Book review by Frank O’Shea
THE ENIGMA OF ARTHUR GRIFFITH. By Colum Kenny. Merrion Press, Dublin. 2020. 323 pp.
The transfer of power from Britain to Ireland took place in Dublin Castle on January 16, 1922. It is appropriate that the centenary of that historic event will be an occasion for national celebration 18 months from now. The author of this book says that such a celebration should not go ahead ‘without generously recognising the crucial role in [Ireland’s] conception and birth’ played by Arthur Griffith.
Griffith does not fit neatly into the stereotype of Irish hero. For one thing, there is his name, both parts of which suggest possible Anglo background. At a time when Patrick Henry Pearce became Padraig, when Eddie Coll became Eamon de Valera, when Charlie Burgess became Cathal Brugha, a name like Arthur Griffith does not cause patriotic blood to bubble more freely. He did not take part in the 1916 Rising, and although he attended the collection of German guns at Howth, marching proudly with his new weapon, he would never use it. Then there was his connection with figures who were suspect as to greenness, people like Yeats, Joyce, Gogarty and Jim Larkin. Put all those pieces together and you have someone on the fringes.
Yet Griffith was the person who suggested that the Irish people should do things for themselves rather than depend on imperial or other support; he even popularised a phrase for that theory, Sinn Fein, ourselves alone. It is likely that the expression was in circulation in verse or banner or some variation of admonition to self-help, but he was the one who brought it before a wide readership through his journalism. As well as promoting the phrase, he set up in 1905 the organisation that would be known by those two words, a body that still exists today. He edited a number of newspapers, almost all losing money, replacing each with a new title after the original was shut down by the authorities.
There is a great deal to like and admire about Arthur Griffith. He was not told by the planners about the 1916 rising, but missed it anyway because he was at home minding the children, his wife Mollie having gone to Cork to farewell her sister departing for America. Yet he was arrested the following week and interned, first in Wandsworth and then in Reading Gaol. He asked Mollie to send him a copy of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. He had it signed by his fellow internees and that copy with all the signatures is now kept in the National Library Dublin.
This book is not a biography of Arthur Griffith so much as a series of studies of certain aspects of his life and writings. There is a chapter titled Connolly, Yeats, Synge and Larkin; another on his relationship with de Valera and yet another titled ‘Arthur Griffith and Joyce’s Ulysses.’ His was the first signature on the Treaty of December 1921, and he signed it without knowing whether the other members of the delegation – Collins, Barton and Gavan Duffy – would also sign.
For more than half a century, Griffith was dismissed with the phrase ‘he signed the Treaty’, yet we know today that by doing so he was abandoning the much lower aspiration for Home Rule and preparing the way for the much more advanced situation of the Independent Republic that we have today. Michael Collins called him ‘the father of us all’, and it is to be hoped that this is the way he will be remembered in 1922.
This is the kind of book that makes you wonder why there is so much written about other leaders of newly independent Ireland and so little about Arthur Griffith.
Frank O’Shea is one of the editorial collective of Tinteán.