Arthur Griffith, Rebel / Journalist / Founder of Sinn Fein; President of the Free State

A controversial figure from a very early age in Irish politics and journalism, Arthur Griffith has been noted by some source’s in history, as a man who courted controversy.  While he was a great orator, and not a monarchist himself, he struggled to get people to embrace his concept of a dual – monarchy, to allow Ireland to become a separate Kingdom alongside Great Britain, with separate governments. This was not a new concept, it had been aired a century earlier by Henry Grattan [an Irish Politician and member of the Irish House of Commons]. Even as a teenager he was a supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell [an Irish Statesman -from a Protestant landowning family] who wanted change by peaceful means. He often reminisced about being among those who bade farewell to their leader ‘Parnell’.  This concept of a duel- monarchy had also been toyed with by Kevin O’Higgans [ Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister for Justice, Irish Free State], prior to his assassination in 192, as a possible means of ending the partition in Ireland. Suffice it to say that the Irish Republican Army [especially Michael Collins] did not agree with Griffith either and called for a Republic, not a duel Monarchy.

Left - Griffith one month before his death

Griffith did not perceive himself to be a leader, rather as a strategist, by which the leader would follow his principle of achieving his goal by peaceful means. Being pro-employer in 1913-1914 Dublin, he did not endear Griffith to James Larkin [founder of the Transport and General Workers Union] or the rank and file of the said Union. Griffith own theory was that the lock-out was crippling Irish industry for Great Britain’s benefit, while slipping toward syndicalism [a proposed type of economic system, a form of socialism, considered to be a replacement for capitalism] which Griffith believed was not in the best interests of the workers. Controversial though he may have been, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter however, considers that all things being just, Griffith did not deserve to be air brushed out of Irish history. He did after all, found the most popular political party in Ireland and served his country well.  

Arthur Griffith was born into a working class family of distant Welsh origin, to Arthur Charles Griffith and Mary [ne Whelan] at 61 Upper Dominick Street, Dublin, March 1872. His father was printer with the Nation Newspaper. Griffith was educated by the Christian Brothers in St Mary’s Place and Great Grand Street schools, both in the north inner City Dublin. His formal education however, ended when he was thirteen years of age. Having left school then, he first worked in the offices of the Nation Newspaper, before following his father into the printing profession where he became an apprentice printer. He was employed as compositor and copywriter in the Franklin Printing works, working for the Nation Newspaper, and the Irish Daily Independent. Such was the nature of the printing profession - he listened, observed all the radical view’s they held, and followed up these observations with reading about the radical elements of Irish history.

He was a self-taught man; an autodidact would describe him better - who devoted his spare money to books, and would often spend his evenings in the National Library reading. This obsession would have him reading voraciously for the rest of his life, on politics, history of all countries, particularly about Ireland in relation to being colonized by Great Britain. Leaving the printing profession, he became involved with the Gaelic League [to restore the Irish Language] founded by Douglas Hyde in 1893 and was one of its first members. He then went on to join other societies and clubs such as the Young Ireland League and the Celtic Literary Society. In 1897 while recovering from tuberculous, he traveled to South Africa, where he was advised that the weather would be more beneficial for his medical condition.

His first job in South Africa was as editor of the Middleburg Courant. Soon after it was founded however, the newspaper folded, as the British readers felt alienated by it's support for the Boar, and the sharp criticism of the British intentions on the territory of the Boars, and Afrikaners preferred to read papers in their own language. He then moved to Pretoria, and then onto Johannesburg, where he worked as a supervisor in a gold mine. This however was not conducive to his tuberculosis at all. While in South Africa, he became an admirer of Paul Kruger [President of South Africa 1883-1900] and he also acquired a deep affection for the Boars.

Back in Ireland, his close friend Willie Rooney [journalist /poet/nationalist] with other members of the nationalist movements were planning to launch a radical newspaper. Rooney already had a job, so he generously suggested that the post of editor should be offered to Griffith as a way of enticing him back home to Ireland. So it was with this offer of the editorship of this new radical newspaper that Griffith returned to Ireland at the end 1898. The following March, Griffith and Rooney launched the United Irishman. In 1901, Rooney died suddenly and Griffith was left bereft for his best friend. 

