President Griffith: A greater man than many think

President Griffith: A greater man than many think Arthur Griffith
Arthur Griffith

by Owen McGee (Merrion Press, €27.00)

Colum Kenny

Arthur Griffith, the first president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State in 1922, deserves more respect than he gets. This intriguing and polemical volume will help to redress the balance.

Born in Dominick Street in 1872, and having shared the hardships of so many Dubliners of his day, Griffith toiled long and hard, and for little material reward, to better the economic and social conditions of all Irish people. He was no narrow nationalist, but a pragmatic strategist long before T.K. Whitaker.

Although he was a printer by trade, Griffith lived in poverty with his mother as he devoted his time and energies to sustaining successive advanced nationalist papers. For financial reasons, he and Maud his wife-to-be waited for years to marry, and then 250 acquaintances clubbed together to buy them a house in Clontarf. One of the 250 was this reviewer’s grandfather, Kevin J. Kenny.

When Griffith collapsed and died during the civil war it was said that his heart had broken.

He courted neither popularity nor power for himself, but his common sense helped to steer 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties towards a level of sovereignty that was by no means a foregone conclusion.


This book rewards readers with a radical perspective on aspects of Irish history that they may take for granted. What did the Catholic Church want for Ireland once it got its way on denominational education? How much of a ‘war’ was the “War of Independence”? Did Dev. and the Free Staters really fall out over partition, or over an oath of allegiance to a Protestant monarch whose claims in the religious sphere were anathema to Irish bishops?

It is a demanding read and one likely to stimulate other historians to take issue with some of the angles and emphases of its author. But a fresh account of Griffith is welcome, as some critics continue to patronise or even demonise him.

Certain views on race that he very occasionally published, even if common at the time and later left behind by Griffith himself, have dogged his reputation.

They may be viewed in the broader context of a life’s work here.

Britain squeezed Ireland for revenue after the Act of Union and long restricted Irish trade abroad. Irish banks then and later invested Irish money in Britain but not in Ireland, and would not give credit to Irish businesses on terms that residents elsewhere in the United Kingdom enjoyed.

It was Griffith’s genius to see clearly how such economic restrictions would continue to define the limits of political independence. Many on the right and on the left never forgave him.

There have been earlier accounts of this man known as “the father of Sinn Féin”, but McGee’s biography of Griffith is one for our times. It explains Griffith as an intellectual who grasped underlying aspects of Irish life that too many of his contemporaries either could not, or did not, wish to face. Banks then, as recently, were let act other than in the best interests of the Irish public.

Griffith was probably the best-known Irish editor and journalist of his day, and certainly one of the most prolific. At times an anti-clerical Catholic and at times deferential to the bishops, at times anti-Semitic and at times Zionist, at times militant and at times pacifist, it is not hard to find words written by himself or by contributors to the United Irishman and his other papers that may be used to support any critic’s viewpoint.

McGee acknowledges such contradictions, and does not waste either his energy or the reader’s time on some kind of hagiography. He admires Griffith’s pragmatism and is impatient with those like Erskine Childers or Lady Lavery whose interventions he clearly believes exacerbated Ireland’s troubles. But he acknowledges Griffith’s weaknesses too.

McGee’s final chapter is a striking assault on the historical establishment that deserves attention, but it may make him enemies in the field. The value of his text overall merits somewhat greater care in its expression, and could have been at least 50 pages shorter.

A sprinkling of typographical errors distracts from but does not destroy its merits. The author’s fondness for the adjective ‘proverbial’ is notable, while his use of the term ‘terrorism’ jars.

McGee puts into perspective the various centenaries that are now being somewhat fulsomely commemorated, reminding us of the daily grind of people who struggled for economic and political freedom from London in the aftermath of the fall of Parnell.

If you want to understand before Easter Week on what shaky foundations this State of ours is built, you would be advised to read this biography of Arthur Griffith at an early date.