I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Arthur Griffith


Merrion Press



From the Introduction

I first became interested in the subject of Arthur Griffith when researching an undergraduate, social history dissertation on crime in Dublin during the mid-to-late Victorian period. Whether due to the phenomenon of unreported crime or inadequacies of contemporary statisticians, I found that records actually indicated that there was little or no crime in Dublin city during the 1870s (if that can be believed). Therefore, my initial immature vision of analysing Victorian Dublin life with a Charles Dickens’ style social consciousness could not be pursued much further. What I did find, however, were cartons of Dublin police reports about nationalist protest demonstrations and the like. These records excited my historical imagination into addressing the subject of the Fenian movement, as they presented a very different and much more interesting picture of its world to what I had already acquired from the standard historical textbooks. In among these decaying police records, covering the period 1872-92, were reports of the movements of a teenage Arthur Griffith, while he was still in proverbial short pants or not long beyond that stage of personal development. He was engaged in debates relating to the Land League and a nascent British socialist movement. This was the world of Michael Davitt and William Morris, not that of Eamon DeValera or Winston Churchill, yet this was evidently Griffith’s proverbial world at the outset of his political career.

The subject of the undergraduate dissertation was later expanded into a postgraduate thesis and this became a basis for a study entitled The IRB: The Irish Republican Brotherhood From the Land League to Sinn Fein (Dublin, 2005), which I wrote to get my PhD thesis out of my system, hopefully for good. However, it was then suggested to me that I should examine a later time period, from the beginnings of Sinn Fein up to the early years of the Irish state and, again, make the IRB the focus; in other words, start examining the world of Michael Collins and company. I was still hankering for the idea of pursuing more studies of the Victorian period, especially debates on church-state relations and how this impacted on the diverse political careers of men such as George Henry Moore, Thomas D’Arcy McGee (within the Irish diaspora) and the young John Dillon. It then occurred to me, however, that I had already found an interesting and little known link between these two time periods in history. That link was the life of Arthur Griffith. A specialist on the nineteenth century could also potentially tackle that subject in a manner that many historians of the twentieth-century Irish state may have been a little less equipped to address. I was already familiar with the history of Dublin in 1871, into which Arthur Griffith was born, and thus I felt had a good grounding for analysing the subject. In addition, I had much experience studying debates within the nationalist community in Dublin up until the formation of Sinn Fein by this same Mr Griffith in 1905. A logical progression from my past research, therefore, would be to examine the evolution of that Victorian world in the light of Griffith’s career up until 1922. This seemed like a worthwhile exercise, even if my conception of international relations in history was still rooted more in examining the worlds of Napoleon and Gladstone than that of the various statesmen of what twentieth-century historians not inaccurately refer to as ‘the interwar years’.

It maybe a cliche but it is also true to note that Europe was generally perceived to be a very different, as well as more ‘democratic’, place after the First World War than it had been before. If one abiding lesson was learnt from my past research on the Parnell era it was the reality that one cannot speak of concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘liberalism’, ‘nationalism’, ‘republicanism’ or ‘socialism’ during the nineteenth century as having the same meaning, or currency, as they may be said to have had ever since the First World War. That is partly why the political history of the nineteenth century is so interesting. Aldous Huxley may have coined the catchphrase ‘brave new world’ in 1932 but people a century earlier—when the very concept of modernity was in the process of being born—felt themselves to be living in precisely such a world without the aid of hallucinatory drugs. This may explain why historians of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries frequently seem to be speaking a different language: the period of the First World War stands between them as a bridge that remains uncertain how to cross. When applied to Ireland, this historical conundrum can have peculiar results.

