One hundred years ago this week, two men met in Dublin to thrash out a truce in the bloody War of Independence. A ceasefire was declared but more killings were to follow
The first week of July 1921. At long last a truce looks likely. Weary from the War of Independence and the Black and Tans, people are hopeful. Sinn Féin is meeting southern unionists. Two men arrive for key peace talks at Dublin’s Mansion House.
And the contrast between them in photos that month is striking. Éamon de Valera (“Dev”) walks alone, clutching his hat and briefcase: “Keen and fit and eager” that week, according to the Freeman’s Journal. Arthur Griffith, thronged by smiling people, uses his walking stick to clear a way through.
From the Mansion House hangs an American flag. Dev seized on US Independence Day to ask people to fly the Stars and Stripes. On July 4 the US Consul in Dublin tells Washington that signs of the day’s celebration would not have been greater in a US city. But he thinks that it is done to annoy the British as much as to honour America.
De Valera has spent most of the War of Independence in the US, based at New York’s luxury Waldorf Hotel lobbying for Sinn Féin. He is back in Ireland since January, president of the new Dáil Éireann formed in 1919 when Sinn Féin withdrew from Westminster after winning the 1918 general election in Ireland.
Griffith was substitute-president of the Dáil for most of 1919 and 1920, his family home in Clontarf often raided by Crown forces. The founder of Sinn Féin in 1905, he was interned in Mountjoy Prison in late 1920. He had been released only days before the meeting, on June 30, 1921.
Griffith grew up in the heart of Dublin, surrounded by poverty. He struggled to keep his advanced nationalist papers going from 1899. Swimming daily in Dublin Bay or enjoying a glass of stout with friends in Davin’s of Fleet Street or at The Bailey, he is known around town. Later in 1921 he will lead the small Irish team that agrees the Treaty in London.
Dev was born in New York. Abandoned by his father, he was sent back to Ireland alone and reared as Eddie Coll on a relative’s farm. But a priest got him a scholarship to the prestigious Blackrock College, where he played rugby and remained living even after he left school. He will arrange for Treaty talks in London, but then refuse to lead his side.
James Joyce, who was grateful to Griffith for support and advice, will remark in Ulysses that Griffith “has no go in him for the mob”. Yet Griffith has more experience of politics than Dev has, and their ideas of what is possible will diverge fatally before the year is out.
By July 1921 Dublin’s Customs House was a burnt out shell, as a result of a “spectacular” ordered by Dev that saw many Sinn Féin volunteers captured. But the War of Independence had not prevented partition.
Under the UK’s Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland already has its own parliament, opened by King George V on June 22, 1921. The king’s speech that day marked a turning point. Until recently London had seemed determined to use force to suppress Sinn Féin, with prime minister Lloyd George claiming that “we have murder by the throat”.
After King George spoke softer words in Belfast, Lloyd George wrote to de Valera on June 24. He suggested a “conference” (peace talks) between the British and “representatives of Southern and Northern Ireland”.
Lloyd George now referred to “the ruinous conflict which has for centuries divided Ireland and embittered the relations of the peoples of these two islands, who ought to live in neighbourly harmony with each other, and whose co-operation would mean so much not only to the Empire but to humanity”.
This was rich coming from a government that had unleashed Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to suppress the democratic wishes of Irish people.
Dev responded by seeking first a meeting with Unionists.
He let Lloyd George know that, as far as he was concerned, a peace conference would be a waste of time “if you deny Ireland’s essential unity and set aside the principle of national self-determination”.
By “essential unity” Dev already appears to have accepted that Ireland would remain partitioned. But Sinn Féin then saw partition within a federal Irish state and not separate from it. His term “principle of national self-determination” was a typical de Valera turn of phrase that could be taken to mean different things. It might reassure republicans while also allowing for something less than a full republic — for a state such as Canada and its “dominion” status within the British empire.
When Griffith was released from Mountjoy Jail in 1921, it is said, “one of the women dealers at Nelson’s Pillar, as he was passing by, recognised him, and rushing towards him, threw her arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks”. He was an unlikely romantic hero.
When a French journalist, Simone Téry, met him in Dublin in that summer of 1921, she remarked that “With his broad-shoulders, square fists and square face, Arthur Griffith looks more like a manual worker than an intellectual”. She described seeing him, short and broad, as “Sancho Panza next to Don Quixote — his friend de Valera” who was tall and lean.
Yet Griffith’s wife spoke of women visiting from America who sometimes pursued her Arthur as “admiring pilgrims”. Some wished to shake his hand or, “very frequently, to collect his autograph”. At least one cornered him for a kiss. She overheard two girls talking: “Look at what that one done. She kissed Arthur Griffith.” The other replied “Good Lord, I’d as lief [rather] kiss a granite wall.”
Griffith and Dev met alone with a handful of southern unionists at the Mansion House on Monday, July 4, and Friday, July 8. A large and orderly crowd cheered loudly. It was a “sweltering” summer day. The Freeman’s Journal reported that “people relieved the tedium of waiting by singing patriotic songs and hymns, and they recited the Rosary”.
The unionists included William Brodrick (1st Earl of Midleton), whose cousin Lord Bandon had recently been kidnapped by the IRA (and for whose release he pressed de Valera that day). Also present was Andrew Jameson, of the great whiskey distillery of that name. The father of northern leader James Craig was also a distiller, but nothing would persuade Craig to join the southern unionists at talks in Dublin.
Talks were also held that week in Dublin with General Jan Christian Smuts, veteran of the Boer War and prime minister of South Africa, whom the British regarded as a pragmatic peace-broker and whom the Irish trusted. Like Canada, South Africa now had an independent status within the empire that might serve as a model for Dublin. He urged both sides to adopt a practical attitude towards negotiations.
Griffith had spent nearly two years in South Africa in 1897 and 1898 where, just before the outbreak of the Boer War, he worked with John MacBride to rally Irish emigrants in favour of the Boers against the British. MacBride later married Maud Gonne, by whom Griffith and WB Yeats were mesmerised. But MacBride was executed in Dublin in 1916. Griffith, Yeats and Maud Gonne organised opposition in Ireland to the Boer War. Present in the patient crowd outside the Mansion House in early July 1921 was “Madame MacBride”.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 8, the crowd outside the Mansion House saw what the Press Association described as “the dramatic and entirely unexpected arrival of General Sir Nevil Macready, commander-in-chief of the British Forces in Ireland.” He was reportedly “greeted with a heavy burst of cheering”.
By July 10 the Sunday Independent was able to proclaim “Cease Fire!” and to report that a truce was expected to come into operation on the following day, a prelude to peace talks. But it also reported a spate of killings in the continuing troubles. These underlined the argument that the success of any truce was by no means a foregone conclusion.
Professor Colum Kenny, of DCU, is the author of ‘The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: Father of Us All’ (Merrion Press)