Arthur Griffith (1871-1922) was an Irish political journalist and former president of Dáil Éireann. Born on 31 March 1871 at Upper Dominick Street Dublin, Griffith was the second son of Arthur Griffith, a printer, and his wife, Mary Phelan. He was educated in Christian Brothers’ schools in Dublin before becoming apprenticed as a compositor. Like many Christian Brothers’ pupils he became committed to Irish nationalism in his youth: he was a follower of Charles Stewart Parnell during his ill-fated 1891 campaign and read the fiery writings of the Young Irelander John Mitchel. He joined several nationalist societies, including the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as well as co-founding the Celtic Literary Society. In the 1890s he emigrated to South Africa where he originally worked at a diamond mine. He then co-established a small newspaper in Transvaal, where he began to hone his literary skills which would be later put to use in pre-revolutionary Ireland. After the outbreak of the Boer Wars he befriended Major John MacBride, the leader of an Irish Brigade enlisted to fight the British.
Griffith returned to Ireland in 1898, joining the pro-Boer opposition in Ireland which was having an energising effect on the nationalist movement there. He demonstrated alongside Mac Bride’s future wife, Maud Gonne and organised protests against Queen Victorias last visit to Ireland, in 1900. In 1899 he created the radical separatist journal, the United Irishman. This journal declared the old Irish revolutions of 1798, 1848 and 1867 as momentous representations of Irelands ‘true nationalism’. Somewhat contradictorily, it also romanticised the parliamentarian Henry Grattan. The journal strongly criticised Parnell’s successors in the Irish parliamentary Party as well as participation in Westminster. Griffiths sustained polemic and satire played its role in that parties decline in the next two decades.
Westminster Abstentionism and Dual-Monarchy
Griffith’s key idea (abstention) was not without precedent. Daniel O’Connell had considered the idea of a unilaterally constituted council of three hundred, and withdrawal from Westminster had been considered by the Young Irelanders, and again by Parnell. Griffith turned the idea into an identifiable strategy. In the late 1890s he found a practical model in the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich compromise of 1867 which created the dual-monarchy. Griffith was well versed in Habsburg history and this launched a series of articles culminating in The Resurrection of Hungary: a Parallel for Ireland, published in 1904. He argued that under the leadership of Ferenc Deák a combination of passive resistance and unilateral reconstitution of the old Hungarian parliament had succeeded where armed rebellion had failed so disastrously in 1848.
The Hungarian parallel came in for much criticism and mockery. Its most eminent critic, T.M. Kettle, called it ‘the largest idea contributed to Irish politics for a generation’, but judged it wholly impractical. Griffith, who saw himself as practical minded may initially have seen it as a direct model, but it is more likely that it served as a kind of empowering myth for his fundamental argument that Ireland’s liberation lay in the hands of the Irish people themselves. He argued that not only could Irish people recover their cultural independence, through organisations such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association, but they could also recover their economic independence by boycotting British goods and buying Irish goods whenever possible. Alongside Deák, Griffiths other great European example was Friedrich List, a stern supporter of protectionist economic policies against the British free trade tradition. Griffith believed that Ireland possessed enough natural resources to become a modern industrial power and to support a population of at least twenty million. Few of his contemporaries shared this view. He also maintained that the true source of the national wealth were its people.
Griffith was known throughout Ireland as a powerful and pungent journalist and through intellectual circles as an innovative thinker. Though he established Cumann na nGaedhal (1900) and the National Council (Ireland) (1905), these were more akin to political propaganda groups than political parties. In 1907 they merged with Bulmer Hobson’s ‘Dungannon Clubs’ to form Sinn Féin. Griffith was a hesitant leader and the party did not engage much in electoral politics. He may have, like many nationalists, disliked the divisive nature of parliamentary politics and preferred to preach national unity. It was around this time that he resigned from the Republican secret society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
After contesting the North Leitrim by-election in 1908 the party became gradually marginalised. Griffith remained more of a journalist than a politician. He has regularly been charged with elements of racism in his thinking (He never links the Irish national claim with those of colonised people overseas, at a time when many nationalists liked to compare and contrast British Imperialism in India with Ireland) as well as his anti-Semitism, which was unmistakable in his support for the Limerick Pogrom. Like most nationalists he was hostile to nationalism though supported a Homestead law to guarantee every family a house. While he clearly believed that Irish unity was vital he supported the increasing cultural exclusivism of the Gaelic League. Though he never actually learnt any Gaelic, he insisted that the language was central to Irish national identity. Within Sinn Féin tension arose between Griffith and Hobson over the issues of Republicanism and constitutional monarchy, and passive versus armed resistance. Both men opposed the old fenian tradition of insurrection, which in their view had failed, but Griffith always maintained the right of nations to resist oppression by any means, though less enthusiastic about militarism than other members of Sinn Féin, preferring civil disobedience instead.
- Gonne was a celebrity figure in pre and post revolutionary Ireland, attracting much attention from poet W.B. Yeats in his writings.
- Griffith faced mockery for holding this position, the obvious retort being that if this were the case, then China would surely be the richest nation on earth.
- The English translation of ‘Sinn Féin’ is ‘ourselves alone’, a phrase used to portray national self-reliance in Ireland.