A common perception of Arthur Griffith has been voiced by the premier historian of the post-1917 Sinn Fein Party, when he suggested that ‘among Irish nationalists who fought against British rule he was unusual, if not unique, in one respect: by the time of his death he had achieved most of his objectives.’Griffith probably remains best known to the reading public for signing an Anglo-Irish agreement in December 1921. However, he did not live to see the actual implementation of that agreement, a year later, with the establishment in December 1922 of the Irish Free State; the precursor to the current Irish state known as Eire. Within many accounts of Irish nationalism during the twentieth century is the idea that Griffith ‘achieved most of his objectives’ precisely because a ‘long revolution’ began in Ireland during the First World War, but Griffith actually represented a compromise upon the ideals of that ‘revolution’ because he accepted the terms of the Anglo-Irish agreement of December 1921. Supposedly, this not only made Griffith an unusual man but also a ‘counter-revolutionary’ figure.2 A revolution is inherently a dubious historical concept, however, because it implies the complete destruction of a past and the invention of a new future; in other words, a complete end to a sense of chronological time. When in human history can such a development be said to have truly come about?

The sense was certainly alive among Griffith’s own contemporaries that his career fell between two stools—namely, those who are acknowledged leaders of society and those who do not merit that recognition—and so he was likely to be soon forgotten. Indeed, the colleague that paid the greatest possible tribute to Griffith’s leadership skills also fully acknowledged that he ‘did not possess the romantic personality which moves crowds’, such as that of a ‘spell-binding orator’, and so he was both temperamentally inclined as well as encouraged by others ‘to stay in the background’.3 This book does not represent an effort to push the figure of Arthur Griffith into a historical foreground—a proverbial ‘resurrection’ of a forgotten man—but rather to readdress his life and times more fully according to the reality that his life began in 1871, not in 1917.1 believe that there is much value to those interested in the history of twentieth-century Irish society to fully ground their perception in a deeper awareness of the realities of what is often termed ‘the long nineteenth century’ (1789-1914). As an introductory preface to the text that follows I would like to offer a few brief reflections on precisely this theme.

The history of nationalism in twentieth-century Europe is a deeply controversial subject. Two world wars have made a preoccupation with the concept of a nation-state anathema to many Europeans, not just to Vatican theoreticians of social justice, and quite understandably so. A deeper familiarity with the debates of the great age of nationalisms in Europe, during the proverbial long nineteenth century (1789-1914), can be illuminating in explaining the potential pitfalls for scholars who dare to explore that theme, however. Prior to the First World War and also, to some extent, during the inter war years, Europe experienced what many historians have typified as a cultural mania for building monuments to alleged national icons, including aristocrats and soldiers. To more contemporary eyes, these figures generally seem like ‘romantic and often ridiculous national heroes’, ‘who seem to want to leap from their plinths into some titanic struggle’:

The obvious intensity of their desire to liberate, or resist, is in heroic though doomed contrast to the pigeons perched on the sabre they brandish or the foxing that spots their fading image. They are like the essence of the longings of another age, frozen in time.4

One need only pay a passing visit to the environs of Westminster to see numerous Victorian monuments that sought to encapsulate a nation’s history in stone: from the conscious and symbolical juxtaposition of the Cromwell monument near the Royal Arch within the parliamentary grounds, to the larger-than-life monuments to various prime ministers of Britain’s most imperial days in the facing square. Warlike or not, they fit within this Europe-wide tradition of creating national icons in stone.

Ireland experienced monument building phases of its own, while the most imposing such monument encompassed a debate in itself.5 During 1875, the erection in Dublin of a monument to Daniel O’Connell consciously championed a conception of political liberation that was rooted not in the right granted to Catholics of political representation at the Westminster imperial parliament during 1829. Rather, it was rooted in O’Connell’s election during 1840 as the mayor of a city that was then—in so far as one could still claim the existence of one—the financial capital of the island of Ireland. Simultaneous with O’Connell’s election in Dublin, a foundation stone was laid in Armagh for the building of St Patrick’s Cathedral for the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, while young Trinity College students, soon represented by the Young Ireland circle behind the Nation, began an enthusiastic and pioneering debate upon Irish nationalism. This was a world of great debate and enthusiasm that was very familiar to the young Arthur Griffith and it shaped his world and imagination.

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