Arthur Griffith

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Owen McGee
Merrion Press
ISBN 9781785370090

Reviewed by Patrick Maume


This fascinating and exasperating book attempts two tasks: to produce a professional study of Arthur Griffith—filling one of the major gaps in our understanding of twentieth-century Ireland—and to offer a wholesale reconceptualisation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish history.

McGee approaches Griffith as a nineteenth-century historian, whereas most writers on Griffith have seen him in a twentieth-century context. McGee’s own nineteenth-century expertise is in the history of the late nineteenth-century IRB and of British counter-subversive policing, as seen in his extensively researched and now classic study of the IRB. McGee believes that Ireland should have developed on the basis of a French-style republic founded on the principles of laïcité and state-directed economic development, and that the late Victorian IRB essentially stood for such a policy but that it was forestalled by the machinations of the British government’s spies and provocateurs, by repressive security measures, and by the co-option of a self-serving alliance of the Catholic Church with pseudo-nationalist parliamentarians, whom McGee (like Griffith) sees as unionists in all but name. Griffith is presented as the heir to this lost IRB tradition, beset by clericalist intriguers and British spies; McGee dismisses cultural nationalism as a clericalist delusion and argues that true nationalism requires the displacement of the common-law system by a Napoleonic-style codified legal system based on civil law, and the establishment of a state-directed native banking system on the German model, aimed at fostering economic development by lending to native entrepreneurs rather than investing abroad. (McGee’s legal terminology is somewhat confused. He describes republicanism both as requiring a written constitution and as requiring ‘parliamentary supremacy’—a term usually applied to traditional Westminster-style systems, which do not have such a constitution. He also claims that the Catholic Church favours common law over civil law, though canon law is itself a civil-law system and was codified during the very period he discusses; he appears to mean that the French model of civil law deeply distrusts intermediate corporate bodies, such as churches, and seeks their explicit subordination to the sovereign state, whereas common law has a somewhat more laissez-faire attitude to such matters.)

McGee succeeds to a considerable extent in his first objective. Anyone familiar with Griffith’s journalism will realise that McGee captures many aspects of Griffith’s thought and sensibility—notably anger at the poverty that he and his family experienced as working-class Dubliners, and desire to articulate a state-centred form of Irish nationalism which could incorporate the Protestant tradition and which centred on self-improvement through education and economic reform—that are ignored by stereotypes of Griffith as ‘conservative’. McGee also captures—and endorses, perhaps too uncritically—Griffith’s contrast between a malign British social model and a Continental social model founded on state-led development. Oddly enough, he then dismisses the view that Griffith should be seen as reacting against liberalism by declaring that Gladstone (whose Home Rule schemes were, in McGee’s view, deliberately framed to perpetuate Irish subordination) cannot be described as liberal, given his role in imposing financially damaging legislation on Ireland and the fact that British government in Ireland was sustained by illiberal emergency legislation. This ignores the fact that Gladstonianism described itself, and was and is described, as a form of liberalism on the basis of its actions in Britain, and that its minimal-government and free-trade policies (which Griffith explicitly attacked, often using the same arguments advanced by British Conservative protectionists in the Edwardian era) were seen at the time as intrinsic to the very concept of liberalism. Griffith’s views on the need to reorganise the banking system do indeed require further attention (though McGee underestimates the extent to which they survived Griffith and found expression in the post-independence decades through the monet-ary tracts of Bulmer Hobson and Eimar O’Duffy, the monetary reform views of the Catholic activist Alfred O’Rahilly, and Seán MacBride’s advocacy of a break with sterling).

McGee’s account of Griffith is further enriched by his extensive acquaintance with recently available archival materials; in particular, his work on the papers of the former Land Leaguer and Home Rule MP John Sweetman brings out the remarkable importance of this largely forgotten figure as financial underwriter of Griffith’s newspapers during the Edwardian period, and as a restraining force deterring Griffith from publishing anti-clerical or anti-religious material. (Sweetman’s conservative influence over Griffith was denounced at the time by the outspoken socialist and secularist Frederick Ryan, an early contributor to Griffith’s United Irishman, excluded from its pages under Sweetman’s influence. McGee independently confirms Ryan’s claims while seemingly unaware of their existence.) A competent though sketchy account is given of the working of Griffith’s journals, though their content is somewhat glossed over. Archival research turns up such details as the fact that Griffith briefly went on hunger strike after his arrest in 1920, and his loving relationship with his wife Maud (whom he had to persuade not to make a public protest when Hanna Sheehy Skeffington publicly accused Griffith of mistreating his wife) is sensitively explored. The archival material on Griffith’s links with Scottish nationalists also sheds light on an under-explored subject, of current topical interest.

McGee asks many questions that need to be asked, and challenges narratives which are too often taken for granted. Unfortunately, his questions too often take the form not of developed and well-supported arguments but of bright ideas that might serve to stimulate discussion in a seminar but which are not tested by detailed consideration of source material. McGee suggests that the 1916 rebels’ location of their headquarters at the GPO (which had certain banking functions) and their occupation of the head office of the Hibernian Bank reflects the influence of Griffith’s views on banking. McGee fails to explain why, if this were the case, the rebels did not establish their headquarters in College Green, where most of the bank head offices were located and which also had considerable historical resonances.

