Griffith: a Biography, by Owen McGee, Merrion Press, 536 pages, E.27.99.
By Eamon Delaney.
So many books are coming out on the nation-building period of 1916-1921, that one almost wished they were emerging at a less-crowded time. One such is this fine, detailed and substantial biography of Arthur Griffith.
Griffith may not have the glamour of Michael Collins, or the longevity of Eamon de Valera, but he is a crucial figure in those formative years. He embodies the transition between the original non-violent Sinn Féin of before 1916, to the radicalised movement after it which claimed credit for the rebellion and pursued a policy of seeking Irish independence via withdrawal, disobedience and ultimately armed struggle.
Griffith was also a highly political, even intellectual, figure who, unusually for an Irish nationalist activist, was also preoccupied by economic issues and the structures that political independence might take. Although a lifelong Fenian, he also offered less militant models for separatism, such as his famous embrace of the Dual Monarchy of Austro-Hungary. He moved between Constitutional and physical-force opposites, an important flexibility, as we tend (perhaps through the prism of recent political events in Northern Ireland) to view these tendencies as either one or the other.
In fact, an Irish nationalist of this time usually carried elements of both, although Griffith did express real contempt for the Irish Parliamentary Party of Parnell, and later Redmond, in a way that now seems often petty and internecine rather than productive.
It is also a somewhat high-handed disdain, given that Griffith and his fellow revolutionaries would soon have to make some hefty compromises themselves: especially Griffith himself, indeed, whose own position during the 1921 Treaty negotiations is often credited (or blamed) with leading to the overall national concession.
Either way, he had to come back to Ireland and sell the Treaty, both to the Dáil and then to the country. The subsequent bitterness and Civil War exhausted Griffith and almost certainly led to his sudden death in August 1922, only weeks before the violent death of Collins.
Curiously, in this long book there is not much focus on the actual Treaty negotiations. This may be because, as McGee rightly states, the substantive issues – and limits to Ireland’s ambitions – had already been conceded before the poker game of negotiations in London. In which case, Griffith was in a very difficult position, but when he signed the Treaty he stuck fast to the deal.
Griffith is also unusual among his peers in his genuine Dublin working-class background, growing up in Dominick Street and being affected by poverty in a way that informed his politics and very often his behaviour: he distrusted the arty aristo-nationalists of the Abbey Theatre. He also went to South Africa to support the Boers against their British rulers, after which he returned to set up nationalist newspapers in Ireland. A printer by trade, he saw the value of propaganda.
McGee teases out Griffith’s ongoing suspicions about Catholic Church influence in Ireland, much of which would, alas, come to pass. The author also explores Griffith’s anti-Semitic opinions, although these were very much of their time.
Although not a particularly charismatic or romantic figure, there is a tremendous integrity and dedication to the quiet workaholic Griffith, whose life was truly cut short by his herculean effort. One can only lament that both he and Collins did not live beyond the Civil War period, as they may well have saved the country from sliding into its later economic and Church-ridden torpor.
This article was originally published in “The Irish Independent”