The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: ‘Father of Us All’, by Colum Kenny, Irish Academic Press, 300 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1785373145
Even before it hit the presses in January Colum Kenny’s new book had its work cut out. Was there anything new that could be said about Griffith? Owen McGee’s scholarly work, Arthur Griffith, appeared just five years before and was comprehensive. Copies of Brian Maye’s 1997 biography are also still available, as is Richard P Davis’s 1974 biography, Arthur Griffith and Non-Violent Sinn Fein. Additionally, there is Carlton Younger’s 1981 work, Arthur Griffith, which provides an accessible introduction for the general reader. Add to that further works like Michael Laffan’s The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Fein Party 1916-23 (1999) and others on Sinn Féin and it is clear Kenny’s task was no easy one.
In spite of this, Colum Kenny does a remarkably good job, offering interesting and new perspectives on his subject. The book is divided into eighteen neat chapters, and despite its brevity, it strikes just the right balance between scholarly research and popular biography, which is its main strength. Longer than Carlton Younger’s book, it provides more detail but is still accessible to the general reader. Shorter than Owen McGee’s it still provides its fair share of historical insights. Indeed, the way the book is arranged facilitates the latter since Kenny is able to draw out different insights from each chapter’s theme, rather than concentrating on a single underlying idea throughout. This approach also has the added advantage of keeping the narrative fresh. Kenny’s style is free-flowing and readable and his sensible use of footnotes also helps provide scholarly detail without disrupting the narrative.
The book’s subtitle, ‘Father of Us All’, provides a general framework for the work, allowing Kenny to develop the rest of the book around it. He sets down his marker in chapter one, “Griffith and Mother Ireland”, where he draws on Cormac Gallagher’s observation that there is a singular lack of father figures in Irish mythology. Despite identifying Griffith as a possible patriarchal figure, leading his people out of captivity like Moses (and in an Irish context Parnell and Michael Davitt) Kenny does not get overly caught up in this idea. In fact, by noting how Mother Ireland still predominated in the twentieth century, for example through Kathleen Ni Houlihan and (possibly from it) Patrick Pearse’s blood sacrifice of 1916, Kenny neatly sets up the rest of the book.
As well as being good on the psychology of the nation Kenny also makes some interesting observations on individuals and their psychology. However, in noting how Griffith was known as “Dan” to his friends and family Kenny possibly stretches this point too far: “ … ‘Dan’ also hints at fatherly warmth, with its consonant lengthening the first two letters that spell the most common Dublin term of endearment for father, ‘Da’.” Overall however, Griffith is portrayed as quiet, good-humoured and sociable, though capable of wielding a caustic pen against those he disagreed with. Even here however, Kenny recounts a cartoon in Sinn Féin from 1910 where Griffith portrayed himself as the devil in a self-effacing nod to everyone his newspaper had caricatured over the years. Kenny also demonstrates his sense of humour when he cites a passage he wrote on March 16th, 1901 in the United Irishman: “The Australian Leader is wrong in supposing that the United Irishman would back the devil if that personage attacked England. The United Irishman would not interfere with a family quarrel.” Kenny also indicates the degree of Griffith’s sociability: there are several accounts of him swimming, drinking and playing chess with his friends.
If Griffith comes out well of this biography the same cannot be said of his fellow nationalist Éamon de Valera. Kenny does not try to build up Griffith at de Valera’s expense, nor does he do “a hatchet job” on him, but in contrasting the two de Valera does not come out well. Kenny cites his refusal to thank Griffith personally in his acceptance of the Sinn Féin presidency in 1917, as well as twice using the humiliating word surrender in the later Treaty debates about what happened in 1917. In the latter case de Valera ignored the fact that Griffith “surrendered” the Sinn Fein presidency to him to avoid a split in the movement. A further example of this churlishness was de Valera seeking to deny, as late as 1956, that Griffith had been the first to advocate the Sinn Féin policy of abstention from Westminster: Kenny shows that de Valera sought a copy of the Irish World from October 14th, 1882 to prove this. In contrast to all this, Griffith is shown as defending de Valera in 1920 over controversial remarks he made on his American tour over Cuba.