Cumann na nGaedhet [society of the Gaels] was established by Griffith in September of 1900 to unite all Irish clubs and movements. By 1903 he had set up a National Council to campaign against King Edward VII and his consort Alexandra of Denmark, and their highly publicized visit to Ireland which was also heavily criticized by all of the Irish movements. Controversially, when Father John Creagh, a Redemptorist Priest gave a sermon January 1904 in Limerick, fiercely attacking the Jews, Griffith not only defended this sermon, but added insult to injury by defending the anti-Semitic rioters. He had a wildly exaggerated notion of the extent of Jewish involvement in money-lending and devious business practices.

At this time also, Griffith was also denouncing socialism and pacifists as conscious tools of the British Empire and was fiercely critical of The Irish Parliamentary Party’s alliance with British Liberalism, which was influenced by the rhetoric of John Mitchel the anti-Liberal Young Irelander [author and political journalist]. Critical also of the British Empire in Egypt and India, controversially again, he worked alongside James Connelly who supported nationalism. By this time, The United Irishman paper founded by Griffith and his friend Rooney, collapsed under the weight of a financial suit brought by a Father Doran of Shanagolden in 1906 who won the argument despite it being a very flimsy case, because the judge thought Griffith was being bullish. Father Doran was upset because Griffith supported a Feis being held on a Sunday. Griffith re-founded the newspaper under the name of Sinn Fein, and it became a daily in 1909 and survived until it was suppressed by the British Government in 1914. Griffith then became editor of the new nationalist journal, Nationality. 

By 1907, Cummabb na nGeadheal had merged with the Sinn Féin League, [some sources would advise the amalgamation was from several other fractions of Irish movements with Griffith now being the leader of the whole of these organizations called Séin Féin - ourselves alone]. By this time Sinn Féin was making its mark in politics and had  put forward a candidate, Charles Dolan who was a sitting MP representing the Irish Parliamentary Party for North Leitrim [IPP], but controversially, he had defected to Sinn Fein 1908. He was not however successful as a Sinn Fein candidate, which did not deter Griffith from his goal of Sinn Féin being a major Political Party. It had several local Councillors including W.T Cosgraves [who became first Prime minister of the Free State].

On November 24th 1910, Griffith married his fiancée, Maud Sheehan after a fifteen-year engagement. They had a son and daughter, Nivin and Ita. Despite all the controversial opinions that he had delivered with regard to the Jewish people, by 1909 Griffith had met and worked with Michael Noyk a Jewish solicitor and they had become firm friends even with the family and Noyk remained among his closest friends thereafter.

Always looking for ways in which Ireland could be self-sufficient in an Independent Ireland, in 1911, Griffith became a member of a group who founded the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland. This was a society that the group felt would encompass all of the peoples of Ireland and would help to prevent animosity between unionists and nationalists in an independent Ireland.

 Below - Partick Pearse 

However, in a measure of how he was being perceived by his peers, Patrick Pearse in 1912, was so critical of Arthur Griffith influence on Sinn Féin, and all his opinionated statements, that he wrote a critique in his own political weekly, An Barr Buadh [The Triumph of Victory] which reads as follows, “You were too obstinate… too narrow-minded… You over-estimated your own opinion. You distrusted people who were as loyal as yourself. You would follow no-one’s advice except your own. You preferred to prove to the world that no one else was right except yourself… No progress was possible for an association which had that kind of man at it’s head”.  Although Pearse never joined SInn Féin, he was present when Griffith presented the first Sinn Fein policy in a speech in 1905 at the Rotunda, Dublin.

Strongly opposed to the Home Rule Bill of 1912, which may have given Ireland some little authority, Griffith joined the Irish Volunteers, set up to counteract the newly formed Ulster Unionists who did not want Ireland to be governed by an Ulster or a Dublin Parliament, they wanted Ireland as a whole to be governed by the British Empire. Griffith became highly involved in the Irish Volunteers and was involved in the gun running saga at Howth Harbour in 1914.

By this time, the outbreak of World War 1 had  begun and thousands and thousands of young Irish men joined the British Army, spurred on by John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party who was fervently in favour of all Irish men being recruited to the British Army to help fight against the tyrant and dictator "Hilter". Griffith however, was not in favour of this, and he pursued a course of action in his newspaper Sinn Fein, advocating that all Irish men should join the Irish Volunteers, and urged them not to be recruited into the British Army. His valiant efforts had a detrimental effect on his Sinn Féin newspaper and it was, unsurprisingly, suppressed by the British authorities.

By September 1914, Griffith had been approached by members of the Supreme Council, Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDermot, to join the Irish Military Army. He refused this offer, preferring to maintain his own independence in his publications. His initial refusal to join the IRB affected his standing with the dominant military wing of the Volunteers and he was side-lined over this action. However, he was under the misguided impression that Clarke and MacDermott would keep him informed of any developments in the planning of an insurgence. This did not happen and so he was surprised, upset and more than a tad angry on finding out on the morning of 24th April 1916 that an insurgence had started.

