He was a figure whose platform was perhaps wider than his opinions were popular, and whose stature was eventually enhanced by circumstance. Yet, when Arthur Griffith died, suddenly, on a morning in 1922, he was president of the Dáil, six weeks into the Civil War. It was said at the time that the strain killed him.
Griffith was born in Dublin’s Upper Dominick Street, in 1871, and educated by the Christian Brothers. The son of a printer, the young Griffith served an apprenticeship at the Irish Independent. At the time, he also attended debating societies, where he met poet and journalist William Rooney.
That relationship would prove formative, as Griffith joined the Gaelic League, in which Rooney was a teacher.
Before that, however, in 1896, Griffith left recession-hit Ireland for South Africa, where he worked for gold mines. He also wrote for a British colony newspaper while at the same time advocating, and organising rallies on behalf of, the separatist Boers.
When he returned to Ireland, he and Rooney set up the United Irishman newspaper and the political party Cumann na nGaedheal. The latter was a response to Griffith’s disillusionment with recent Home Rule bills and the tactics of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
The aim of his new organisation was to organise disparate groups in order to counteract the Anglicisation of Ireland. His broader political view also came to the fore as he suggested that Ireland’s future could have a model in the 1860s Austro-Hungarian empire in which Hungarian parliamentarians refused to take their seats in Vienna until their country was given equal status with Austria. Griffith argued that the resultant dual monarchy, in which two separate governments shared a common king, was a model that could be applied to Ireland and Great Britain.
In the meantime, the United Irishman proved a popular tool for communicating the nationalist message even if his proposals did not win universal support. The newspaper, and Griffith, also gained notoriety for Griffith’s apparent anti-Semitism in supporting the boycott of Limerick’s Jewish traders, triggered by a priest’s denunciations from the pulpit. While he claimed that his stance was based on an opposition to usurers, it was clear that the Jewish community was the sole target of the campaign. By 1906, however, a libel case had closed the United Irishman.
In the meantime, Cumann na nGaedheal had evolved into Sinn Féin (with a newspaper of that name arising out of the defunct United Irishman) while Griffith’s politics had developed along lines at odds with many others then finding a voice in Irish life. He had, for instance, opposed James Connolly’s view of a class war, denying that “Capital and Labour are in their nature antagonistic” but arguing instead that they are “essential and complementary to one another”.
Though he was also a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood until 1910, Griffith had a distaste for the use of force. Still, in 1913 he joined the newly-formed Volunteers and was involved in the Howth gun-running of the following year.
While Griffith’s voice was an influential one in the period leading up to the 1916 Rising, he effectively sat that week out at his home in Clontarf, not even having been informed of the plans. Nevertheless, in the aftermath, it was widely referred to as the “Sinn Féin Rebellion” and Griffith was arrested as a result and was in Reading Gaol until the following February.
These years had been favourable for Griffith’s anti-Home Rule stance, with the influence and popularity of the Home Rule party undermined by the postponement of the Home Rule Bill of 1914, the voting by Westminster MPs for conscription in Ireland, and the subsequent glorification of the Rising’s rebels. After the Rising, Sinn Féin gained broader support and became the mass movement it had never been in the early years under Griffith.
By the end of 1917, Griffith had stepped down to allow Eamon de Valera take control. He then spent further time in an English jail – this time at Gloucester, after he was arrested for opposing conscription measures. Even there, he managed to edit a newspaper. In Sinn Féin’s landslide victory at the 1918 election, in which the party took 73 of 105 seats, he was elected for East Cavan.
Abstaining from Westminster, these MPs voted in favour of an Irish government and parliament. It sat in January 1919, and Griffith was appointed minister for home affairs and vice-president of the Dáil.
While de Valera toured the US between 1919 and 1921, Griffith was acting president, yet he also spent further time in jail. However, he remained unhappy with the Irish Republican Army’s armed campaign and welcomed the truce in 1921, after which he was appointed head of the Treaty negotiations. Fully committed to the resulting agreement, he also declared that it was no more final than “we are the final generation on earth”.
The split occurred quickly, with Griffith – who was angered by the opposition to the Treaty - succeeding de Valera as president of the Dáil in January 1922 as civil war became inevitable.
In the tumultuous period that followed, he found himself reluctantly agreeing to the shelling of the Four Courts until, only six weeks into that conflict, he died suddenly.
On August 12th, 1922, The Irish Times reported that he has been suffering from a bout of tonsillitis but would be probably be able to resume his duties within a week. In its next edition, it was reporting on his death.
Stopping to tie a shoelace, he had lost consciousness and fallen to the ground. He came to briefly, then passed out once more and did not awake. It later emerged that he had died of brain haemorrhage, though immediate newspaper reports blamed the stress of the situation.