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Griffith feared he might die during Sligo visit

New book by Colum Kenny gives an insight into a political leader who was central to the creation of the Irish State


Griffith and Collins

Griffith and Collins

Griffith and Collins

Griffith defied danger and went to a tense Sligo in early April 1922. Civil war was imminent. He carried in his pocket "a last message" in case he died there.

That message was opened after his death in August 1922. It read: "Let the people stand firm for the Free State. It is their national need and economic salvation. Love to the Irish people, to all my colleagues and friends." 

Griffith had signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty agreement in 1921. With the Irish state today preparing to celebrate its centenary in 2022, it is time for his leading role in its creation to be fully recognised. That's what I do in my new book. 

Griffith's relationships with Maud Gonne, W.B. Yeats, James Connolly, Éamon de Valera and James Joyce were complex and vital.  

As acting-president of the first Dáil. and as president of Dáil Éireann when civil war erupted, Arthur Griffith was central to the creation of the present Irish state. He was, as Michael Collins is said to have called him, "father of us all". 

After the Civil War erupted in 1922 he collapsed and died. Some said he died of a broken heart, although his doctor diagnosed a cerebral haemorrhage. 

An unsigned note in the National Library states that, "Shortly after the start of the Civil War workmen were delayed in getting into his office as he was seated at his desk with his hands to his face. On arranging his desk for removal, one of the workmen discovered the blotting pad was quite wet with his tears." 

He was also the most influential advanced nationalist journalist of the early twentieth century in Ireland. 

Between 1899 and 1919 Griffith edited five titles. James Joyce said that Griffith's United Irishman was "the only paper in Dublin worth reading" and he used to read it regularly. 

Griffith married late, due partly to his poverty. He was nearly forty by the time he wed Mary Sheehan, although he always addressed her as Molly. For reasons that are unclear, she was known in public as Maud. She later called him sadly "a fool giving his all, others having the benefit".

No single political party today can claim his legacy exclusively. 

Maud Gonne and other women found him supportive of their efforts to organize for women's rights, but his views on racial issues were very much of his time. He struggled to overcome contemporary anti-Semitism, leaving behind his earlier prejudice.   

Griffith dedicated his life to improving the social and political conditions of his people. He saw poverty all around him, and its effects on people's health. 

He was committed to building up Irish business. His annual Sinn Féin Yearbook was full of data helpful to economic planning. Those yearbooks and other initiatives, including Griffith's experiment in banking and his Aonach industry fair held annually from 1908 until 1914, serve as useful reminders that advanced nationalism was about more than bare politics.  

Not until Seán Lemass and T.K. Whitaker launched their first programme for economic expansion in 1958 was there again such an imaginative and optimistic effort to envisage Ireland's material and social future as that developed by Arthur Griffith, except perhaps that of Griffith's socialist friend James Connolly. 

Griffith's journalism is full of demographic, financial, and other statistics. That he frequently presented cogent evidence-based arguments in support of his contention that Ireland was inequitably treated by Britain, both socially and economically, is not always clearly recognised.  

Griffith wrote that, "Politics or no politics we must have the facts, and the better and more widely these facts are known, the sooner we shall get rid of talking and theorizing, and get down to work to lift the country out of its present beggarly condition." 

The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: "Father of Us All", by Colum Kenny, is published by Merrion Press at €19.95. Dr Colum Kenny is professor emeritus at DCU, and a journalist and author.

Sligo Champion