Online talk marks centenary of Griffith’s death
Decade of Centenaries
A century after his death a fascinating online lecture assess Arthur Griffith’s life.
Dr Michael Laffan, who is one of the leading experts on the founder of Sinn Féin and Cavan TD will give the 40 minute talk which forms part of Cavan Library Service’s ‘Centenaries Lecture Series’.
In his preview of the talk Dr Laffan notes that Griffith was for a long time a neglected figure in Irish history. Cavan County Council’s Historian in Residence, Dr Brendan Scott agrees that there had been many more studies and books written about the giants of 20th Century Irish history, but relatively little when it comes to Griffith. He contends Griffith fell between two stools.
“If you look at the three big characters from around that period: De Valera, Collins, and Griffith – Collins is a young man who died by violent means; De Valera would go on to become the grand old man of Irish politics whereas Griffith was something in between I think. And was in his early 50s when he died of natural causes, which is still far too young. He was forgotten, in comparison to people like Collins and De Valera.”
Unlike De Valera and Collins, Griffith didn’t participate in the Easter Rising of 1916, beyond trying to deliver countermanding orders to volunteers in Wicklow.
“During Easter week he actually went to the GPO and offered his services and was turned away.
“Now he was as blind as a bat – I don’t know what use he would have been with a gun. He could have been more dangerous than anything else,” Dr Scott quips.
“He wasn’t a military man – and his skills would have been more usefully set elsewhere.”
Initially Griffith looked east to Hungary’s emergence from the Austrian Empire for examples of how Ireland could form its own government and extricate itself from Britain’s control, while still retaining their monarchy as figurehead.
“He tried to take elements of what he observed from abroad and put them into the Irish focus, and see what they could pick and mix to try to get the best set up for Ireland,” explains Brendan.
“He never believed that you would get an Irish republic. He didn’t think that was achievable. He certainly was aware of a population of about 900,000 Protestants in Ulster who would not take kindly to a 32 county Irish republic, and he took that into account. And when he was one of the negotiators of the Anglo-Irish agreement, he knew going into that, they weren’t going to get a 32 county republic, so it wasn’t any great surprise to him when they came out of it with a 26 county free state; obviously the Republic came later on.”
Despite his historic importance, Brendan notes how Griffith was something of a reluctant politician.
“He never wanted to be a politician himself, he was a newspaper man – that’s how he saw himself: as being a public commentator rather than a politician. In fact he set up Sinn Féin to be almost like a think tank or an advisory group, not a political party. He was much happier being on the sideline commenting, advising, criticising, rather than in the centre of it – he found himself almost by accident to be in he middle of the mix, which is something that speaker Michael Laffan will speak about in his talk.”
Griffith first won a seat in East Cavan in a Westminster by-election of 1918, claiming almost 60% of the vote to underline their status as the upcoming nationalist force, overtaking the Irish Parliamentary Party.
“He was a true blue Dub and was very proud of that. Certainly he made appearances in Cavan at rallies and talks, but his connection with Cavan was pretty tenuous. As was the case with a lot of TDs and MPs at that time. They would stand in constituencies where they didn’t have any links, but they needed someone to stand there, so that’s what they did. He did fantastically well in the June 1922 election.
“There were three pro-treaty candidates, and on the strength of his transfers all three got over the line. He got a massive first preference vote in Cavan at that time.”
Griffith topped the poll in June 1922 with over 13,000 first preferences, with Patrick Baxter of the Farmers Party coming second with 5,600 first preference votes. Sinn Féin’s other candidates initially suffered in Griffith’s shade, didn’t do quite as well with Walter Cole receiving 4,600 and Seán Milroy a paltry 565 first preferences. However shockingly, Baxter was to miss out as Griffith’s transfers were enough to bring both his running mates home with a Sinn Féin clean-sweep of the constituency.
“That was the strength of Griffith’s popularity, and it’s extraordinary that he died so soon after that,” says Brendan of Griffith who passed away two months later.
“He was always a very stressed sort of a man, always working very hard. He wrote entire newspapers almost on his own. He had been working under extremely stressful circumstances for about a year running up to his death in August 1922.
“He used to be a big man for cycling and walking but once he got caught up in the political stuff he didn’t really have time for that. He was quite down about what was going on - that Ireland had descended into civil war. Friends noted that he seemed very down in himself in the weeks leading up to his death, but it was still a terrible shock, because he was only 51.”
Brendan observes that Griffith died at arguably Ireland’s lowest point.
“Any country in civil war you would have to say that is its lowest point. But out of that lowest point came something; and he is one of the architects of the Republic of Ireland now, whether you like or dislike that.”
Dr Laffan’s talk went live on Thursday, August 11 and remains available to view on the Cavan Library Services Facebook page. The former UCD professor is an authority on the subject having penned Griffith’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. “I have seen the talk – it’s fabulous. The man is a born communicator and gets the ideas across really well, simply, and succinctly,” assures Brendan.