Worse still, McGee can often be found deducing what ‘must’ have happened on the basis of his theories, without bothering to cite source mat-erial in its favour or address evidence that tells against it. For example, while it is well known that British naval intelligence was aware of the 1916 Rising before it took place and allowed it to go ahead, McGee claims that Carson, Craig and John Redmond all shared this advance knowledge. The view that the Kilmichael ambush was ‘the only attack on British forces in Ireland’ between November 1920 and July 1921 is unlikely to win general acceptance, and McGee’s claim that Inspector Swanzy was killed by British agents provocateurs in order to trigger sectarian riots in Ulster overlooks the existence of several Bureau of Military History statements by IRA participants in the assassination. The War of Independence is presented as a series of British attacks on groups of local Volunteers, with the IRA being non-existent before the Truce, and Collins’s attacks on government forces as being purely defensive in nature to permit his real work as Dáil finance minister. The Civil War was allegedly masterminded by British agents, including Erskine Childers and Ernie O’Malley. McGee’s claim that the Catholic secular clergy were neutral on the Treaty will not convince (for example) readers of Patrick Murray’s Oracles of God, with its catalogue of pro-Treaty statements by numerous clerics, including all the bishops. It is insinuated that both Michael Collins and Sir Henry Wilson were assassinated by British government agents. Apropos of an attack on Collins in the Belfield–Donnybrook area, McGee remarks darkly that this was ‘hardly a republican stronghold’; neither is Manhattan a stronghold of Salafi Islam.

McGee appears to believe that contemporary claims that Maud Gonne was a British spy were in fact correct, and suggests that her withdrawal from Irish politics after 1904 derives from improved Anglo-French relations with the conclusion of the Anglo-French entente. It would have assisted his case immensely if he had first disproved, or even mentioned, the more conventional view that Gonne’s withdrawal reflected the break-up of her marriage with Major John MacBride and the subsequent custody dispute over their son. McGee complains that historians have ‘assumed’ that Robert Briscoe’s Continental activities during the War of Independence concerned gunrunning rather than the development of banking channels to transmit funds to the movement in Ireland; perhaps these historians have read Briscoe’s memoir, For the life of me, which shares this ‘assumption’. Similarly, McGee suggests that since arson attacks in the Liverpool area in 1920 attributed to the IRA were politically counterproductive, they must have been a ‘false flag’ operation carried out by the British government; this overlooks the memoirs of the Liverpool IRA veteran John Pinkman, who describes the attacks (including his own capture while engaged in them). McGee even suggests that the Marxist tradition of historical analysis was concocted by interwar ‘British Commonwealth historians … claiming that the hitherto unknown figure of Karl Marx, a briefly influential, albeit always marginal, figure in 1848 revolutionary circles, was now somehow a sovereign presence in determining the international and internal relations of every country of the globe’. Doubtless these ‘British Commonwealth historians’ include Lenin and his accomplices, whose actions were influential in spreading this perception, as well as McGee’s hero John Devoy, whose 1882 eulogy for Marx as a friend of Ireland is quoted in Paul Bew’s The politics of enmity. Historians of Scotland will be equally surprised at McGee’s statement that seventeenth-century Scottish Covenanters were opposed to war and state churches; perhaps the statement ‘unless conducted by themselves’ was inadvertently omitted.
Alongside these blunders based on over-zealous deductions, the book contains factual errors that could easily have been avoided if the publisher had done some simple editing. Castlebar is not a ‘British naval port’, for it is not a port. It was Henry Flood, not John Flood, whom Griffith praised as more politically astute than Grattan. ‘Sir John O’Donnell’ appears to be a conflation of Sir John O’Connell and Lord MacDonnell of Swinford (formerly Sir Antony MacDonnell). Notre Dame University is located in Indiana, not Ohio. T.D. Ingram was the brother of John Kells Ingram, not his son. The fact that T.M. Healy believed that Liam Lynch was a former private in the British Army does not prove that this was in fact the case. Louis Redmond-Howard was John Redmond’s nephew, not his cousin. Edward Saunderson’s estate was in Cavan, not Armagh. Denis Gwynn was Stephen Gwynn’s son, not his brother. Whether or not François Mauriac’s sensibilities can be described as resembling those of Canon Sheehan, it is unlikely that his novels ‘were particularly popular with Edwardian UCD students’, since his first book appeared in 1913 and his best-known novels date from the interwar period. Darrell Figgis was not a Catholic.

It would be tragic if these blunders led to an underestimation of this book’s genuine achievements. The Irish historical community should seek active dialogue with Owen McGee to help him to clarify his thoughts. In the meantime, it is best to give him the last word:

‘William O’Brien MP … and many other journalists earned notoriety for their verbal acrobatics in attempting to describe the operations of all contemporary political and cultural forces in modern Irish society as one simple dynamic. This was done through adopting an improvised rhetoric that most contemporaries deemed to be a tiresome form of verbal diarrhoea.’

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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