The anti-Treaty warrior Harry Boland reportedly said that Arthur Griffith “made us all”. So why the official failure to mark prominently the sudden death of Dáil Éireann’s president a hundred years ago this month? Coalition backbenchers, still defined partly by Civil War differences, are not uniting to honour the man Michael Collins called “father of us all”.
Griffith led the Treaty delegation in London in 1921. When he collapsed and died on August 12th, 1922, large crowds flocked to his funeral. Generous tributes came from old comrades on both sides of the Civil War then raging. But this June, in a keynote speech at a big conference in UCC to mark the Civil War, Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Micheál Martin did not mention the man who had also founded Sinn Féin in 1905.
The centenary of Arthur Griffith’s death is not being marked by any big state event, despite the official Decade of Centenaries programme. Yet Taoiseach Martin has previously acknowledged that Griffith’s contribution to the cause of Irish self-determination was “vital”.
Griffith’s Treaty deal made this state. But the dominant narrative of “the Irish Revolution” came to be that of those who opposed the Treaty and lost the next general election, those who launched a civil war and lost that too. The victors did not get to write history after all. There was to be no Independence Day for citizens to celebrate proudly each year the state’s birth in 1922.
When Griffith collapsed and died, his doctor, Oliver St John Gogarty, found him lying on his back at the top of a flight of stairs. A cerebral haemorrhage was certified as the cause of his death. Popular memory has it that he died of a broken heart.
Both Dev and the British Tories looked better if Griffith was depicted as the dupe of UK ministers
The Treaty sealed by Griffith had been approved by most voters as the best possible deal to be had from the British on foot of a stalled War of Independence. But it became an embarrassment when its chief opponent, Éamon de Valera, later took power under it, and when his Fianna Fáil party benefited for most of the 20th century from the state that the Treaty created. Both Dev and the British Tories looked better if Griffith was depicted as the dupe of UK ministers.
Griffith’s widow complained bitterly that others got the benefit of her husband’s life of sacrifice while giving him little credit. She meant not just de Valera but also pro-Treaty ministers who traded away the Boundary Commission – and some of whose social and financial policies would have riled Griffith. Griffith’s legacy is occasionally claimed by Fine Gael, but both Griffith and Collins were dead a decade before that party’s foundation.
The killing of Collins and the sudden death of Griffith in 1922 gave the men’s critics and erstwhile comrades an easy pass to sidestep what the Treaty’s two chief negotiators believed it meant. Ironically, it also removed the two most republican ministers from the pro-Treaty government.
To justify the Civil War and the failure of the Boundary Commission to deliver nationalist-dominated Tyrone and Fermanagh to the Irish Free State (as Griffith and Collins had expected it would do), the dominant narrative became that of Griffith’s alleged incompetence in prejudicing an agreement with the British – and of Collins’s naivety. De Valera, chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1921 until 1975 and long prime minister and later president of Ireland, nurtured that narrative.
Griffith held robust social and economic views. He insisted during Treaty talks that the Irish Free State should only assume partial liability for the public debt of the United Kingdom – “in such proportion as may be fair and equitable, having regard to any just claim on the part of Ireland by way of set-off or counterclaim”. He was adamant that past revenue figures excluded much wealth drained out of Ireland by the British and would have fiercely resisted later British estimates of what Ireland owed.
Fianna Fáil finds it easier to acknowledge Collins as a gunman than to accept Griffith as father of the state
Griffith was no Marxist but championed the poor in the papers he edited, being described as “my friend” by the socialist James Connolly. The failure to honour him notably in the centenary of his death is a sin of omission by parties whose very perpetuation of sterile distinctions between them is a reproach to the memory of the man who “made us all” politically. Fianna Fáil finds it easier to acknowledge Collins as a gunman than to accept Griffith as father of the state.
In September 1922, the Chicago Tribune and English newspapers reported a rumour that Griffith was poisoned, claiming his body was exhumed and people arrested. This was strongly denied. His doctor Oliver Gogarty wrote that “the poison that slew Griffith was envy and jealousy and calumny, which can be deadlier than prussic acid, and, what is more mortal to a martyr, ingratitude”.
Colum Kenny is author of Arthur Griffith: “Father of Us All” (Merrion Press, 2020) and A Bitter Winter: Ireland’s Civil War (Eastwood, 2022).