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Friendly Enemies

Colum Kenny writes: It was a cutting line of poetry. And coming from the much-admired WB Yeats it presumably damaged the late Arthur Griffith’s reputation. To be described by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature as staring “hysterically” from your formal portrait was no compliment. But Yeats’s concept of hysteria is questionable. He used it to counter Griffith’s criticism of his own evolution from subversive political nationalist to aspiring cultural internationalist.

When Sir John Lavery painted a portrait of Arthur Griffith in London in 1921, his sitter was heading the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations there with Lloyd George. De Valera had stayed in Ireland, while Lavery and his wife hosted dinner parties to facilitate Collins and Griffith. The painter was completing a series of political portraits, including some of the Irish treaty team, that would culminate a few months later in his well-known painting of Michael Collins laid out in state.

Apart from the absence of any evidence that Griffith was hysterical, Lavery’s political portraits were destined for commercial reproduction as prints intended to earn the artist money. In such circumstances Lavery was unlikely to represent harshly the character of his sitters. Today Lavery’s portrait of Griffith hangs in Dublin City Gallery/The Hugh Lane. It is reproduced here by kind permission of that institution and readers may judge it for themselves. Griffith was exhausted and ill by the time it was painted, and to the present author’s eye there is no sign of “hysterical pride” in his stare.

Yeats and Griffith had once been close politically. Fellow members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, they publicly opposed both the Boer War and royal visits to Ireland. They protested when inexpert British chauvinists dug up the Hill of Tara in a foolish search for the Ark of the Covenant. Each in his own way was besotted by Maud Gonne. Griffith boosted the Yeats family in the pages of his United Irishman newspaper – as I have demonstrated in some detail in my recent book about Griffith. Biographers of Yeats have not paid sufficient attention to the poet and playwright’s relationship with “the father of Sinn Féin”, whose weekly paper Yeats publicly praised. Robert Brennan, sometime Irish ambassador to Washington and director of Radio Éireann believed that there was truth in his acquaintance Griffith’s claims that the latter even helped Yeats to find the right ending for his key theatrical triumph, Kathleen Ni Houlihan.

To exaggerate or misrepresent Griffith’s personal role in respect of the Playboy controversy in particular does him a disservice while doing Yeats a favour. For it distracts attention from the latter’s earlier ambitions, which were less mainstream cultural than advanced nationalist. It is salutary to recall James Joyce’s malign satisfaction at the time of the Playboy “riots” that “the Irish Theatre will beat Y[eats] and L[ady] G[regory] and Miss H[orniman], which will please me greatly, as Yeats cannot well hawk his theatre over to London …”

Griffith was single-mindedly intent on independence and was intolerant of divergence or distraction from that priority. But pride was not a hallmark of his public persona. He had “no go in him for the mob” as Joyce has a character say in Ulysses. Having yielded the presidency of Sinn Féin to de Valera to avoid division, he was about to yield the future premiership of the emerging Irish Free State to Michael Collins. Indeed Griffith’s wife, Mollie, said that he told her in London that he intended to quit active politics. In the event, he collapsed and died in August 1922, his heart broken by civil war.

In 1923 Yeats actually paid Griffith a warm tribute in Seanad Éireann, when the poet was one of just a handful of senators who bothered to take the opportunity of a Bill making provision for Griffith’s widow to honour the memory of a man whose role already made both sides emerging from the civil war uncomfortable.

It was only in the late 1930s that Yeats included Griffith awkwardly in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (“where my friends’ portraits hang”). The poem begins:

Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;

The use of the adjective “hysterical” here is unexplained. It is presumably based on Yeats’s ostensibly gendered theory of 1911 that Ireland had for generations pursued fixed ideas until “at last a generation is like an hysterical woman who will make unmeasured accusations and believe impossible things, because of some logical deduction from a solitary thought which has turned a portion of her mind to stone”. As early as 1903, in Griffith’s United Irishman, the socialist Fred Ryan took issue with Yeats for depicting nationalist fervour in a way that Ryan saw as attempting to define advanced nationalists clinically and thus reduce patriotism to pathology.


Yeats spoke of his visit to the Dublin gallery and the poem that he wrote about it. However, he passed over his sideswipe at Griffith when he said simply that the poem dealt with his “many friends”, including “statesmen” in “Ireland in the glory of her passions”. In his biography of Yeats, Roy Foster thinks that the “friends” invoked in the poem “certainly” did not include Griffith, but that certainty may be misplaced.

Yeats himself was not immune from pride, as evidenced by lines of that same poem that articulate the outlook of a cultural elite which ostensibly scorned the middle class, upon whom it relied for its income:

John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
We three alone in modern times had brought
Everything down to that sole test again,
Dream of the noble and the beggar-man.

