Arthur Griffith, by Owen McGee, Merrion Press, 544 pp, €27.99, 978-1785370090
Arthur Griffith was born in 1871 in Dublin, the son of a printer and trade unionist. He followed his father’s profession and worked as a compositor and copywriter. Politically and culturally he was an autodidact, conforming almost parodically to a contemporary type in Dublin, emerging from Yeats’s “cellars and garrets” and making his way through the nationalist societies and clubs, in particular the Leinster Literary Club. Though ill-disposed to parliamentary nationalism, he ardently supported Parnell in the split of 1890-91. Griffith was in his early life always on the edge of poverty and he emigrated to South Africa during 1897-98. On his return, with his friend William Rooney, who was to die in 1901, he launched with IRB funding the United Irishman. It was succeeded in 1906 by Sinn Féin: the name was proleptically that of the Sinn Féin organisation, which came into being by a convoluted process the following year and in the establishment of which Griffith had played a leading part.
In 1904, the year in which James Joyce, a prescient admirer of Griffith in spite of their differences, set Ulysses, he published a series of influential articles that were recast as a pamphlet The Resurrection of Hungary. Its argument was disappointingly pedantic, but conveyed the accurate impression that its author had views of obstinate originality at odds with those of the regnant Irish party. Griffith continued to plough a lonely furrow of dogged dissentience. With the crisis in Ulster, and the protraction of the war, the Irish party was already vulnerable. The rising of 1916 quickened the transformation of Irish politics. Griffith was not involved in, nor was he a supporter of the rising before it broke out. He was however as the author of this biography writes “extraordinarily close to the rebellion. He was one of only a handful of people who knew virtually all of the men who were executed for their part in the rising personally”. In late 1917 Griffith stood down as president of Sinn Féin in favour of Éamon de Valera. In the flowing Sinn Féin tide, Griffith was elected for Cavan East.
In the complex sequence of events that followed the triumph of Sinn Féin at the election of December 1918, Griffith became the acting president of the Dáil and of the Dáil’s government when de Valera left for the United States in June 1919. He became the chairman of the Irish delegation that went to London to seek to negotiate a treaty. The delegates signed the treaty they had negotiated. For Griffith, the concession of fiscal autonomy, however theoretical, marked the attainment of something he had advocated throughout his public life. A divided Dáil ratified the treaty, after which Griffith was elected its president. He continued to promote the parallel administration of the Provisional Government of which Michael Collins was the chairman, and the constitution of what became the Irish Free State. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage on August 12th, 1922. He was fifty-one.
Though accorded a certain nominal eminence, Arthur Griffith is the most underestimated major figure of twentieth century Irish history. If one considers contemporary theories of nationalism one is reminded how strange an outcome this is: Griffith was both an innovative and influential proponent of statal nationalism, and a person who played a prominent role in the creation of the Irish state. He came late (some would say accidentally) to active statesmanship. That cannot account for the strange phenomenon of the continuity of a strain of denigration which extends from the polemics of the Freeman’s Journal to the frequent prefixing of mention of Arthur Griffith’s name by the epithet “anti-semitic” (which on any historically literate reading he was not) by a prominent columnist in The Irish Times in our time. What renders this sayable is (ironically enough) the rendering of Griffith as a journalist or a pamphleteer, a figure of eccentrically or offensively chauvinistic views who stood in a tangential relationship to Irish statehood. This is a travesty which has endured for over a century. It is quite peculiar to Griffith: it is difficult to think of any other figure of the era treated in quite this way. His ideological afterlife is replete with irony. He was relentlessly castigated for his defence of the treaty, while Cumann na nGaedhael in government, taunted by de Valera with Griffith’s support of protectionism, had a highly ambivalent attitude to his economic views. Garret FitzGerald, one of the few to give those views much attention, still characterised him quite wrongly as a “narrow nationalist”. For most Irish people, Griffith today is a remote, little understood political figure. This is perhaps an aspect of what has become in popular consciousness the lost history of Sinn Féin.
Owen McGee’s study of Griffith is both remarkable and exasperating. He has written a book that is more than a biography of Griffith while resolutely spurning the biographer’s arts. What he has written under Griffith’s star is a sustained counterblast to conventional accounts of the years 1886-1922. The writing is not graceful (possibly a matter of principle) nor is the argument always clear at any given point. Inexcusably his publishers do not even give the footnotes (some of which are highly informative, and in some of which significant biographical facts are secreted) the titles of the chapters to which they relate. It is not easy going. As I struggled through the first couple of chapters I was not certain that I would persevere. I am very glad I did.
