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Colum Kenny: Face of hope for all that might have been

We forget this week in 1922 at our peril. Ninety years ago tomorrow, Arthur Griffith was elected president of the Dail in a brand new Irish Free State (thus filling the position that would later become known as Taoiseach).

The Dail had just accepted the Treaty with London. It was a moment of hope that was to last five short months.

You can see optimism in Griffith's face, in a remarkable photograph on the cover of a special magazine published by the New York Times and lately found by me in a Connecticut bookstore. It is a rare image, reproduced here, that shows no old fogey but an energetic man aged 50 who was intent on making something of a newly independent Ireland at a time when civil war was still not inevitable.

It is a might-have-been photograph that warns us today of what could be again unless we work together to salvage Irish independence from betrayal and compromise.

Once again we face division and destruction, this time rich versus poor, private versus public.

It is a might-have-been photograph because, by the end of June 1922, the hopes of Irishmen working together for prosperity were to be engulfed by civil war. Tragically, Griffith collapsed and died on August 12, 1922.

Even today we seldom admit to ourselves the great damage done by that dreadful civil war. It was a conflict caused by what would prove to be insignificant and petty differences of interpretation of a Treaty with London that gave Ireland partial independence. For nearly 40 years after that war, the population of this new state continued to decline.

We need to remember the Twenties, especially when a punch-drunk Fianna Fail now struggles to provide coherent opposition in the present Dail, and today's Sinn Fein awaits its moment. If we tear ourselves apart again, as we did then, we may again condemn generations to domestic despair and enforced emigration.

Griffith had been central to the struggle to establish a self-reliant and moderate Irish State. He was, indeed, in many ways "the man who made you all", as his embittered widow later reproached those leaders who survived the civil war and who tried to forget him.

Griffith was no glory boy. Founder of Sinn Fein in its original form, he worked long hours for little reward and left behind a family in penury. Never for him the easy path. He would have been revolted by the trappings of office and the perks that have become an obscene feature of Irish politics in recent years.

After the civil war, neither side wanted to remember Griffith. He did not suit their preferred myths. As Anne Dolan has written about "the awkward memory of Arthur Griffith" (in an essay in her 2003 book, Commemorating the Irish Civil War, that is painful and shameful to read), ministers even resented spending money on his grave and on his bereaved family.

Griffith may not have been the most likeable of individuals. But in his day he was Ireland's great crusading journalist and a believer in pragmatic political compromises. That was why his Sinn Fein colleagues held him back from the barricades in 1916, so that he might pursue a form of independence that was more than Home Rule but less yet than a full republic.

Griffith made some anti-semitic comments of a kind that were then very common across Europe and that he generally outgrew. But in at least one frequently cited case, the racist opinions of another writer in a journal that Griffith edited have also been held against Griffith himself. It is forgotten that he was one of the few Irish politicians that the internationalist James Joyce is known to have admired.

Griffith's objectives were always as much economic as political. A printer by trade, he himself had known poverty and emigration and never underestimated its impact. Another rare photograph from those same five months of optimism survives in DCU library. Most unusually, this shows him at a commercial social event.

On February 17, 1922, Griffith supported this event billed as the 'First Advertising Dance'. It was the forerunner of what from 1925 was to become an annual social of the Publicity Club of Ireland. Organised by my grandfather, the dance was intended to boost business in the new state. Griffith may be seen sitting at the left end of the first seated row. On the ground in front of him is Tom Grehan, long-term advertisement manager of Independent newspapers.

Kevin J Kenny had earlier worked with Griffith on Sinn Fein's annual Year Book, and had also worked commercially with patriots such as Patrick Pearse and Tom Kettle on publishing projects. One of the side effects of the coming civil division was that political posturing came to dominate commercial necessity.

Facing today the worst crisis in the history of this State, we could do with more of Griffith's pragmatism and less political pretence. Wishing to mark her husband's grave in some appropriate way, his widow Maud wrote to the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe in 1925 saying, "My boy must have a simple stone in keeping with his life, letting everyone get the praise for all his brain fag [mental exhaustion]."

Brain fag. Effort. Compromise. Realism. These may not seem gloriously patriotic words. But their patriotic effect is precisely what we need now if even the partial independence of this State that was won by Griffith and his colleagues is to be sustained.

Professor Colum Kenny of the School of Communications, DCU, is a member of the BAI

Sunday Independent