Living for Ireland – An Irishman’s Diary on Arthur Griffith and the Cork hunger strike of November 1920

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. “The ending of the Cork hunger strike, and Griffith’s role in the choreography of its conclusion, reminds us that the fight for independence was at least as much about living for Ireland as it was about killing or dying for it.”

Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. “The ending of the Cork hunger strike, and Griffith’s role in the choreography of its conclusion, reminds us that the fight for independence was at least as much about living for Ireland as it was about killing or dying for it.”

 

‘I am of the opinion that our countrymen in Cork Prison have sufficiently proved their devotion and fidelity, and that they should now – as they were prepared to die for Ireland – prepare again to live for her”.

To live for Ireland. With this idea Arthur Griffith signalled the end of the Cork hunger strike in early November 1920. As acting-president of Dáil Éireann from June 1919, Griffith pursued political and constitutional objectives while condoning other actions if necessary. People still hoped for a peaceful settlement before Christmas.

The death of Terence MacSwiney on hunger strike in Brixton is well known. That of Michael Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy in Cork less so. Fitzgerald had been arrested following an attack at Fermoy that killed a British soldier. Murphy, born in the US, was reportedly arrested for possessing a bomb.

The fact that some newspapers gave Murphy’s age as 17 and called him a “boy prisoner” made his death seem more poignant. He was actually in his mid-twenties. The other nine hunger strikers were said to be “in an extremely prostrate condition” by the time that Griffith made his appeal. The ending of their fast, and Griffith’s role in the choreography of its conclusion, reminds us that the fight for independence was at least as much about living for Ireland as it was about killing or dying for it.

Democracy and the work of Dáil Éireann, at least as much as armed ambushes, secured independence. The British knew that the 1918 general election had changed everything

Éamon de Valera had gone to America for 18 months from June 1919, absent for most of the War of Independence. Griffith acted in his place as Dáil president. Dev, based at the luxury Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan for Sinn Féin, sent Griffith a telegram: “Victory – Ireland’s fate – is dependent on you. The world is watching and the world will note”.

Michael Collins and other Dáil ministers worked with Griffith to ensure that any military force was ultimately answerable to the Dáil. The fact that the hunger strike ended promptly when Griffith spoke, and even more so that hostilities ceased quickly in 1921 when a truce was finally agreed, suggests that the Dáil never lost ultimate control of the struggle.

The influential historian David Fitzpatrick pointed out that by autumn 1920, “Although the foreigner still occupied the country, de Valera’s pessimism of April 1919 seemed suddenly out of date.” And in his 2002 study The Irish War of Independence Michael Hopkinson wrote: “Historians have underrated how near a negotiated settlement was in December 1920.”

Lloyd George himself thought that, by the time Griffith was once again interned in late November 1920, “The Irish Republican Organisation. had all the realities of a Government.” But its political achievements and continuing negotiations with Britain are still overshadowed by lurid accounts of violence.

A terrible franchise was born, from which there was no escape. Sinn Féin could not be defeated at the polls

In 1919 and 1920 ministers of Dáil Éireann – including Collins, Brugha and Markievicz – worked to set up a national administration by (among other things) raising finance, attempting to take control of local government, establishing Dáil courts, having Volunteers police the streets, engaging in negotiations with interest groups in Irish society about policy, and maintaining lines of communication with ministers in London. At all times from June 1919 until his internment in late 1920, Griffith was in charge as acting-president.

Democracy and the work of Dáil Éireann, at least as much as armed ambushes, secured independence. The British knew that the 1918 general election had changed everything. Major UK electoral reform had almost tripled the number of Irish people qualified to vote, by including many women and working-class voters for the first time. A terrible franchise was born, from which there was no escape. Sinn Féin could not be defeated at the polls.

In autumn 1920, Griffith briefed foreign journalists on “a kind of organized Press campaign suggesting there are two conflicting sections in Sinn Féin”. He described it as British propaganda. Real politics and necessary armed action were two aspects of the same struggle.

At 2am on November 26th, 1920, crown forces burst into Griffith’s home and hauled him away in a motor lorry. He spent more time in jail than most Irish republicans (17 months between May 1918 and July 1921 alone), and this may have contributed to his early death in 1922.

He was no absolute pacifist. Mortimer O’Connell, who was out in 1916, wrote that: “In the height of the Black and Tan terror in 1919-21, as acting head of the Government of Ireland, Griffith gave unstinted approval to all the measures taken to meet the British onslaught.”

But Griffith, influenced by his old Fenian mentor John O’Leary, did not like what he called “elaborate bravado” that put people at risk when unnecessary. His appeal to the hunger strikers in November 1920 was timely, and it helped to save the lives of brave men whose names may be forgotten now but who survived to live for Ireland.

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