. It was replaced by a paper called Sinn Féin in 1906 and, after the latter’s suppression in 1914, by Scissors and Paste and later by Nationality. He wrote most of the material for his papers himself, and he followed his own agenda in each of his papers. Indeed, he once turned down a job as a leader-writer on the Freeman’s Journal so that, to quote one student of his journalism, ‘he could continue through his [own] newspapers to try to break up what he saw as Irish political apathy and torpor’.
The most significant of Griffith’s ideas was that Ireland’s elected representatives should refuse to sit in the Westminster parliament, but instead set up a rival assembly and administration at home. His model was the Hungarian nationalists who secured their own parliament in 1867 through a policy of abstention from the Imperial Diet in Vienna. Austria and Hungary had thus become separate political entities linked by the Emperor in a ‘dual monarchy’, and Griffith concluded that a similar arrangement might satisfy both unionist and nationalist opinion in Ireland. He explored these themes in a series of articles in 1904, reprinted as The Resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland. He saw another model for ‘dual monarchy’ in Grattan’s parliament and the so-called ‘constitution’ of 1782.
In addition, influenced by the German economist Friedrich List, he advocated a system of protective tariffs to encourage native Irish industries; this remained a guiding principle of economic policy in independent Ireland from the 1930s until the 1960s. Likewise, he sought to foster a distinctive Irish culture; he published Yeats and other Irish authors in his newspapers, and supported the use of the Irish language. However, he was among those who condemned Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World for its unedifying portrayal of Irish rural life. Moreover, his writings – for example, on the Dreyfus affair – reveal unfortunate racist, even anti-Semitic, tendencies.
Aiming to unite all strands of advanced Irish nationalism behind his policies, Griffith launched his ‘Sinn Féin’ programme in November 1905. The Sinn Féin party was founded in 1907. It attracted some initial support, but in the years 1909–16 it was outflanked by a re-invigorated Irish Republican Brotherhood. Griffith, however, retained a high public profile through his prolific journalism – with the result that the name ‘Sinn Féin’ was attached to almost all advanced nationalist activity, including the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Griffith took no part in the Rising, but was nevertheless arrested and interned afterwards. After his release in December 1916, the Sinn Féin party became the main focus of activity for those committed to furthering the aims of the Rising. In 1917 he stepped down as party leader in favour of Éamon de Valera, the senior surviving veteran of the Rising – an act of incredible political generosity, putting the interests of his party and of the country before his own self-interest. He recognised that he didn’t have the charisma necessary for the leadership of a popular movement; he was essentially a ‘backroom’ man – a man of ideas, not of action.
While once more in jail, Griffith won the Cavan East by-election on an abstention platform in June 1918. Sinn Féin subsequently enjoyed an overwhelming victory in the 1918 General Election. The successful Sinn Féin candidates then met in Dublin in January 1919 and, styling their assembly Dáil Éireann, proclaimed themselves the parliament of the Irish Republic. The War of Independence that followed derived legitimacy from Sinn Féin’s electoral success, though Griffith himself considered that violent methods could not succeed in winning Irish independence and he had developed his abstention policy as an alternative to violence.
Griffith held the posts of minister for home affairs and minister for foreign affairs successively in the Dáil Éireann governments of 1919–22, was acting president of Dáil Éireann – i.e. head of the government – when de Valera was in the United States from mid-1919 to end-1920, and in January 1922 succeeded de Valera as president after the Dáil approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. He had led the Irish delegation that negotiated the Treaty, and was the first of the Irish delegates to agree to sign it. The Treaty gave Ireland a measure of independence broadly comparable with the ‘dual monarchy’ concept, and this accounts for the force and passion with which Griffith defended it against its critics. The intemperance of his statements contributed to the polarisation of opinion on the Treaty which ultimately resulted in the civil war. With Ireland in the throes of civil war, Griffith died suddenly on 12 August 1922.
I began these remarks by saying that Arthur Griffith was a forgotten man. A nation’s choice of whom to remember – and how to remember them – is, of course, profoundly significant. As President John F. Kennedy told his audience at Amherst College on 26 October 1963, just a month before his assassination, ‘a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honours, the men it remembers’. It seems, therefore, appropriate to ask why the Irish nation in nearly one hundred years of independence has chosen not to honour – has, in fact, largely forgotten – the intellectual architect of that independence, Arthur Griffith.
Was it because we rejected his intemperance, his belligerence and personal abuse, in defending the Treaty against its critics – and wished to finesse the divisions in Irish public life that he had thus exacerbated? Certainly, he could be relentlessly and viciously polemical in pursuit of his objectives, and he was clearly unable to credit any opponent with good faith.
Alternatively, does it simply reflect a reluctance to rejoice in a compromise solution – an outcome to the struggle for Irish independence that fell short of what was considered ideal, even by those who accepted it? If the latter, then the contrast between our continuing commitment to the settlement represented by the Good Friday agreement on Northern Ireland in 1998 and the virtual airbrushing of Griffith out of Irish history is an indicator of remarkable growth in the political maturity of the Irish nation in the past one hundred years. We have learned the art of political compromise, and we are all the better for that.
I commend those who have put together this booklet, and I urge you all to read it and learn more about the remarkable man that it honours.