Arthur Griffith by Owen McGee review: the prophet of ‘economic nationalism’
A work of superb scholarship illuminates the ideas of a much misunderstood Rising leader
Arthur Griffith (1872 - 1922). Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Owen McGee laments the defining of Irish history by cultural debates on national identity alone, thus ignoring the far more vital economic (and therefore political) dimension. He finds fault with all previous scholars of Arthur Griffith in this regard, and this reviewer (whose study of Griffith was published in 1997) is prepared to concede the point to an extent, while not accepting any charge of underplaying the centrality of “economic nationalism” in Griffith’s thought.
In turn, McGee could be accused of overplaying (to the exclusion of much else) economic factors. Can the partition of Ireland be explained, for instance, solely in terms of British economic manipulation? That reservation aside, this is a superb work of scholarship, in which the quality of the research and the insights into Griffith’s political philosophy deserve huge praise.
Griffith is lucky to have attracted such an analyst, and he deserves no less, as he has been much misunderstood and maligned in Irish historiography.
Griffith’s youthful mind was formed by public debates about “republicanism” versus common-law constitutionalism and the financing of social services (especially education and health) in an increasingly democratic world, all of this set within the context of the concept of the nation state.
McGee contends that Griffith represented a particularly Irish response to these debates of “the long 19th century” (1789-1914), centring on “the respective merits of state-centred or Christian-democratic solutions to the problems that modern political societies face within the context of common-law traditions”.
Griffith’s poor Dublin family background and his formative influences are well presented. Reading the Young Irelanders revealed to him that British state centralisation since the 1820s had caused Irish leaders to abandon a sense of duty to their own people. The motive for his future nationalism would be to reverse this.
As a young man he was “at home within a republican or socialist culture” of working-class protest, and combined this with a desire for personal development. A voracious reader and enthusiastic, if somewhat demotic, writer, he “championed the right of the working classes to receive state grants to enable them to attend university,” something almost unheard of in the UK of his day.
Interestingly, one of the things he hoped Dáil Éireann would do (after its establishment in 1919), once it had the financial resources from taking control of local-government bodies, would be to introduce grants to enable the working classes to attend university (something that did not happen until long after his death).
Parnell’s fall opened Griffith’s working-class world up to co-operation with middle-class nationalists. This occurred especially in the Young Ireland League (YIL), his membership of which strengthened a long-held opposition to church involvement in politics.
According to McGee, the alliance of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) with the Liberal Party from 1886 onwards meant “it was actually defending a party that supported neither the economic interests of Ireland nor the principle of denominational education”.
Griffith argued that all this policy did was give individuals professional opportunities at the expense of the good of Ireland, a viewpoint McGee believes is “essentially true”. Griffith’s YIL supported non-denominational education but got nowhere in the face of church control of the educational system (with British government backing).
Similarly, it championed the Irish language on its own merits, but again got nowhere, unlike the Gaelic League, which accepted Catholic Church involvement.
Griffith’s intense opposition to the IPP “would become a defining feature of his political editorials” when he managed to get the backing to become a full-time journalist. He expressed anger at the party’s indifference to the urban working class, especially in the area of education. The opposition to the visit of Edward VII in 1903, the formation of the National Council and of the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League gave him hope that the established order could be subverted quietly from within.
McGee believes that Griffith’s analysis of how Ireland was overtaxed and how the exchequers of Ireland and Britain were united in the latter’s interest were “entirely logical” but his stance was “deeply unpopular” because “it did not fit with the material interests of Catholic Ireland as they had developed” since the mid-1880s. The IPP hated Griffith and labelled him “a factionist in the pay of the unionists”.
It was interesting that his economic ideas had the passive support of many Dublin business interests, mainly Protestant and Tory. To have put Griffith’s arguments into practice could have resulted in an economic war with England, which Ireland couldn’t win, but he stuck to his guns in promoting his ideas.
McGee traces well how Griffith’s Sinn Féin was reinvented during the first World War due to growing frustration with the IPP. The two real instigators of the 1916 Rising, Tom Clarke and Seán McDermott, “evidently wished that the rebellion would be associated with Sinn Féin” and wanted Griffith to lead a provisional republican government if the rebels managed to establish one.
The first Dáil’s endeavours to form a government within a government was “the very nature of Griffith’s proposed Irish nationalist experiment”. He hoped to introduce reforms in housing, health and social services that would put control of these with the state rather than the church, but this provoked opposition from “Catholic secret societies”. One wonders whether the Irish State that developed would have been quite as confessional as it was had Griffith survived to exert some influence.
McGee’s interpretations of de Valera’s role, and of the rise of Erskine Childers and Griffith’s distrust of him, are revealing. Regarding Griffith being made head of the Dáil delegation to go to London in October 1921, he writes: “the inherent inequality in the negotiations led de Valera to give direct personal advice to Griffith that, unfortunately, he would have to assume the role of scapegoat, to a greater or lesser extent, and this was exactly what Griffith accepted”.
In the Dáil Treaty debates, McGee also writes, “economic questions were deliberately overlooked”. He sees Griffith and Collins and those who sought to uphold the legitimacy of the Dáil and Treaty in 1922 as the real republicans, and those who opposed as anti-democratic “monarchists”. (The descriptions of de Valera as “the leader of the Irish race” reflect monarchical ideas.)
Churchill was happy when civil war broke out in Ireland; the UK would now be relieved of responsibility and could “concentrate on much more important matters, such as the oil situation in the Middle East”. De Valera, too, was happy: “Feeling that he had won his propaganda war, [he] was essentially satisfied.”
Brian Maye is a journalist and historian