Saturday 20 October 2018

Unknown hero of our nation

Most people think of him as the man with the moustache who signed The Treaty, but Arthur Griffith wrongly languishes in historical limbo, as Jonathan de Burca Butler discovers

Arthur Griffith
Arthur Griffith
COMRADES: Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith

Jonathan de Burca Butler

Recalling the negotiation and signing of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, one of the British delegates, Lord Birkenhead, commented: "A braver man than Arthur Griffith, I never met".Griffith had been the first of the Irish delegation to sign the Treaty, the stepping stone which would gradually lead 26 counties to full independence. Within months of the deal, the Dubliner was dead. He was 50. He left behind a wife, a son, a daughter and a new nation in disarray.

Ireland had been his life's work and he paid the ultimate price for his dedication to the cause of its self-determination; a cause he had championed and in many ways created.

"Griffith lived and died for his country," says Anthony Jordan, author of a new biography on Griffith entitled Arthur Griffith with James Joyce & WB Yeats -- Liberating Ireland. "Sinn Fein -- the party he had started -- its policy from 1905 was not to send Irish MPs to Westminster, he thought they should meet here, so when the first Dail met in 1919 that was the culmination of years and years of work."

Griffith's status in history is undoubtedly overshadowed by the two towering figures of the period: Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. He was never the swashbuckling, handsome soldier that Collins was; he was not given hero status by a sniper's bullet. Nor did Griffith live long enough to cast the long shadow over Irish history that de Valera eventually would. If a historical limbo existed, Griffith would surely be in it. Most people know him as the man with the moustache who signed the Treaty and died, but his role in bringing the British to the table was immense.

Griffith was born at 61 Dominick Street, just north of O'Connell Street, on March 31, 1872. He was educated by the Christian Brothers of St Mary's Place and Great Strand Street, but left school at the age of 13 to follow his father, Arthur, into the printing trade.

Poverty was something that would feature throughout Griffith's life. Indeed, when, in 1910, Griffith eventually married his long-suffering fiancee of 15 years, Maud Sheehan, his friends and colleagues made him a present of a house in Clontarf lest he spend any wedding cash on one of his many projects for freedom. As a printer, Griffith worked for the Irish Independent and The Nation. By night he would read books or discuss politics with friends in rooms they rented for that very purpose. He was a keen debater and seems to have been a useful sportsman.

"He was a very rounded man," says Jordan. "His regular pub was The Bailey and when he went in there with his buddies, he kept his mouth shut and listened -- he was quite shy. He was a good handball player, a good shot-putter. He was a terrific swimmer and very good at rowing. He had Jewish and Protestant friends, and a lot of women friends. He knew his Shakespeare. He was a great walker and hill climber. He loved music and he wrote songs, the most famous being Twenty Men from Dublin Town. Really, he was a very erudite man.

"But the most important thing about him was that he decided he was for Ireland. He wanted to free the soul of Ireland, get it away from the control of England and he devoted his whole life to that."

As a 14-year-old, Griffith had joined a literary society called Young Ireland and was to become the assistant secretary of its junior branch. The Young Ireland League, which was overseen by the famous old Fenian John O'Leary, brought Griffith into contact with poets such as WB Yeats. At some point in his 20s, Griffith joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the militant wing of Irish nationalism.

However, he was to resign some time before 1910; a fact that some historians believe shows his pacifist leanings. In all likelihood it was merely a practical move; Griffith, for all his political skills, was never a soldier. At the end of 1896, Griffith followed his friend John McBride to South Africa where a gold rush promised riches. There he worked for a newspaper and honed his journalistic skills.

He witnessed and wrote about the Boer struggle against British expansionism and sympathised with the motley collection of farmers whose later armed struggle caused untold deprivation among their people. Griffith came to the conclusion that it was madness for such a small group to take on such a huge Empire. This would go a long way to forming his view of how Ireland should move forward to nationhood. Later, in his treatise, The Resurrection of Hungary, published in 1904, Griffith advocated passive resistance as practised by Hungarian representatives who abstained from the Austrian parliament in Vienna and set up their own headed by the Austrian Hapsburg Emperor. Thus Griffith advocated a sort of dual monarchy where England and Ireland would rule themselves separately under the same monarch as per the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This became Sinn Fein policy and remained so until 1917.

Griffith returned to Dublin on the invitation of his friend and former debating associate William Rooney. Rooney wanted Griffith to write and edit a newspaper called the United Irishman. It would last for six years, closing after a libel action. The paper was a mouth-piece for Griffith's political views. Its weekly readership was small but ardent and was championed by such luminaries as Oliver St John Gogarty, James Joyce, Yeats and Countess Markievicz. It was never far from controversy, most notably when it published several pieces which seemingly supported a boycott against Jewish businesses in Limerick. The problems stemmed from a sermon given by a Fr Creagh who condemned Jewish businessmen as money lenders and usurers. Griffith seemingly supported the stance in the United Irishman writing that "The Jew in Ireland is in every respect an economic evil" and "are, nine tenths of them, usurers and parasites".

