An eloquent and fitting tribute to Arthur Griffith by his colleague on the Sinn Féin Executive, historian and Irish Language revivalist, P. S. O’Hegarty. From his book written in 1917 and entitled “Sinn Féin – An Illumination”, here follows the foreword and the fifth chapter which situates Griffith as “far and away the most potent political influence” in Ireland at that time.
The complete ebook is available, at no cost, at Project Gutenberg
I was a member of the “National Council” formed in 1902 by Mr. Arthur Griffith on the occasion of the visit of the late Queen Victoria, and of the Executives of “Cumann na nGaedheal,” the “Dungannon Clubs,” and the “Sinn Fein League,” by the fusion of which the old “Sinn Fein” organisation was formed. I was a member of the Sinn Fein Executive until 1911, and from 1903 to the present time I have been closely connected with every Irish movement of what I might call the Language Revival current. This book is therefore, so far as the matters of fact referred to therein are concerned, a book based upon personal knowledge.
My object in writing it has not been to give a history of Sinn Fein, but to give an account of its historical evolution, to place it in relation to the antecedent history of Ireland, above all to show it in its true light as an attempt, inspired by the Language revival, to place Ireland in touch with the historic Irish Nation which went down in the seventeenth century under the Penal Laws and was forced, when it emerged in the nineteenth, to reconstitute itself on the framework which had been provided for the artificial State which had been superimposed on the Irish State with the Penal Laws. The quarrel between Sinn Fein and the Irish Parliamentary Party is really the quarrel between the historic Irish Nation and the artificial English garrison State; the quarrel between de-Anglicisation and Anglicisation.
The scope of the book precluded any detail in regard to the evolution of events since 1916, as it precluded any mention of individuals, save Mr. Arthur Griffith, who is the Hamlet of the piece.
ARTHUR GRIFFITH—THE TRUTH
A small man, very sturdily built, nothing remarkable about his appearance except his eyes, which are impenetrable and steely, taciturn, deliberate, speaking when he does speak with the authority and the finality of genius, totally without rhetoric, under complete self-control, and the coolest and best brain in Ireland.
Griffith is not alone the ablest Irishman now alive, but the ablest Irishman since John Mitchel, and the only political thinker since Mitchel who has displayed the statesman’s mind. He is the master of a style which is more nearly akin to that of Mitchel, and that of Swift, than to any modern style, and is certainly the greatest political writer now concerned with Ireland, and far and away the most potent political influence. Parnell, in his day, said that the Fenians were the backbone of Nationalism in Ireland, and that saying stands as true to-day as it was then. Political parties, and political movements, come and go, but the uncompromising Separatists, the Fenians, are always there, thrusting, it may be, from behind the mask of an open organisation, but always there directing and planning. Griffith can hardly be numbered amongst them. He has never believed in physical force, but has always believed that all Ireland standing together[Pg 29] could force an honourable settlement without physical force. And yet it may be said that no man alive is more responsible for the Fenian spirit in Ireland than Griffith. From 1899 to 1911 the “United Irishman” and its successor, “Sinn Fein,” were the chief inspiration of all extreme propaganda and extreme discussion in Ireland, and although from 1911 until 1914 “Irish Freedom” more properly represented the Fenian element, yet the influence of Griffith has gone heavily in the same direction. It is pretty safe to say that it was the rallying point which the “United Irishman” provided in the early critical days of the movement, its circulation into places where an organiser, even if they had one, could not penetrate, its examination and vindication of the whole case for Ireland, its inculcation of self-reliance and work, and its comprehensive national philosophy generally, that made the later developments of militant nationalism possible.
Arthur Griffith knows Ireland as no other man of his time does, or did, save perhaps his early comrade, William Rooney. There is no epoch of Irish History, no phase of the many-sided Irish problem, that he cannot elucidate. History, biography, economics, politics, literature, in their Irish connexion he has at his fingers’ ends. And outside Ireland he is widely read and far flung. When a comparatively young man he emigrated to the Transvaal, but Ireland drew him and drew him, and he returned to edit the “United Irishman” and to write, when Kruger declared war, that it would take the whole strength of England to win the war—probably the only true prophet amongst the publicists of the time.