To give the broad lines of his counter-narrative, McGee is dismissive of Parnell’s Irish party and of the introduction of the first home rule bill in 1886. His Gladstone is a fiscal Machiavel, the author of the over-taxation of Ireland which home rule was intended to entrench. The course of Irish economic history is set by Irish bankers and businessmen (overwhelmingly unionist in their politics) in lock-step with civil servants in Dublin and in the imperial metropolis. In the analysis of the politics of the Great War what McGee sees as driving events is the Catholic Church’s aversion to conscription and gradual distancing of itself from the Irish party (especially in Irish America), rather than disillusion bred of the stalemate over the northeast. In relation to the Treaty, Griffith and Collins’s hands were tied by institutional economic and financial arrangements once more: the Irish Banks Standing Committee looms large. In this account, the political matrix is defined by the authority of the Catholic Church, to which de Valera was shrewdly responsive.
This might suggest that McGee is a Marxist or economic determinist. He is neither, although his distaste for biography drives him at times towards a kind of casual determinism: there is a a mildly comical passage of social inexactitude in which he seems to hint at a fleeting moment of quasi-embourgeoisement of Griffith in 1904-05: “having escaped from real poverty two years previously, he now became the centre of a circle of professional and literary friends who met once or twice a week at private rooms in Bailey’s, an expensive restaurant off Grafton Street”. McGee is like Griffith an economic nationalist, a rarer creature than might be imagined, and that gives him an original angle as well as an intellectual affinity with his subject. Not the least merit of this vantage is that it enables him to raise questions that tend too often to be fatalistically suppressed about the ends and modalities of British policy.
Through all of this McGee threads his superb knowledge of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. On this he is fascinating:
Typified by some historians as ‘an underground party’ and by others as ‘a political school’, perhaps the greatest illustration of the true nature of the IRB’s political world was its leadership’s perpetual connection with Irishmen abroad that had the political outlook, or even careers, of international war correspondents. Since 1902 the IRB had operated purely within the Gaelic League (for all intents and purposes, an Irish party managed organisation) and, therefore, its existence was virtually forgotten. T. M. Healy … was surprised to discover during I915 that the IRB still existed.
Sceptical of currently fashionable dogma in which Collins is seen as engaged in the post-treaty relancement of a guerrilla campaign, he writes (in a footnote): “The dynamics and controversies in Collins’ career seems to be most explainable according to the long history of the IRB, an organisation whose history is very difficult to construct and long predated Collins’ arrival in Irish politics.”
There is a lucid asperity to McGee’s treatment of the polemics over the Treaty, a concomitant of the positive and realistic side of his (and Griffith’s) economic nationalism. He traces the obsession with the oath of allegiance back to Daniel O’Connell’s objection to the hyper-sectarian royal coronation oath. Citing an exorbitant and maudlin tirade by Harry Boland on the subject of the proposed Irish constitution, McGee continues:
Griffith’s paramount concern with achieving fiscal autonomy for Ireland, i.e. real independence, was essentially the motive behind all his actions. For many contemporaries, however, this evidently mattered less than the issue of what form the Irish constitution would take on paper. It was largely for this reason that the occupation of the Four Courts was viewed (and even respected) by many Irish contemporaries not as a mere demand for the payment of volunteer salaries (which it essentially was) but as a symbolical representation of the need for Irish politicians to hold firm on the question of the constitution. As the general election approached, however, the belief grew that republicans and their obsession with perfect written constitutions should no longer have the right to delay the settlement of Irish political difficulties.
Perhaps in a strange way because of his eschewal of conventional biographical norms, McGee’s portrayal of the final ten months of Griffith’s life, from the opening of the treaty negotiations in October 1921 to his death in August 1922, is politically compelling and finally extremely moving. In the sound and fury of the treaty debates Griffith’s clarity shines out. The agreement “had no more finality than we are the final generation on earth … Who was going to say what the world would be like in ten years hence? If they made peace with the English people now, that did not say they were for ever bound not ask for more.”