"There were several articles which were very critical about how Jews down in Limerick in 1904 were doing business," says Jordan. "Griffith maintained that the writings were anti-usury and not anti-Semitic and that he would have published the same about any group of people who were conducting business in the same manner. But that is one of people's hobby horses about Griffith. That was in 1904. In 1910 he was getting married and hadn't tuppence so his buddies got together and bought him a house, two of the leading fundraisers were two leading Jews in Ireland and one of them [Michael Noyk] remained his lifelong friend to the end. But yes, as editor of the United Irishman newspaper he was responsible for whatever went in there."

When the United Irishman eventually closed Griffith rebranded it under the name Sinn Fein. Griffith was now becoming more and more vocal but with the imminent arrival of Home Rule as advocated by John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party and voted through in 1912, Griffith's political ideas seemed destined for the dustbin of history.

Then came the First World War and while Ireland, encouraged by Redmond, sent 250,000 soldiers to fight in Europe an unlikely (and still to this day misunderstood) alliance of republicans and internationalists took over key buildings in Dublin. Griffith knew little about the Rising of 1916 and spent most of it in his house in Clontarf. But its effects on his destiny were profound. "Ironically, even though he was against it, it was the Rising that made him," says Jordan. "The British in their stupidity dubbed it the Sinn Fein Rising and it had nothing to do with them, but as he was head of Sinn Fein it brought him to national prominence, and also led to his death because two of his last five years were spent in prison."

Sinn Fein and its policy were now catapulted into the limelight. In 1917, Griffith, who had been president of the party since its founding, ceded the leadership to the recently-released Rising hero, Eamon de Valera. He was, as Jordan says, "content to play second fiddle to a host of people throughout his career". The elections of 1918 saw the party win a landslide victory. Griffith himself won a seat in Cavan East and Tyrone North West where he got over 57 per cent of the vote.

As advocated by Griffith, Sinn Fein MPs decided not to take their seats in the House of Commons but instead set up the first Dail. War against Britain ensued.

During de Valera's absence in the US (1919-21), Griffith served as acting president of Sinn Fein and gave regular press interviews. He was imprisoned in December 1920 but was later released on June 30, 1921. Eventually the British called a truce, the Treaty was signed and although it was ratified by the Dail and the people, civil war broke out and took with it many of the men who had brought Ireland to its new status among the nations of the world.

Griffith passed away on August 12 after an apparent brain haemorrhage. He had been ill for quite some time and had been advised by doctors to take a holiday on more than one occasion. His wife Maud was left penniless and although this was remedied a year later with an annual income of £1,000 from the State under the Griffith Settlement Act, Maud remained embittered: "he was cheated of [his children's] company and all that meant home".

"When she saw him get into bad health in 1922 after he came back from the Treaty she was very annoyed," says Jordan. "She saw him go downhill rapidly and she was particularly [angry] when de Valera voted against the Treaty. Griffith was almost sure de Valera would vote for it, because he was a moderate, he was a politician, he wasn't a gunman."

Griffith's muted status in history might be to do with his widow. He met 15-year-old Maud in 1893 at a musical recital she gave with her sister. Although he was five years her senior they courted and were engaged.

"What brought them together was light opera," says Jordan." She was a member of a light opera society in Dublin and he was interested in it too. She wasn't interested in politics at all. When her husband died she had no time for the government, Collins and his erstwhile friends and she withdrew from anything to do with the State."

As Jordan discovered, she was often scathing about the State. In August 1924, in response to an invitation to an annual event marking the memory of Griffith, Collins and then Kevin O'Higgins at the cenotaph in Leinster House, she wrote: "Shows and stunts are all that is the thing now. When something is done to honour my husband alone, I'll help and take part but I'm still waiting". Though she sent her children, she would never attend herself.

The State's bumbling attempts to purchase Griffith's grave and pay for its maintenance caused her much anxiety. As the Government dithered she informed them of her concerns by letter in July 1924.

"More than two months ago Professor Hayes wrote that my husband's grave was to be bought at last; it is only six feet of clay I want, not a big plot as I could not keep it. After Mr Parnell's death a committee looked after his grave for years. My husband was a far greater man but since his death, at least the last 12 months, there is a mean, jealous conspiracy (in all government circles) of silence for this wonderman. Some day God may give another good man to Ireland, but we never deserved the noble Arthur Griffith; he was much too good and followed his Lord in poverty, charity, humility."

"She threatened to have his body exhumed from his [honorary State] grave in Glasnevin and moved to her family grave if the government did not pay for the grave and hand over the deeds," says Jordan. "There was quite a bit of animosity there and when I was outlining some details of the book to a member of her family he said, 'that explains a lot of the ethos and culture in the family regarding the State since that period'."

Griffith's descendants would never engage with the State in the same way as de Valera's or Collins's. There was, nor is, no Beal na Blath for Griffith and arguably as a result his memory has been allowed to fade somewhat. With the decade of centenaries now well and truly upon us, it is time perhaps to look again at Griffith and reassess his place in the pantheon of Irish greats. Was there a braver man in Irish history? There was certainly no one more dedicated.

Anthony Jordan's book, 'Arthur Griffith with James Joyce & WB Yeats -- Liberating Ireland', is available in good bookshops now

Irish Independent

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