THE ENIGMA OF ARTHUR GRIFFITH: ‘father of us all’

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

COLUM KENNY
Irish Academic Press
€19.95
ISBN 9781785373145

Reviewed by Owen McGee

Owen McGee is the author of A history of Ireland in international relations (Irish Academic Press, 2020).

Rather than taking the form of a biography, this concise and stylish new assessment of Griffith focuses on particular episodes or themes to assess his significance. Its approach is made lively through avoiding a strictly chronological treatment and its excellent use of oral history sources, many of which escaped previous biographers (including the present reviewer). Particularly good examples are extensive quotes from Bureau of Military History statements to highlight Griffith’s connections with the 1916 rebels. Kenny’s decision to draw direct contrasts between Griffith and de Valera may seem a bit narrow, but he nevertheless draws attention to the dynamics of the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations by focusing specifically on Griffith’s brief: to break off the negotiations only if the issue of Ulster was left unresolved. Indeed, it was only at the eleventh hour that de Valera, having already accepted a link with the British Crown when initiating negotiations, changed his attitude by arguing that the Crown should now be made the sole issue if breaking off negotiations, although both de Valera and Griffith agreed that the Dáil should have the final say in the matter. If Griffith did not essentially fail in his briefs as a treaty negotiator or as a leader of Dáil Éireann, however, he did (as Kenny shows) fail to realise that the Boundary Commission was a mere ruse of Edward Carson. Meanwhile, unlike Erskine Childers (and in turn de Valera), Griffith may not have fully understood that Canada’s Department of External Affairs, founded in 1909 and upon which Ireland’s like-named department after 1922 was supposed to be modelled, actually had no diplomatic independence. Nevertheless, Kenny suggests that ‘the Irish state today owes Griffith a great debt … for his vision in articulating a practical form of Irish independence’ (p. 250). Is this a fair assessment?

A case to the contrary might be supported by the extent to which Kenny attributes Griffith’s significance primarily to other matters, such as his role in publishing early writings of James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, so much so that they practically felt in his debt as a (one-time) mentor-like figure, while some sections of this book actually focus more on Joyce’s political evolution than on Griffith’s. Certainly, a problem with studies in personal reputations, or legacies, is that, unlike biographies, they can be more concerned with contemporaries and hearsay than with the subject. Chapters here on themes such as race and anti-Semitism cover the attitudes of many different contemporaries and only occasionally those of Griffith, whose attitudes are nevertheless detailed well. If gossip enlivens a chapter here entitled ‘Connolly, Yeats, Synge and Larkin’ and another on William Rooney, their contents reflect literary debates that were shaped primarily by the example of Rooney and Máire Butler as the puritan literary editors of Griffith’s journals rather than Griffith himself. Nevertheless, they are a good reminder of the extent to which an Ibsen-like feminism was prevalent in early twentieth-century Ireland and, indeed, in Griffith’s own attitudes. Following on from the work of Anthony Jordan, among the fascinating new literary sources unearthed by Kenny is a love poem by Griffith to his future wife ‘Mollie’ and a verse by Padraic Colum that drew a direct comparison between Griffith and Odysseus (known in Latin as Ulysses).

Noting that Griffith’s ‘style may now seem dated’, Kenny nevertheless highlights the degree to which Griffith awed many contemporaries as a straight-talker who seemingly served only ideas rather than personal vanities or political ambitions. Hence, in James Stephens’s words, ‘all the poets were then solid for Mr Griffith’ (pp 136–7), who, it seems, managed to make hope and history rhyme for Ireland’s revolutionary generation without actually being a poet. There are, however, two surprising omissions from Kenny’s treatment of the inspiration that Griffith gave to Ireland’s revolutionary generation. First, he accepts uncritically Gogarty’s statement that ‘from a dual monarchy for Ireland Griffith never advanced’ (p. 229), in the process ignoring that, as Hungary had no defence or foreign affairs ministries under its dual monarchy, Griffith effectively abandoned this idea as early as 1906 when he called in his Sinn Féin Policy for Ireland to set up its own independent consular service abroad, as it would do (as a republic) in 1919. Second, Griffith’s most popular idea after 1916 was the necessity of destroying what he described as Britain’s ‘paper wall’ whereby, on the inside of the wall, Ireland could only know about the rest of the world what Britain told them and, on the outside, the rest of the world could only know about Ireland what Britain told them. Many founders of Dáil Éireann claimed to have drawn their intellectual inspiration largely from this idea, or example, of Griffith’s, leading them in turn to find, or redefine, Ireland’s place within the world at large. Does Kenny’s disinclination to focus on this idea while calling for a reassessment of Griffith in 2022 reflect the operations of a new ‘paper wall’ at work within the current Decade of Centenaries? If so, the poets of today are perhaps unlikely to have any interest in its operations. Nevertheless, Kenny’s multi-faceted analysis brings to life a dynamism in the state’s founding fathers that is often overlooked today and, as such, its open-ended approach serves its subject particularly well.

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