On Sunday 23rd of April, Griffith had traveled to Bray, Co. Wicklow to give Captain Joseph Kenny the countermanding order from Eoin Mac Neill, calling off the insurrection. This appeared to be his only involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising. On the Monday morning, Griffith's wife Maud had made the decision to travel to Queenstown in Cobh, Co. Cork to say goodbye to her sister who was emigrating to the USA. Maud Griffith would spend a week in Cork, due to the fact that no trains were running because of the insurrection in Dublin. While having to remain In Cork at this time, she was accommodated by a kindly local priest, who then established contact for her with the local Volunteers leaders Tomas MacCurtin and Terrence Sweeney, who were both in a state of anxiety as they too were waiting on news from Dublin.

In the meantime, Griffith was left to care for his two children Nevin and Ita, so he made the decision to take the children to see his mother. They had barely reached the end of their road when he heard the sound of guns. Stopped in his tracks, he was then met by an unknown person, telling him that the insurgence had started. His children were his first priority at this stage and he called on many neighbours to ask them to care for the children, until their mother returned. Griffith neighbours however, believed [wrongly]  that he was a part of the group who had started the insurrection and thus, the neighbours were frightened. Eventually a close neighbour took the children into their care and offered Griffith accommodation also, so they went through the back gardens as Griffith was now very suspicious of everyone and everything, believing at this point that he was being watched [which was indeed the truth].

In several second hand accounts of this period, it is vaguely suggested that Griffith wrote to Sean Mac Dermott and had a letter delivered to him at the GPO, to make it known how aggrieved he was at not being informed of the insurrection starting, quoting the pact he [wrongly] thought they had, and he also offered his services which were however declined at this point. It is however noted in other sources that in a reply to Griffith sometime on Wednesday the 26th April 1916, Sean Mac Dermott wrote “it is important that you survive - to use pen and brain to write, to continue your work, so that someday you can defend and justify us, and the cause." Griffith wife Maud would testify at a later date that Sean Mc Dermott did in fact write to Griffith from his prison cell to apologize to Griffith for not keeping him in the ‘loop’.

Having left his children in the safety of a neighbor, Griffith made the decision to try and reach Eoin McNeill who had, together with Bulmer Hobson  shared the same perspective on an Independent Ireland by peaceful means. So Griffith set off to try and reach McNeill in his Dundrum home on the south side of Dublin. Frightened that he may be arrested, and therefore taking a longer route than necessary, he was relieved when he reached McNeill's home. How to help the rebels was the discussion that went on late into the night.

After Griffith death in 1922, Liam Ó Brianin [Author / historian] spoke with MacNeill regarding an intriguing plan, hatched up between MacNeill and Griffith on that fateful Monday night, 24th April 1916, to clarify a possible proclamation that would have to be issued by MacNeill, enlisting all of the Irish Volunteers to take up arms to support the rest of their colleagues who were already involved in the Rising. How to implement this plan however, would be fraught with danger as Dublin City was torn apart, building’s burning, buildings razed to the ground with no printing facilities available, and not least, the British Army had intensified their assault, and more troops were arriving from England. Unless they could find a way of getting the plan into print and informing all of the Irish Volunteers to take up arms, it appeared doubtful. It was a plan however, that did not come to fruition, although other prominent people like   Marie ó Brolchain and her husband Padraic, were also of the opinion that a proclamation issued by MacNeill to the volunteers would be beneficial to the Rising. 

This plan did not even get past the oral discussion stage, due to the fact that on following Saturday, 29th April 1916, came the surrender by Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke et.al. putting to rest any other intervention that may have unfolded. [MacNeill confirmed this oral plan to Ó Brianin]                                                                      below - MacNeill

On that same Saturday April 29th, Griffith wife Maud arrived home to find all her family intact in their own home. This idealistic family scene was not to last long however as Griffith was arrested after the surrender and imprisoned, as expected, with Government and Newspapers dubbing the Rising as "the Sinn Féin Rising”.  Not only that however, but they were of the opinion that if Griffith were not imprisoned, he would have had access to reviving the National spirit in print and orally. While public opinion for Sinn Féin was luke warm before the Easter Rising, after the execution of the Risings Leaders, a new energized Irish nation openly flocked to join Sinn Féin.

