Arthur Griffith and anti-Semitism

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Letters, Uncategorized, Volume 25

Sir,—Rather than prolong the correspondence between myself and D.R. O’Connor Lysaght relating to my opinion that Arthur Griffith has been made a scapegoat for anti-Semitism in Ireland (argued in my article in HI 24.3, May/June 2016), may I simply refer those who are interested to a longer but related article in the current issue of the British Journal of Modern Jewish Studies in which I put that argument into a broader context. However, he now persists (HI 25.1, Jan./Feb. 2017) in another aspect of the standard demonisation of Griffith, that of portraying him as ‘an enemy of labour’, and contrasting him unfavourably with Connolly and Larkin.

Unlike Connolly and Larkin, Griffith was actually born and bred in Dublin, the son of a printer, and he was apprenticed to a socialist. He lived among the Dublin poor and was poor, sacrificing his opportunities to sustain with great difficulty advanced nationalist newspapers and to engage in ‘muckraking journalism’ to expose injustice. He also worked to develop Irish industry. He supported his mother and other members of his family, living at home to do so—and out of necessity long deferring his marriage. Where Connolly and Larkin went off to America for years, Griffith was said by a future Oireachtas librarian, who was present on the particular occasion, to have rejected an offer of well-paid employment on a US paper. William Rooney, Griffith’s partner on his first newspaper venture, the United Irishman, worked himself into an early grave trying to hold down a paying job while also researching and writing. It was through this paper that Griffith subsequently supported his friend James Connolly when the latter ran for election, and in late 1913 he praised some of Connolly’s ideas. Connolly (who seems to have been Griffith’s best man when Griffith eventually married) was still advertising his own paper in Griffith’s Éire Ireland after the events of 1913. He would hardly have done so had he considered Griffith an enemy of the workers rather than one of his truest friends. Anyone who reads much of what Griffith actually wrote down the years can see just how much he cared about the poor and oppressed and exploited.

However, Griffith was an enemy of bunkum and idle gestures, and his hostility to the divisive Larkin, his perceived lack of enthusiasm for the 1916 Rising and his stance on the Treaty may be understood accordingly. He was a single-minded nationalist who believed that the most progressive way forward was for the whole island to wrestle back actual economic freedom from the British. He feared that 1913 and 1916 would ultimately be counterproductive for the poor, yet D.R. O’Connor Lysaght wants to blame Griffith for ‘the next century of Irish government’ (after Griffith’s death!) rather than ask whether Ireland might have been a better place both for workers and for republicans had their leaders not engaged in indulgent gestures but struggled instead, like Griffith, to engage and convince all the people of the whole island of Ireland that we are all in the one boat. If radical is as radical does, and communications are about persuasion rather than hectoring, then historians and politicians ought not to romance their audiences with idealised insinuations of what was somehow possible but did not happen. Maybe it is a matter of guilt at their own heroes’ failed strategies. Perhaps, ostensibly like D.R. O’Connor Lysaght, some imagine an Ireland in which James Connolly and James Larkin would have gained power through violence before completing whatever revolution they had in mind by aiming their guns at fellow nationalists who did not measure up to their particular standards. As in Russia, perhaps?

Griffith, Connolly and Larkin were all inspired by James Fintan Lalor, the agrarian reformer. Each struggled in his own way to help the oppressed, and each (as we all do) had faults. My personal interest in Griffith arose from a discovery that my grandfather helped him to produce some issues of Sinn Féin’s Irish Year Book. Reading Griffith’s journalism, I have come to think that he was perhaps the most broadly informed advanced nationalist leader of his time with respect to economic and international affairs, and to regard him, despite his personal flaws and his occasional unpalatable outbursts during a prolific editorial career, to be a deeply caring and nuanced individual. Notwithstanding (or even because of) his contradictions, Griffith may be a better exemplar for the complex era that we now live in than are some of those who so far during this decade of commemorations have received much more attention than the person who was fondly known as ‘the father of Sinn Féin’ and who became Ireland’s first prime minister (or ‘president of the executive’) until his untimely death.—Yours etc.,

COLUM KENNY

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