It is not clear to what “contact with the soil” Yeats referred, unless it was his meeting farmers occasionally. His romantic idea of the noble and the beggar-man or peasant was some distance from Sinn Féin’s concept of Ireland when that party won a resounding victory on a substantially expanded democratic franchise in 1918. Yeats’s vision may have more in common with the backward-glancing Jacobite versifiers echoed in James Clarence Mangan’s poem “Kathleen-Ni-Houlahan”. Griffith’s “hysterical” stare was focused less on noble gentry than on people beggared by Ireland’s economic and political plight and disrupted by wholesale emigration.

Griffith’s efforts to create a national debate by giving Yeats and many other intellectuals a platform in the United Irishman does not seem to have earned the artisan’s son a right to be considered cultured; for in 1909 Yeats told Lady Gregory that in using the phrase “culture is the sanctity of the intellect” when writing of those who hated The Playboy, he was thinking of people like Arthur Griffith “and how they can renounce external things without it but not envy, revenge, jealousy and so on”. He continued: “I compare Griffith and his like to the Eunuchs in Ricketts’s picture watching Don Juan riding through Hell.” The comparison of playwrights such as Synge and (ostensibly) Yeats himself to Don Juan is worthy of its own psychosexual analysis. For one thing the analogy was inaccurate, with Charles Ricketts later pointing out to Yeats that in this painting those who watch Don Juan are not in fact eunuchs but old women. For another, among those who did not much like Synge’s Playboy was that old woman and business partner of Yeats at the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory herself.

Griffith’s role in respect of the Playboy controversy has been exaggerated, and sometimes misunderstood as primarily or unduly prudish. Griffith denied that opposition to the play was “organized” as the Abbey Theatre claimed. He published for no fee the text of the Abbey’s advertisement inviting support against “he who strikes at freedom of judgment” as well as a lengthy letter in defence of The Playboy. He wrote that the author of the play “is entitled to have independent opinion in his favour published” and also commended the actors for their pluck in contending with protests in the theatre. He pointed to the provocative singing of “God Save the King” by a section of the audience. When Synge died young two years later Griffith wrote sympathetically of him, forecasting that his Riders to the Sea would keep his name alive and – while not resiling from his views on The Playboy, which he stated was written when Synge was ill – describing Synge as “a potentially great dramatist”.

Griffith was by no means exceptional in his criticism of The Playboy. He was spinning a new kind of democratic, bourgeois patriotism, and this play about patricide was in its own way an assault on him as “the father of Sinn Féin”. It might be seen as the throwing over of order by reversion to wild stereotypes in line with the Yeatsian trope of a race of romantic peasantry. That seemed to critics such as Griffith not very far removed from recurrent stage-Irishry.

Yeats and Griffith diverged. They became disaffected acquaintances who for years were not on speaking terms. In January 1916 Griffith resorted to one of those very pointed verbal assaults to which he sometimes gave vent, attacking Yeats as both an imperialist and imperious, and questioning his knowledge and scholarship. But later, as president of the new Dáil, he nominated Yeats to represent Ireland at a convention in Paris concerning the Irish “race”, and Yeats admitted that he would be tempted to accept a possible offer to become minister for fine arts in Griffith’s government. A friend of Griffith thought that “Griffith loved Yeats; it was just a quarrel”, and Griffith, when interned in Gloucester Jail in 1918, is said to have organised a celebration of Yeats’s birthday with recitations of the latter’s poetry. To use a word such as “malevolent” to describe Griffith’s later attitude to Yeats, as Foster does, is to fix it too solidly. In any event was Yeats’s attitude any less “malevolent”, not least when at the height of his fame he condemned Griffith posthumously as “hysterical”?

Yeats could not resist some mockery when Griffith, in 1921, got more from the treaty negotiations with Lloyd George than Yeats thought he would. Yeats then wrote: “I expect to see Griffith, now that he is the universal target, grow almost mellow, and become the fanatic of broadmindedness and accuracy of statement. Hitherto he has fired at the cocanuts [sic] but now that he has become a cocoa nut himself, he may become milky.” Amusing as this may be, it also reflects Yeats’s attitude as someone who did not doubt his own intellectual superiority. The writer Seumas MacManus was puzzled later when Yeats, in his autobiographical writings, did not make anything of his earlier connections with Griffith. McManus recalled that

I wrote to tell him my surprise. He answered that he didn’t know him well. This again surprised me and I told Y[eats] that I walked into the shabby two-by-four office in which poor G[riffith] immersed himself (in dirty Fownes St) and saw him (Y[eats]) sitting on [the] floor, back resting against the wall, nursing his knees, conversing with A[rthur] in this most emphatically intimate manner. Y[eats] did not reply.

In the 1930s Yeats toyed with ideas that were borderline fascist (to put it mildly). He would have been well advised to open a Bible and consider Matthew 7:1 before passing his subjective and unexplained judgment on Griffith’s stare. The verse reads “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Colum Kenny’s The Enigma of Arthur Griffith, ‘Father of Us All’ is published by Merrion Press at €19.95. Reproduction of Sir John Lavery's portrait of Arthur Griffith by kind permission of Dublin City Gallery/The Hugh Lane.

16/4/2020