The biography brings out Griffith’s heroic obduracy, his not infrequent, pungently expressed but inessential aberrancies, and his farsightedness. Given the durability of dismissive stereotypes of Griffith, and of slurs of narrow ethnocentrism, what McGee brings out without fuss in page after page is his consistent endeavour to uphold a secular non-denominational nationalism in a political environment in which the Catholic church sought to exercise a predominant influence. Equally inconsistent with the weird caricature of Griffith that has somehow lasted down the years is what McGee calls his “subtle but perpetual” conflict with the leadership of the Gaelic League. The great and disregarded virtue of Griffith was that, in an era marked by the rise of increasingly ideological modes of cultural nationalism and republicanism, he never ceased to continue to think politically.
What of Griffith’s economic nationalism? This is frequently reduced to his espousal of protectionism, but McGee rightly makes the point that this was a subordinate part of his programme, and informed by the idea of countering a range of inhibitions on Irish economic development created by proximity to a thriving imperial power: Griffith was anything but an exponent of economic autarchy. It is only on the third last page that McGee writes that “Griffith represented an ideal of Irish economic freedom that was not practical in his lifetime”. But in withholding this concession until the end, he succeeds in conveying something of the possibilities that were not so much lost as unborn. If there are doubts as to the practicality of aspects of Griffith’s economic programme, the question of why it was not until the latter half of the 1950s that economic development became a governmental priority presses itself to the fore.
If McGee is harsh on later politicians and policy-makers, he is harsh also on historians. Though how it is written might suggest a pre-emptive indifference to how it is received, this is a work of studied if frequently truculent dissent. Many of its ideas are controversial, a few quite dubious. I don’t think for example he gets Griffith’s attitude to Parnell right, which is a pity because there is a certain consonance between Griffith’s position in the split at the outset of his career and on the treaty at its end. I should add that as against this he informed me of things about TM Healy, of whom I wrote a biography, of which I had no idea. McGee’s work is too serious and too rich in its source material to be considered merely contrarian. He is illuminating for example on TM Kettle, a frequent target of Griffith’s mordant goading. He is coruscating on the role of Erskine Childers, formerly, as he characterises him, “a Liberal Party imperial theorist”, in the ideological sacralisation of the oath of allegiance. In defiantly politically incorrect self-identification with Griffith, McGee at one point contrives in one of his more carefully constructed sentences to refer to “the Englishman Erskine Childers”.
Whatever McGee’s deficiencies as a biographer of Griffith ‑ and these are in the end overwhelmed by the force of his strengths ‑ it does prompt reflection on where we stand in what are still the relatively early stages of the commemorative cycle on which we are embarked. Official or national commemoration at this distance in time is almost inevitably premised on a false notion of finality of judgement, of an intellectual consensus about historical outcomes that in Ireland curiously replicates the peace process. In the approach to the anniversary much that is published relates to commemoratively pious or sociologically corrective micro-studies that are unlikely to modify interpretatively the main narrative. That narrative is ceaselessly rehearsed in summary by historians and others. It flows torpidly along its well-worn grooves. I am not myself altogether innocent in this: we all recite the incantatory liturgy of established narrative factuality. The fact that Owen McGee can write a comprehensively dissentient counter-narrative, even if wrong-headed in part, is a reminder that a more sceptical and innovative rendering of the main narrative itself is not unattainable.
The discounting of Arthur Griffith and of the early Sinn Féin is an elision of real significance and contemporary import. It is made possible by the idea that Griffithian Sinn Fein is little more than a collateral beneficiary of the 1916 rising: a colleague of mine wittily compares this idea to Griffith having invented an app that everyone suddenly needed to get hold of. The idea is the reflux of a coarse historiography organised around a retrospectively arranged categorisation of winners and losers of the rising, with the pre-1916 Sinn Féin (never mind the Irish party) relegated to a periphery of forgotten controversies. The idea that the Sinn Féin party that won the election of December 1918 is merely a projectile of the rising is a crudely anachronistic fallacy. In contemporary Irish politics, there is a vampiric symmetry in the party that purloined the forsaken name of “Sinn Féin” sedulously promoting that fallacy, and seeking thereby to efface the memory of the original Sinn Féin and of Arthur Griffith.
Owen McGee’s biography of Griffith, bristling in dissentience, partakes of something of the magnificent doggedness of its subject.
Frank Callanan is a Senior Counsel practising in Dublin and a historian. He has written The Parnell Split (1992) and T. M. Healy (1996). He is currently writing a book on the influence of Parnell and of the Parnell split on James Joyce, and Joyce’s treatment of the Parnell myth.