While The Enigma of Arthur Griffith does little to salvage de Valera’s reputation from his detractors, or to boost it among his fans, it throws some interesting new light on William Rooney. Rooney, Griffith’s co-editor on the United Irishman, died tragically young, in his late twenties. His death affected Griffith so badly at the time that he had to be hospitalised and Griffith’s closeness to Rooney, along with his regard for Rooney’s work, prompts Kenny to speculate (although not much) that Griffith was in love with him ‑ albeit platonically.
Griffith saw Rooney as a Thomas Davis for the twentieth century, although Kenny notes that his poems were of his time and “their particular form of earnestness and chauvinism [extreme patriotism] seem very dated now”. Although alert to the limitations of Rooney’s poetry Kenny highlights the possibility, nay probability, of Rooney’s influence on James Joyce. Joyce had reviewed Rooney’s poems for the Dublin Daily Express on December 11th, 1902. He thought that Rooney “might have written well if he had not suffered from one of those big words which make us so unhappy”, patriotism. Nevertheless, Kenny makes a strong case that Joyce was influenced by Rooney’s “The Priest of Ardrigoole”, a poem about Fr Conroy, who was instrumental in helping the French force which landed in Mayo in 1798. He draws a close comparison between one of the stanzas of the poem with its tapping motif and the similar tapping motif of the blind man in Ulysses as he uses his cane to tap out a ballad about 1798. Kenny draws out several other interesting similarities between Rooney and Griffith’s lives and characters in Ulysses.
Kenny’s discussion of women’s role in the revolutionary period is also interesting. As he notes, Griffith welcomed women’s participation in the struggle for independence and also in the pages of his papers, and he proves the case admirably in chapter seven. This centres on two women in particular, Griffith’s fiancée and later wife, Mollie Sheehan, and the prominent nationalist Maude Gonne. There are valuable sections on the poetry Griffith wrote about Sheehan but it is the section on Maude Gonne which is most interesting. Here, as in other chapters, Kenny uses biographical details as a jumping off point to launch into a more general survey of the period, competently dealing with the historiography along the way. Writing of Griffith’s trip to Paris, he weaves the account in with references to the Dreyfus Affair, which was still affecting France. The fall-out of the affair affected Griffith’s colleague Maude Gonne due to her relationship with the Boulangist and later antisemite Lucien Millevoye. Kenny notes that years afterwards Gonne still remained reluctant to acknowledge Dreyfus’s innocence. Another interesting section is on Griffith and Gonne’s anti-recruitment campaigns through the United Irishman. These are well-known but I was interested to read about the pair’s shaming of Irish girls who stepped out with British soldiers and the physical confrontations that resulted. Although he was generally tolerant, this seems to have been an example of his nationalism trumping his liberalism. By today’s standards Griffith and Gonne’s conduct would be deemed unacceptable but Kenny does show that they also used the issue to raise the problem of “illegitimate babies in the workhouse”. It is such small details that strengthen the book overall.
If Griffith singled out the minority of young Irish girls dating British soldiers Kenny shows he was more tolerant on other minorities. Unusually for the time this included blacks, of whom Griffith noted:
The negro, say the wise ones, is a child. The negro, say I, is an old, old man. Once on a time when your father and mine were lusty barbarians, the Ethiop was a mighty man, a warrior, a sailor, a poet, an artist, a cunning artificer, and a philosopher.
Griffith suggests that the Ethiop’s downfall was that “he grew luxurious and degenerate, and the shepherds and fishers and thieves of Egypt drove him into the wilderness and razed his empire …” One cannot help but think this is what he hoped for the British empire, and possibly feared was happening to the Irish as part of it. However, on the question of race Griffith’s views were generally progressive. True, much of Griffith’s sympathy for ethnic minority races (or majority ones in their own country) was derived from his hostility towards the British empire. One area in which he falls down is in his reluctance to criticise John Mitchell, a national hero of the late 1840s, for his racist attitude towards African- Americans. Another is in his early antisemitism.