While in prison, Griffith wrote to Arthur Lynch expressing his abhorrence of all the executions and standing firmly on the side of the rebels. Griffith was surprised, upset and none too happy with Arthur Lynch MP [Irish Parliamentary Party] who then took up Griffith cause to get him released. Griffith told him in no uncertain terms that he could speak for himself, and that he had not given anyone the right to speak on his behalf.

After the amnesty in late 1916 that allowed a majority of the Volunteers [or Feinners as they were known] to go free, Griffith was eager to revive the Sinn Fein Party’s policy, on a ticket of non-violence. By-elections in the following months proved that Sinn Fein was the most successful political party, with members sailing into office on the wings of a majority. Sinn Fein however, had to manage and contend with an influx of young radicals into the ranks and many of these were also members of the Irish Republican Army. On the other side of that coin, stood Michael Collins, who like Patrick Pearse before him, was particularly eager to curb the influence of Griffith more moderate policies.

At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis of 1917, The Party committed itself for the first time to the establishment of an Irish Republic. The following year 1918, in the general election, Sinn Fein won 73 of the 105 seats. Then in 1919, Sinn Fein MPs assembled in Dublin to proclaim themselves 'Dáil Éireann', the parliament of Ireland - de Valera was imprisoned in Lincoln Jail in England at this time, [on a trumped up charge of being active in a German plot] he was however released by Collins and Brugha with a key that had been made by candlewax impressions. On his release de Valera replaced Brugha as Príomh Aire [Prime Minister] until he set sail for the USA to fund raise.  

- Gavin Duffy, Collins, Griffith, Barton [cousin of Erskin Childers] shown left at the Anglo-Irish Treaty

During de Valera's absence in the United States [1919–21] Griffith served as Acting President and gave regular press interviews. He was however imprisoned in December 1920 as Dáil Éireann, according to the British Establishment was unlawful, but he was subsequently released on 30th June 1921. It was Griffith whom Lloyd George [Westminster] approached to try and implement a truce, which Griffith, Collins, Brugha and de Valera, although surprised by this astounding offer did all they could to take this very seriously. When De Valera went to meet Llyod George in Westminster to discuss the truce, he came back to the Dáil to present the proposals on offer. After this debate / discussion, Griffith was asked to head up the delegation that would negotiation the Treaty. These negotiations were held over two months, October and November, and then back to Dublin they headed, where they needed to be  discussed and then ratified in the Dáil Eireann.

After the ratification of the Treaty Proposals by 64 votes to 57 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by the 2nd Dáil on 7th January 1922, Griffith replaced de Valera, [below] who stepped down in protest as President of the soon-to-be abolished Irish Republic. [Dáil Éireann]

 According to some sources, Griffith was at this time merely a figurehead as the President of the 2nd Dáil Éireann and his relationship with Collins by this time was tense to say the least. After the long and difficult negotiations in Westminster, struggling with the work involved in establishing a Free State Government and the prolonged difficulties of attempting to appease all the Government officials, Griffith began suffering from extreme exhaustion from work overload. He was diagnosed with an extreme form of tonsillitis. He was admitted to St Vincent’s Nursing Home, Leeson Street Dublin by his doctors, as they had observed signs of subarachnoid hemorrhage, but it proved difficult  to keep him quiet, and against medical advice he resumed work. On the 12th August 1922, once again attempting to resume work, bending down to tie his shoe lace, Griffith fell down unconscious - he regained consciousness briefly but within minutes was rendered unconsciousness again. Father John Lee administered the last rites, as Griffith exhaled his last breath.

 A public funeral was held four days later and he was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The Irish Republican Army led by Michael Collins, saluted him as the cortege was led by horse and carriage through Dublin.

      

  • At the end of the Treaty negotiations, one of the British delegates commented: "A braver man than Arthur Griffith I never met". Born without influence, and given little formal education, he became one of the founding fathers of the Irish Free State.
  • His wife Maud had to beg his former colleagues for a pension, telling them in no uncertain terms “that he had made them all”.
  • She considered his grave plot was too modest for a man “who gave his all, to and for his country”, and threatened to exhume his body unless he was given higher status.
  • Only in 1968 was a plaque fixed to his former home giving him the distinction he rightly deserved.  
  • There are numerous roads and avenues dedicated to Griffith and the following are just some of these:   Griffith Barracks, altered and is now Griffith College, South Circular Road, Dublin / Griffith Avenue  / Arthur Griffith Park, Lucan, Co. Dublin / and an Obelisk erected in the grounds of Leinster House commemorates Griffith, Michael Collins and Kevin Higgins. 

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