Connecting a trio of Irish titans
Tracing the links between Arthur Griffith, James Joyce and WB Yeats
Arthur Griffith with James Joyce & WB Yeats: Liberating Ireland
Anthony J Jordan
Anthony Jordan argues that Arthur Griffith, James Joyce and WB Yeats were Dubliners who, despite different backgrounds, shared characteristics: they were formidable, committed to an ideal and knew poverty. Each sought to liberate Ireland, Griffith politically, economically and culturally, Joyce and Yeats artistically, spiritually and culturally.
Jordan has written extensively on the John MacBride-Maud Gonne-WB Yeats triangle. Gonne was the initial link between Griffith and Yeats and both were devoted to her. Griffith introduced Gonne to MacBride, to whom she was subsequently – and unhappily – married.
Jordan makes valuable use of the Gonne-Yeats letters in exploring the Griffith-Yeats interaction. That has been extensively written about before (including in the present reviewer’s 1997 thematic biography of Griffith) and Jordan has no new insights. To his credit, he pays extensive attention to the good relations between the two men from the late 1890s to 1904, which some literary historians ignore.
Griffith greatly admired Yeats’s poetry, defended his Countess Cathleen against attacks on it by the church and others, and was deeply moved by Cathleen Ni Houlihan. But the two came to disagree over the role of drama in the national struggle. Yeats’s basic viewpoint can be summed up as “art for art’s sake” while Griffith wanted drama to serve the national cause.
From 1904/05 onwards, there was little direct contact between them, although Griffith often lamented Yeats’s loss to the independence struggle. He nominated Yeats to the senate of the new Free State in 1922. Jordan’s verdict on Yeats is that, “unlike Griffith, he always acted with an eye to his own self-promotion”.
The examination of the Griffith-Joyce nexus is more interesting. Griffith was the first to introduce Joyce, then a university student, to the Irish public. Joyce had written a piece entitled “The Day of the Rabblement” (attacking Yeats’s Literary Theatre) for the Catholic University’s magazine St Stephen’s but the university authorities refused to publish it. Joyce had it printed privately and sent it to various outlets, including Griffith’s United Irishman.
Griffith criticised the university authorities for trying to gag it. “Joyce recognised Griffith as a major figure in the Irish revival and on a parallel path of national liberation with himself, which was some praise from the prickly genius,” writes Jordan.
When Griffith printed lists of suitable books for use in Irish rural libraries in the United Irishman in 1903, Joyce copied most of the lists into his notebook. His brother Stanislaus recorded that Joyce read the paper every week. He also read its successor, Sinn Féin, so that Griffith’s papers were his main sources of information on Ireland while in exile. He welcomed the foundation of the Free State, happy that “at the very time he was giving his country a new conscience by completing Ulysses, his old associate Arthur Griffith was taking office as its first President”. In Ulysses, he underlined the political importance of Griffith by referring to him many times.
It is a pity the Griffith-Joyce relationship was not explored more fully as what is there whets the appetite for more. It was also a pity that the book did not receive the services of an editor/proof reader because the extensive research deserved better.
Brian Maye is a journalist and historian.