[Pg 30]England in Ireland he loves to refer to, following John Mitchel, as “Carthage,” and in all his writing and all his thinking the great battle is the battle between Ireland and Carthage. Every sentence of his is as clean as a sword-cut, and as terrible in its effect as a battle-axe, and his genius for marshalling facts, like artillery, and concentrating them all at once in the direction he is working at is unequalled. His domestic policy for Ireland is the policy of Sinn Fein, and his foreign policy for Ireland is equally logical and equally inevitable. Ireland, he holds, has no business having, at present, any kind of a foreign policy but a defensive one: that is to say that while its domestic policy ought always to be governed by the fact that it is in bondage and fighting for its life, its foreign policy should be governed by precisely the same considerations. In these circumstances abstract right and wrong in continental matters are luxuries he cannot afford to take to his heart. And whenever any event outside Ireland seems worth his comment, he sits down, scalpel in hand, and analyses patiently until he has discovered where England is. And then he has also discovered where Ireland ought to be, and, in so far as he can, he places her there.
He is naturally a believer in evolutionary methods in politics rather than in revolutionary methods, and, in a free Ireland, would I think be found on the side of what the “Times” would call “stability.” He is no great believer in the rights of man, and modern radical catch-cries leave him cold: his creed being rather the rights of nations and the duties of man, the rights of a nation being the right to freedom and[Pg 31] the right to the allegiance and service of all its children, and the duties of man being to fear God and serve his nation. He believes in the State as against the individual, and when in 1913 the great Dublin strike was on foot he opposed it unflinchingly, unheeding the unpopularity of that course, because he believed that the strike was injurious to Ireland. Poverty and sweated labour and social problems generally he would remedy, not by strikes or sabotage, but by State action, and in such action he would have as little leaning towards employers as towards employées, his one guiding principle being the good of the nation.
He believes intensely in himself, and he has no real faith in anybody else, so that he is always more or less cold towards anybody who tries to do any political work on his own, in or about his own particular sphere. And this unfortunate tendency in him has been strengthened by the fact that his immediate friends and co-workers in Dublin are all far below his level in intellect and outlook, follow him blindly, and are equally suspicious of any other attempt to do similar work. He has never had any hero-worship for anybody save William Rooney, and for him he, as well as all Rooney’s co-workers, had the affection and the awe which the Young Irelanders had for Davis. Since the death of Rooney he has been alone intellectually, and while that has doubtless strengthened him, it has also strengthened the difficulty of working with him amicably without being a mere echo. When he got married, everybody gasped, but whatever he may be as a family man, in public life he has continued to be just the same aloof, impenetrable sphinx as before.
[Pg 32]It is a pity that circumstances have put him in the way of making propagandist speeches extensively, for it is not his work. He is an effective speaker. He will stand on a platform and, coolly and without the least trace of passion or emotion, will be more effective in the pungent deadliness of half-a-dozen sentences, without word painting or ornamentation of any kind, than the most flambuoyant orator. But his weapon is the pen, and one article in his best style is worth more than a dozen of his platform speeches. As leader-writer he is unequalled, and as a writer of obituary notices he is unsurpassable.
Once he has made up his mind on anything he never changes. In controversy he is like a bull-dog; he is always the last to let go, and by that time there isn’t much left of the other man’s case. As a controversialist he is able and totally unscrupulous, but he is nearly always right.
Until the recent strenuous period set in, his paper was like a huge magnet which attracted to itself from the length and breadth of Ireland all the poets and budding litterateurs. Its contributors have included W. B. Yeats and Æ and John Eglinton; Seumas O’Sullivan and Padraic Colum; Thomas Boyd and Alice Milligan and Ethna Carbery; finally James Stephens. But in his heart he believes that
“The poets all are foolish
And some of them are wild,”
and eventually there comes an estrangement, if not a quarrel. He has held the minor poets, but the major poets, after doing their best work in his company, have escaped.
[Pg 33]In addition to the poets, the paper attracts to itself first-hand information about all political moves in Ireland and suggested moves. Upon these things his information is usually premature, startling, and eventually extraordinarily accurate. He has his finger on all the strings that control Irish political happenings, and seems to know secret political history almost as well as those who make it.
He always splits his infinitives.
In the years to come, when we his contemporaries and himself are all dead, the historian will attempt to analyse the rapid Anglicisation of Ireland in the nineteenth century, and the desperate struggle at its close to arrest and reverse that Anglicisation. He will give the greater praise to that small company of men and women who formed the Gaelic League in 1893 and by their hard work saved the language and arrested the tide of Anglicisation; but, without detracting from either, he will dwell perhaps most lovingly on the work of Arthur Griffith from 1899 to 1911, upon the brain that took the several strands of the Irish Ireland movement, took every constructive and quickening national idea there was, and wove them all into the most complete and comprehensive national philosophy that has been given to Ireland.