Arthur Griffith and anti-Semitism

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Sir,—In his letter in your last issue (HI 24.6, Nov./Dec. 2016) Colum Kenny states that he does not see Zionism as the natural antithesis to anti-Semitism. He states, too, that my belief for his assumption lies ‘in the eye of the beholder’ (myself). That is as maybe, but he provided evidence for my eye in his article (HI 24.3, May/June 2016):

‘Griffith supported the establishment of a Zionist homeland from no later than 1904, and modified or gradually abandoned any anti-Semitic prejudice after that … Griffith himself appears to have ceased to articulate such [anti-Semitic] prejudice long before his election to Dáil Éireann. He even explicitly supported Jews who sought to create a Zionist state.’

It is possible, certainly, to accept that Griffith’s anti-Semitism diminished as he grew older (and learnt sense). What Kenny fails to disprove is the charge of opposition to the working class; describing him as a ‘working-class Dubliner’ cannot clear him. There are all too many cases of workers seeking to advance by advancing their exploiters. In any case, Griffith was a tradesman, one of the skilled members of the working class, many of whom tended to look down on the general workers being organised in Larkin’s Transport Union. Such a prejudice contributed, no doubt, to his winning a reputation as an enemy of labour by his stand (opposed by many of his own followers) against the workers in the major battle of the class war in 1913. That he was friends with Connolly is not a conclusive rebuttal. Few people’s friends are unanimous in agreeing with them politically. No doubt there was mutual respect there, but such respect could well have made Connolly recognise, however reluctantly, that Griffith would have to be one of those against whom the Citizens’ Army guns would have to be aimed when the hour was right.

Griffith’s positive social and economic programme, one that would be implemented over the years (unlike the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil), can be seen in the motions passed at the refounding convention of Sinn Féin in October 1917. They don’t amount to a bad, let alone undemocratic, bourgeois nationalist programme, but they offer little to those outside the bourgeoisie, and what they do offer is equivocal (a ‘just wage, for example: who would decide what that was?). Overall, they were a retreat from the admittedly vague aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation. However, they did provide the guidelines for the social and economic policies of the next century of Irish government. This may be the reason why Griffith’s grave is shunned.—Yours etc.,

D.R. O’CONNOR LYSAGHT

PS: Tadgh Moloney’s letter (HI 24.5, Sept./Oct. 2016) is an example of seeing what the beholder wanted to see and embellishing it to fit his thesis. I did not claim that Griffith was an anti-Semite, though in his early years, before 1905, he had that tendency. However, to try to use the anti-Semitism of a mixed bag of republicans to smear their movement as a whole is bad history. I will remark, merely, that my list of Zionist anti-Semites includes two British prime ministers, whereas his list includes only one who might have been expected to head an Irish government had he lived. The Union was not a defence against anti-Semitism; there was far too much of it all over Europe.

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