Arthur Griffith (1871–1922)
Arthur Griffith was born on 31 March 1871 into a working-class family, son of Arthur, a printer, and Mary (née Whelan). He was brought up as a Roman Catholic and attended Christian Brothers Schools (CBS) in north inner city Dublin. His grandfather had come from a Presbyterian family in Redhills in Co. Cavan but had converted before moving to Dublin. Griffith’s formal education ended before he was aged thirteen, when he went to work as a messenger boy. Self-taught, he devoted his spare money to books as a boy, and his interest in reading continued all his life.
While working as a printer as a young man, Arthur (or Dan, as he was known by friends) held radical views and belonged to societies and clubs such as the Young Ireland League and the Celtic Literary Society. He was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and was present at the first meeting of the Gaelic League. He went to South Africa in 1897 and was a sharp critic of British actions there. He came back to Dublin to edit the United Irishman, a new radical nationalist newspaper, and when a libel action brought about its end in 1906, he launched a new newspaper, Sinn Féin. As an editor, Griffith was known for publishing diverse views and literary contributions that others wouldn’t print, including from James Joyce. He was also credited as a prolific writer himself.
Griffith, a reluctant political and party leader, had originally set out to create an intellectual pressure group, the ‘National Council’, rather than the political party, Sinn Féin, that resulted. Nevertheless, he proved a successful strategist as President of Sinn Féin from 1911 to 1917. Although he did not play an active role in the Easter Rising, he was arrested in its aftermath and was jailed on a number of occasions. Elected as MP for East Cavan while imprisoned in England, he was the main proponent of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy that led to their huge electoral victory over the Parliamentary Party in 1918. A pragmatist, he was more focussed on the democratic will of the people than on theoretical republican ideals.
For Griffith, the economic aspects of Irish independence were the most important; he was determined that Ireland should be a modern, prosperous state. He criticised abuses of capitalism and outlined imaginative schemes for rehousing the Dublin poor. He was not a pacifist but believed that any violent rebellion against British rule would fail. His Sinn Féin movement provided a platform for nationalist debate and sought independence through peaceful means, using non-violent resistance as a technique.
Griffith became engaged to Maud Sheehan when he was thirty-three years old and they were married six years later in 1910. He was intensely focused on his editorial and political work, which was not lucrative, so he had little money. When his friends heard he was getting married, they clubbed together and bought a house for the couple in Clontarf; they knew that if they gave him money, he would invest it in the newspaper instead.
Maud (or Mollie as her husband called her), had little interest in politics or the struggle for independence. Their common interest was music, and they enjoyed musical evenings in the homes of friends as well as recitals and concerts together. It is reported that Maud visited Griffith in London during the Treaty negotiations and that they celebrated their eleventh wedding anniversary on 24 November by attending Gilbert and Sullivan light operas.
Their two children, Nevin and Ita, feature affectionately in letters that Griffith wrote to Maud from different places. Ita recalled that her father was away a lot; in addition to the two months spent in London for the Treaty negotiations, he spent two of his last five years in jail. Ita also remembered raids on their house as a young girl. She described one occasion, at the age of six or seven, when the Black and Tans searched her bedroom, ripping up her mattress, before taking her father away, saying that he would be shot or hanged.
Griffith is survived by a number of descendants, but very few stories have been passed down through the family. This is likely affected by Maud’s resentment of her husband’s early death, at 51, on 12 August 1922. She believed that he worked himself to death, abandoned by friends, colleagues and the new state alike, after years of sacrifice. The lack of family stories may also reflect an element of subconscious shame, resulting from what Colum Kenny describes as the ‘othering’ of Griffith as ‘un-Irish’ in the years immediately after his death.
Griffith is probably best known as the man who chaired the London delegation and the first President of the Dáil. His contribution to Ireland extends far beyond that, however, and it is timely to reflect on it as we approach the hundredth anniversary of his death.
Author: Emer Nowlan (great-granddaughter)
Sources: DIB: Bridget Hourican; Stephens (1929); Davis (1974); Jordan (2013); An Irishman’s Diary, The Irish Times, 9 August 2012, Anthony J. Jordan; Kenny (2020).
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