Arthur Griffith and anti-Semitism

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Letters, Volume 24

Sir,—D.R. O’Connor Lysaght writes (HI 24.4, July/August 2016) that my ‘interesting article’ on Arthur Griffith and Jews ‘is marred by an implicit assumption that because its subject supported Zionism he could not have been an anti-Semite’. The problem with ‘implicit assumptions’ is that they are in the eye of the beholder. In fact I assume no such thing and know well that some people saw Zionism as a way of ridding countries of Jews who resided in them. But Griffith explicitly affirmed the role of Jews in any new Irish state.

The title of my article itself acknowledged Griffith’s contradictions (‘Arthur Griffith: more Zionist than anti-Semite’) and I make no excuse for some of what he published. What interests me is the fact that his thinking developed, and that some historians have failed to refer to examples of his journalism that appear to demonstrate a radical shift. Indeed, I might add that as early as 1903 he supported the election to Dublin Corporation of the Jewish Albert Altman and also of his own socialist friend James Connolly, whose supporters included Jews who printed election literature for Connolly in Yiddish. These were among just eight candidates whom Griffith backed in 1903.

The failure of some historians who have written about Griffith to deal with passages favourable to Jews such as those that I quoted from his Sinn Féin paper in 1912 or his Nationality paper in 1915, and other passages that I did not quote (from his Scissors and Paste, for example), is notable. It seems that he is to be singled out and condemned as an anti-Semite no matter what.

Griffith was a complex individual, as biographies of him by Brian Maye and Owen McGee have gone some way towards showing. Manus O’Riordan and Anthony J. Jordan have also demonstrated some of that complexity, although in the former case not always in publications that are as readily accessible as they deserve to be.

Others have depicted Griffith too simplistically, highlighting certain anti-Semitic utterances by himself, F.H. O’Donnell and Oliver St John Gogarty in his earlier papers while overlooking later writings—as well as skating over expressions of anti-Semitism elsewhere in Irish liberal and leftist publications. Griffith has also been depicted at times as anti-worker, which is to misrepresent a man who disliked James Larkin and was not a socialist but who was a friend of James Connolly and spent most of his own life in poverty struggling to publish a great many articles intended to improve the lot of Ireland’s poor. Likewise some republicans demonise his pragmatism, when for long barren years he was one of a small band of committed advanced nationalists. His dual monarchy proposal was, in both social and economic terms, potentially more progressive than any form of Home Rule that was then envisaged, and was before 1918 both more inclusive and more realistic than were demands for outright independence.

A perceptive James Joyce saw what Griffith was trying to do and welcomed it overall. He recognised the fact that Griffith was under some editorial pressure from certain financial backers upon whom his papers depended. Indeed, as early as June 1900 Griffith explicitly regretted his decision to allow F.H. O’Donnell to write in the United Irishman, describing it as a favour for a trusted friend. O’Donnell and Griffith had just parted company when, somewhat ironically, Griffith as editor decided that ‘decency and honour’ constrained him to reject an article in which O’Donnell had compared the conciliatory nationalist leader and newspaper owner William O’Brien to Judas, the Jew who betrayed Jesus. O’Brien’s wife, as it happened, was the daughter of a Russian Jewish banker.

I have twice taken the tour of Glasnevin Cemetery, where Griffith lies outside of both the ‘republican plot’ and the ‘Blueshirt plot’. On the first occasion the guide did not even mention Griffith. On the second his grave was pointed out in the distance. The recent excising of Griffith, ‘father of Sinn Féin’, from virtually all of the commemorative discourse concerning 1916 is also interesting. He opposed such action as inimical both to the interests of the poor and to the prospects of liberty for all Ireland. Griffith’s subsequent close, practical, reasoning behind his decision to sign the agreement for a treaty has also too seldom been acknowledged. He was more widely read than many Irish politicians and journalists, but reportedly observed to Ezra Pound that ‘You can’t move ’em with a thing like economics. It is easier to shout “traitor”!’

The significance of such omissions and the difficulty that some writers seem to have in acknowledging his complexity or contradictions are worth considering.—Yours etc.,

COLUM KENNY
Dublin City University

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