Arthur Griffith (1871–1922), journalist, politician and Irish nationalist leader.
Born at Upper Dominick St, Dublin, Griffith was educated by the Christian Brothers before following his father into the printing trade. An ardent supporter of Parnell until his death in 1891, Griffith found an outlet for his political in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Celtic Literary Society which he co-founded. This did not stop Griffith from seeking new opportunities in the empire. Emigrating to South Africa in 1896, Griffith established his own English language newspaper entitled the Middleburg Courant. While the Courant was ultimately unsuccessful, South Africa proved a formative experience both in terms of his political and professional life. It allowed Griffith to develop as a journalist and critic of British imperialism.
In Ireland Griffith continued to support the Boers as a journalist and through the Irish Transvaal Committee which he co-founded in 1899. But it was as an Irish nationalist that Griffith was most influential. He founded Cumann na nGaedhael His newspaper, the United Irishman, drew the support of organisations like the IRB and Clan na Gael and provided Griffith with a platform through which he sought to educate his fellow countrymen on the potential of Irish nationalism and to theorise new ways of achieving it. For example, he advocated abstentionism, whereby Irish MPs would unilaterally withdrawal from Westminster to form an independent parliament in Dublin and proportional representation (Laffan).
In developing his political theories Griffith sought parallels from within Irish history—the independence of Grattan’s parliament—as well as other countries, most notably Hungary. Griffith was particularly taken by the Austro-Hungarian model of dual monarchy which he thought would be a workable model for Ireland. Although criticised for only presenting evidence that fit his theories, Griffith believed that dual monarchy could accommodate both unionists and nationalists and lead to an independent and resurgent Ireland. His essays on the subject, republished as The resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland (1904), quickly became a best seller. It also earned him and his followers the rather clever, if derisory, nickname, the ‘Green Hungarian Band’.
Griffith’s career as a journalist and political theorist was guided by the belief that Ireland could become politically, culturally and economically self sufficient. From 1906 these were espoused in his new newspaper, entitled Sinn Fein meaning ‘ourselves’. A year later this name was taken by a new political organisation formed from Griffith’s Cumann na nGaedhael (which he founded in 1900) and the Dungannon Clubs of Bulmer Hobson. However, by the outbreak of the Great War, Griffith’s monarchist tendencies and moderation was out of step with the growing republicanism of Sinn Fein. His attempts to accommodate northern unionists and avoid armed insurrection were ultimately doomed to failure and helps explain his reluctant support of the Easter Rising. Griffith eventually gave way to Eamon de Valera as President of Sinn Fein in 1917, but managed to remain an important figure within the independence movement. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the party’s adoption of his policy of abstentionism in 1917.
His political vindication came with the removal of Irish M.P.s to Dublin in protest against conscription in 1918 and the establishment of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919. An M.P. for Cavan East, Griffith was made minister for Home Affairs, and in June, became acting president in the absence of de Valera. An unerring advocate of democracy, Griffith sought to subordinate the IRA to parliamentary control and set up Dáil Courts to control local violence and protect landowners. Despite being interned for the third time in November 1920, Griffith was held as a political prisoner. When the peace treaty negotiations began in October 1921, de Valera made Griffith chief negotiator in a team which included Collins and Barton. In the Dáil, Griffith defended the Treaty with characteristic vigour and sought to put the issue before the Irish people. After the Treaty was ratified on 7 January 1922, Griffith was elected president of Dáil Éireann in place of de Valera. This period that followed is well documented. Suffice it to say that after the 1922 electoral victory of Griffith and Collins pro-treaty Sinn Fein, Griffith resumed his role as Dáil president, maintaining a very firm commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Griffith died suddenly in August 1922 of a cerebral haemorrhage having achieved many of the political goals he had dedicated his life to pursuing.
Michael Laffan, ‘Griffith, Arthur’ in Dictionary of Irish biography (Cambridge, 2009), online edition; Michael Laffan, The resurrection of Ireland: the Sinn Féin party, 1916–1923 (1999); Patrick Maume, The long gestation: Irish nationalist life, 1891–1918 (1999); Arthur Griffith, The resurrection of Hungary (Dublin, 2003)