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Spare a thought for Griffith amid centenary of Collins’s death

Working-class Dubliner did not fall in combat but covered for others at crucial times

Arthur Griffith, founder of the original Sinn Féin, is not someone associated with guns. Yet when he died in St Vincent’s hospital in August 1922 from a cerebral hemorrhage, one of the items in his possession was a small revolver. When the sister in charge of the hospital discovered it, she handed it over to a member of the civic guard on duty outside his room. It eventually found its way to the Cavan County Museum in 2015, courtesy of the guard’s granddaughter.

It was a measure of the turmoil in Ireland at that point that even Griffith, hardly one associated with militarism, felt the need to be armed. As suggested by Colum Kenny, who has been doing much to promote the memory of Griffith in recent years, the revolver may have been given to him exactly a century ago in April 1922, in advance of a trip to Sligo to sell the merits of the Anglo-Irish Treaty he had signed.

He was on the receiving end of threats from anti-Treatyites, so much so that he composed a valedictory note: “In case of anything happening to me, all that I possess to go to my wife. Let a sum of £50, however, be provided for my sister. I hope she will be looked after. Let the people stand firm for the Free State. It is their national need and economic salvation.”

That mixture of the personal and the national was very much of 1922 as the stakes were so high in relation to both. The year 1922 proved to be a lottery, not just for individual survival, but in relation to the historical status and reputation of those associated with the great divides of that year.


The great paradox relating to Griffith has been summed up by the historian of Sinn Féin, Michael Laffan: “Among Irish nationalists who fought against British rule he was unusual, if not unique, in one respect – by the time of his death he had achieved most of his objectives”, but he was “almost forgotten by his ungrateful pro-treaty colleagues. He died despondent, believing that many of his achievements were being undone and that his old suspicion of bloodshed had been vindicated at last.” This working-class Dubliner had also, in effect, as poet WB Yeats put it, taken a “vow of poverty” to prioritise his political work.

Griffith became increasingly acerbic and intemperate in the months leading up to his death, incapable of seeing opponents of the Treaty as anything other than dangerous, misguided fanatics. He was undoubtedly mentally and physically exhausted, frequently travelling to London to defend delays in implementing the Treaty and holding a general election to a sceptical British government, as the Irish provisional government sought to buy time and prevent civil war.

Griffith’s death was international news, and a massive crowd attended his funeral, but the memory of him faded quickly. The neglect of his legacy was vigorously challenged by his widow, Maud. By October 1922 the £100 she received from Dáil Éireann funds to meet the expenses of his death was gone and she was forced to beg for a financial settlement which was finalised in February 1923, ensuring she would receive £500 annually, taxed, at a time when the head of government, WT Cosgrave, was earning £2,500 per annum.

Maud was appalled that “no honour or even a thought to a desolate woman has ever occurred to one of my husband’s associates”. In July 1923 she read of plans for a cenotaph to be erected in his and Michael Collins’s honour; she was not consulted about it and “wishes her husband’s name erased from such a shameless show”.

Griffith had, it seemed, fallen between different stools as opinions polarised in 1922. He was associated with parliamentarianism, negotiations, compromise, meetings, and a devotion to detail and economics, much in evidence in his prodigious journalistic output which alone made him an important figure. His belief in the merits of the Treaty became a stick with which to beat him. He did not fall in combat and during his career had made way or covered for others at crucial points, ceding the presidency of Sinn Féin to de Valera after 1916, holding the Dáil fort while de Valera toured America during the War of Independence, and then making way for Collins to be chairman of the provisional government after the signing of the Treaty.

He is likely to be submerged again this year in the adulatory sea surrounding Michael Collins. A recent book published by the Royal Irish Academy, 1922: Independence, Partition, Civil War, includes a short essay by historian Eunan O’Halpin, noting that because of the killing of Collins less than a fortnight after Griffith’s death, Griffith’s demise “has been addressed largely as a prelude to the ‘Big Fellow’s’ dramatic end”.

We ought to strive for a bit more balance in this centenary year.