Daniel McConnell: Arthur Griffith deserves more than to be tucked away in history 

His place in history as a founding father of Irish independence has long been overshadowed by Michael Collins but for all that he did for this country, Arthur Griffith deserves to be truly heralded for the part he played as 'the father of us all'
Daniel McConnell: Arthur Griffith deserves more than to be tucked away in history 

Peace delegates Kathleen McKenna, Ella Lyons and Alice Lyons with the nationalist leader and founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith in 1921. Picture: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

His portrait by artist Leo Whelan stands in the grand entrance hall of Leinster House alongside those of Éamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins, and WT Cosgrave.

Tucked into the corner, it is perhaps easy to overlook it when you are dashing through the house day to day.

His somewhat marginalised placement in the pantheon of founding fathers of Irish independence reflects the century of neglect which has befallen Arthur Griffith and his legacy.

Even in 2022, a hastily arranged memorial for Griffith took place on Friday at Leinster House to mark the centenary of his death in August 1922, aged just 51.

After months of struggle to avoid a civil war and establish the Irish Free State, Griffith was suffering from nervous exhaustion by August.

He was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

He was trying to get out of bed on August 12, 1922, to attend a preparatory meeting to reconvene the Dáil when he died of an apparent brain haemorrhage.

Emer Nowlan and Brefni Grey, the great-granddaughter and great-grandson of Arthur Griffith after laying a wreath at a remembrance event to mark the centenary of his on Friday. Picture: Robbie Reynolds
Emer Nowlan and Brefni Grey, the great-granddaughter and great-grandson of Arthur Griffith after laying a wreath at a remembrance event to mark the centenary of his on Friday. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

The simple wreath-laying ceremony was not organised by the Government, nor even the powers that be in Leinster House.

It took an intervention from independent TD Matt Shanahan from Waterford to spur people into action.

Shanahan said he was responding to an email from Donal O’Brolcháin, a member of the public, seeking some recognition for Griffith, often referred to as “the father of us all”. That description of Griffith was given by Collins.

Shanahan sought the permission of the ceann comhairle and clerk of the Dáil to convene a private gathering, as no public event was permissible.

Yes, Griffith will be honoured formally as he is every year by the Collins-Griffith Commemoration society at Glasnevin Cemetery on Sunday, but it is an examination of both their legacies, and all too often, Collins, and not Griffith, is the focal point.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin did not attend the impromptu event at Leinster House and only issued a four-line tweet on Griffith’s legacy.

Captain Karl Muckian, from Cathal Brugha Barracks, raising the Tricolour on the Leinster House lawn during the remembrance event to mark the centenary of the passing of Arthur Griffith. Picture: Robbie Reynolds
Captain Karl Muckian, from Cathal Brugha Barracks, raising the Tricolour on the Leinster House lawn during the remembrance event to mark the centenary of the passing of Arthur Griffith. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

There was silence from President Michael D Higgins, but I was told there are some plans to mark Griffith’s contribution in a few weeks’ time. 

Sinn Féin, or the modern version of it, said it was saying nothing about the man who gave its movement its name.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar did issue a statement and will be the keynote speaker at that joint commemoration at Glasnevin.

The failure of the Oireachtas or the Government to properly honour one of the key founders of the actual independent State of Ireland, and not the aspired-to State as declared in 1916, is tawdry and shabby.

He was no minor player. His was an utterly immense role in the stirring up of the idea of what Sinn Féin could mean as a political force, to his role as acting president of the declared-but-disputed Irish Republic when de Valera was in jail or America, to his leadership of the delegation which negotiated the Anglo Irish Treaty in 1921.

Renowned historian Michael Laffan said that among Irish nationalists who fought against British rule, Griffith was unusual, if not unique, in one respect — by the time of his death, he had achieved most of his objectives. Yet he was almost forgotten by his ungrateful pro-Treaty colleagues.

He died despondent, believing many of his achievements were being undone and that his old suspicion of bloodshed had been vindicated at last.

Thanks largely to a small group of historians, in particular Colum Kenny of Dublin City University, the neglect of Griffith’s legacy is being addressed.

It is hard to escape the reality that the death of Collins 10 days later in an ambush at Béal na Bláth coupled with the younger man’s charisma and iconic status in the country, that Griffith would always fade somewhat into his colleague’s shadow.

Indeed, historian Eunan O’Halpin concluded recently that because the two leaders died so close together, Griffith’s death “has been addressed largely as a prelude to the Big Fellow’s dramatic end”.

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in 1921. Picture: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith at the Sinn Féin ardfheis in 1921. Picture: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The airbrushing of Griffith and his contribution began as almost he and Collins died.

Never materialistic or observant with money, Griffith died poor and his wife, Maud, was left in financial straits. As WB Yeats put it, Griffith had taken a “vow of poverty” to pursue his political ambitions.

As University College Dublin historian Diarmaid Ferriter recounted, by October 1922 the £100 she received from Dáil Éireann funds to meet the expenses of his death was gone and she was forced to beg for a financial settlement which was finalised in February 1923, ensuring she would receive £500 annually, taxed, at a time when the head of Government, WT Cosgrave, was earning £2,500 per annum.

Arthur Griffith with his wife Maud on the doorstep at 22 Hans Place in London. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Arthur Griffith with his wife Maud on the doorstep at 22 Hans Place in London. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Maud was appalled that “no honour or even a thought to a desolate woman has ever occurred to one of my husband’s associates”.

In July 1923, she read of plans for a cenotaph to be erected in his and Collins’s honour; she was not consulted about it and “wishes her husband’s name erased from such a shameless show”.

There was an unseemly argument over the size of his burial plot at Glasnevin, with Maud going as far as to threaten to disinter the body as detailed in Ann Dolan’s book Commemorating the Irish Civil War.

As Kenny points out, she complained bitterly that others got the benefit of her husband’s life of sacrifice while giving him little credit. 

“She meant not just de Valera but also pro-Treaty ministers who traded away the Boundary Commission — and some of whose social and financial policies would have riled Griffith. Griffith’s legacy is occasionally claimed by Fine Gael, but both Griffith and Collins were dead a decade before that party’s foundation,” Kenny wrote.

The perceived failing of Griffith to defer to Dublin before the final signing of the Treaty and the republican grievances with the document meant Griffith and Collins became objects of attack for anti-Treaty forces.

To justify the defiance of the majority of public who backed the Treaty, Griffith’s alleged weakness and incompetence during the talks became the targets.

As Ferriter says, Griffith’s belief in the merits of the Treaty became a stick with which to beat him.

It is fair to say, and many historians have concluded that de Valera certainly played his part in doing down Griffith, after his death.

WB Yeats, with whom Griffith was if not a friend then an acquaintance, would describe the Sinn Féin founder as “hysterical”, which aided others to sideline him from memory.

Also, opponents of Griffith have said he was in his earlier days guilty of espousing anti-Semitic views, but biographers like Kenny say his views “matured” over time.

Certainly in my lifetime, the aura of Collins has taken on almost mythical proportions at the expense of Griffith and de Valera.

As the large crowd will gather at Griffith’s grave on Sunday, they will see the broken column which serves as his headstone, a reference to a life cut short and the work not yet done.

The headstone had to be paid for by Maud Griffith.

For all that he did for this country, I, for one say, Arthur Griffith deserves to no longer be tucked away, but truly heralded for the part he played as “the father of us all”.

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