Griffith has come in for strong criticism in the past over his attitude to Jews. Kenny does not shy away from this but recognises most of his antisemitism appeared in late 1899 during the Boer War. As Kenny notes, at the time many English leftists or Liberals lamented the perceived influence of Jewish capitalists and newspaper owners. This is not to excuse Griffith’s views but as Kenny points out Griffith’s opinions of Jews evolved. Those offensive articles which appeared in Sinn Féin were not from Griffith’s pen but by FH O’Donnell’s and Oliver St John Gogarty’s. While Griffith can be blamed for publishing these, Kenny points out that his critics seldom note the positive articles about Jews which also appeared in Sinn Féin.
Interestingly, Kenny also approaches the question of Griffith’s alleged antisemitism from the viewpoint of his social circle. Griffith had Jewish friends, Michael Noyk, honorary solicitor of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation, Abraham Briscoe, father of Dublin’s first Jewish lord mayor, and Bethel Solomons among them. Noyk drank with Griffith at the Bailey pub and considered him “a very close friend”, their children playing together. Noyk later visited him in 1916 in Reading Gaol. Griffith frequently played chess with Briscoe and Solomons subscribed to a fund to buy him a house. This is scarcely behaviour that suggests Griffith was antisemitic. Indeed Griffith saw a place for the Jews in an Irish government.
Kenny also discusses Griffith’s views on the working class, which have been criticised, a criticism that the author again sees as unfair. Griffith, he argues, cared a great deal for the working class, many of his articles being about justice, slums and economic growth, matters that directly affected working class life. Kenny also notes that Griffith was friendly with James Connolly, something that would hardly have been the case had he been anti-working class. Unlike Larkin, Connolly accepted (while disagreeing) that Griffith thought a country had to have wealth before making plans to redistribute it. In any case, Kenny notes that Griffith’s disagreements with Connolly did not stop him backing the socialist in local elections. Griffith was, however, on bad terms with Jim Larkin. In large part this was because of Larkin’s internationalism, which Griffith saw as benefiting the working class of Britain as much as Ireland and distracting from the chief aim of winning independence. It can also be noted in this matter that Larkin was not the easiest person to get on with.
It is a curious thing that Griffith has been seen as both a pacifist and as having fascist tendencies. Kenny nails the first misconception but has little to say on the second, other than Griffith would not be seen as fascist on today’s definition. It is disappointing that he does not have more to say on this subject since his insights are generally impressive, but it seems to be down to a matter of space. Perhaps he should have allowed himself another thirty or so more pages to deal with this and other topics in a little more detail.
The idea that Griffith was a pacifist arose from his Sinn Féin (ourselves alone) alternative to the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s (IRB) physical force option. This was based around the constitutional aim of re-establishing an Irish parliament on the King, Lords and Commons formula as had existed before the Act of Union (1800). It would be achieved not by physical force but by moral force and reviving Daniel O’Connell’s Council of Three Hundred idea, a body that would be made up of local and regional government representatives. Ultimately, it would lead to something like the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich (compromise), leading to a dual monarchy, set out in Griffith’s article “The Resurrection of Hungary”. But as Kenny shows Griffith was no pacifist. He was a member of the IRB, although he seems to have kept his distance, was involved in the IRB gun-running at Howth and was prepared to join the 1916 Rising once it had broken out. In fact, Griffith was informed by the IRB that a rising was planned but not told the final details simply because the organisation thought he would be more useful spreading their message after the event. Griffith was also not opposed to defensive action and thought it justified if the British tried to disarm the Volunteers or force conscription.
Kenny does a good job on covering the major themes and issues of Griffith’s career, not least because he weaves them effectively into Griffith’s personal story. It is true that we cannot tell how certain things would have played out because Griffith died in 1922, for example how he would have reacted to the rise of the Blueshirts, but since Kenny is prepared to speculate elsewhere perhaps he might have given us his thoughts on this. That said, the book is a valuable addition to any bookshelf. There is some good research here, especially on the Leinster Literary Society and its journal Eblana, as well as Grifith’s early anti-clericalism and on the connection between Rooney’s work and Joyce. This is probably not the book for those who want a “clean”, straightforward biography but undergraduates and researchers will appreciate its historiographical approach while the general reader will find much to enjoy.