Arthur Griffith, Brian Maye. (Griffith College Publications, £25) ISBN 0-9531611-0-2

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 1998), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 6

Arthur Griffith has been overshadowed by more glamorous contemporaries. For many people the founder of Sinn Féin is the enemy of Larkin, the defender of anti-semitic pogroms, the opponent of Synge’s Playboy. Brian Maye has often defended Griffith’s memory; now he has produced this long-awaited biography.
Maye adopts a thematic rather than a chronological format. This unfortunately removes many statements from context; Griffith was a working journalist commenting on passing events, and some views changed over time. This structure lets Griffith’s critics dictate the agenda rather than developing a positive case for Griffith, and overshadows Maye’s strongest area—Griffith’s personal life. His description of the tenement house where Griffith grew up and his family’s inability to give him the further education his abilities deserved are moving. The fact that this gifted journalist turned down offers of well-paid employment on newspapers opposed to his political principles is juxtaposed with descriptions by friends of the cold rooms, ragged clothing and broken shoes which Griffith accepted as the price of political honesty. (There are some interesting references to Griffith’s fond relationship with his dedicated wife, Maud, perhaps Maye will write more about her elsewhere.)
Those (including the present writer) who exaggerated Griffith’s closeness to aristocratic cranks and romantic monarchists on the fringes of early Sinn Féin should note his resentment of comfortable parasites who advised the poor to be content. His criticism of the British monarchy in Ireland rested on its refusal to acknowledge that it could only exist by the will of the Irish people, whose self-determination Griffith defended against unionist fetishisation of ‘loyalty’ and republican legitimist declarations that the people had no right to do wrong.
Maye rebuts charges of anti-black racism and imperialism by pointing to Griffith’s descriptions of British atrocities against the Matabele and support for anti-imperialist movements in India and Egypt (though Griffith dismissed rebels against French colonialism as British hirelings).  His discussion of Griffith’s hostility to Larkin points out that Griffith co-operated with other socialists (including Connolly), that he advocated corporatist regulation rather than laissez-faire capitalism, that Larkin insulted Griffith as vituperatively as Griffith insulted him, and that historians who highlight Griffith’s anti-semitism ignore anti-semitic statements by Larkin.
On the issue of anti-semitism Maye makes some mitigating points, but goes too far in acquitting Griffith. The Sinn Féin leader combined close personal friendship with individual Jews with his belief in Jewish financial conspiracies to uphold the British Empire; but he must share responsibility for the genocidal diatribes published in his paper by Frank Hugh O’Donnell, alias ‘The Foreign Secretary’. (Griffith was susceptible to narcissistic cranks with conspiracy theories. The most egregious examples, O’Donnell and Herbert Pim, both eventually bit the hand which fed them.)
Elsewhere, Maye is unconvincing. He quotes occasional warnings against Irish manufacturers exploiting ‘buy Irish’ campaigns to charge high prices to dissociate him from the excesses of post-independence protectionism, but Griffith usually argued that customers should buy Irish regardless of price, and denounced critics of this view as traitors. Maye’s portrayal of Griffith as a pacifist ignores controversies with genuine pacifists such as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (whom he denounced as a woolly-minded sentimentalist) and his support for non-British militarists.
Maye presents Griffith’s attack on Childers as a ‘damned Englishman’ as uncharacteristic, but this is not the case. Griffith regularly subjected opponents to personal abuse and accusations of bad faith. He accused Redmond of betraying Parnell; John O’Leary reprimanded him for inability to criticise an opponent without impugning his sincerity; when Matthew Keating (an active Gaelic Leaguer, born in Wales of Irish parents, who had spent over twenty years working for Irish nationalist organisations in Britain) became a Home Rule MP, Griffith denounced him as an English adventurer with no right to call himself Irish. Childers was as Irish as Griffith’s protégé, Darrell Figgis, whose career ended amidst particularly squalid sexual and financial scandals. (Maye is uncritical in his extensive use of Figgis’ notoriously unreliable memoirs).
This reflects the central problem of Maye’s work; his failure to contextualise Griffith in relation to the Irish Parliamentary Party, although Griffith’s philosophy was developed in opposition to them. (The index characteristically fails to distinguish between John and William Redmond and confuses William O’Brien MP with the trade unionist of the same name.)
Nineteenth-century     nationalists divided between those who believed in alliance with British progressive forces and supporters of a go-it-alone strategy. Griffith’s separatism reflected Mitchel’s anti-liberal philosophy, which demonised Britain as the source of all evil and presented liberalism (with some justification) as a confidence trick concealing the harsh realities of British power. There could be no compromise between Britishness and Irishness; those who thought otherwise were fools or traitors. This view lay behind Griffith’s attitude to unionists, to Larkin, pacifists, Jews, and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Maye rightly points to Griffith’s anti-sectarianism and his contacts with unionists, which were more extensive than Maye realises, but fails to see how utterly he misunderstood their sense of identity.
A strong case can be made that Griffith was right and Redmond was wrong, but Maye takes at face value Griffith’s denunciations of the Irish Party as snobs and fools, and misses the ideological dispute involved. For twenty years Griffith laboured to eliminate grey areas between Britishness and Irishness, denouncing compromisers as traitors. The tragedy of Griffith’s last days is that when faced with the responsibility of government he had to make compromises, and like Collins and Boland in Neil Jordan’s film, was destroyed by opponents whom he himself had trained, using the rhetoric Griffith had deployed against Redmond. Brian Maye deserves praise for his tribute to a great Dubliner and Irish patriot, but he has not said the last word on Griffith.

Patrick Maume


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