Striking contrasts – An Irishman’s Diary on how Arthur Griffith yielded the presidency of Sinn Féin to Éamon de Valera
Arthur Griffith and Eamon de Valera (circa 1920). On October 25th, 1917, Griffith yielded the presidency of Sinn Féin to de Valera without a vote.
It was a turning point for Ireland, one too easily forgotten. On October 25th, 1917, to cries of “No” from the floor, Arthur Griffith yielded the presidency of Sinn Féin to Éamon de Valera without a vote.
“As if by magic” was how a sycophantic biographer of Dev later described it. But Cathal Brugha knew better. He said that Griffith had just one choice, to “walk the plank” or accept change.
De Valera later used an ugly word to explain his ascent in 1917, and used it more than once. He said Griffith had “surrendered at the Convention his chairmanship of the Sinn Féin organisation, surrendered it to me...”
Dev added that, likewise, Brugha “surrendered” to him the top position in the Irish Volunteers.
Griffith was outgunned behind the scenes.
Records of the Bureau of Military History show that the most militant elements of Sinn Féin in 1917, including those “out” in 1916, met privately to determine its convention’s result.
Griffith had more political experience than Dev. But he was not “out” in 1916, perhaps fearing that a rising would be counterproductive or because rebel leaders wished him to live to argue their cause as Ireland’s best-known campaigning journalist (or both).
Either way, the young bloods wanted a more militant man now.
When Thomas Ashe died on hunger-strike in September 1917, Dev became the senior surviving commandant of the Rising
The IRB had partly funded Griffith’s weekly papers before the Rising, although he insisted on a free hand editorially. He could be awkward, a straight talker, whereas Dev in 1917 unified many nationalists by what John Bowman has called nicely “his genius for the bespoke formula”.
In an Ireland inflamed by executions, war and the threat of imposed conscription that would hit farms hard, Dev seemed a saviour.
When Thomas Ashe died on hunger-strike in September 1917, Dev became the senior surviving commandant of the Rising. Curiously, he did not attend Ashe’s set-piece funeral.
The striking contrast between a short, stocky Griffith and tall, thin de Valera was more than physical in 1917. Griffith had been reared in the bosom of his family but left school early and was widely self-educated in economic and international affairs. De Valera’s Irish mother in New York sent him for rearing by relatives on a Limerick farm, yet he went on to Blackrock College and university.
Griffith was known as “the father of Sinn Féin” (its founder), while Dev bore it an unfounded grudge and seems not to have joined that party until made its president in 1917. Griffith long fostered Irish manufacturing and economic development, while Dev displayed little interest in either before 1917.
Griffith liked to swim daily in Dublin. Dev played rugby into his twenties. Griffith met close friends in pubs, where Dev came to cultivate an austere image
While Griffith is sometimes mocked for proposing in 1904 a dual monarchy for Ireland and Britain, a solution arguably more radical than home rule and more practical before 1916 than campaigning for statehood, it is rarely recalled that Dev in 1902 expressed constitutional monarchist and not republican views.
Griffith was involved in the Celtic revival movement from 1893, while Dev showed little interest in the Irish language until he began learning it in 1908. He used the English name “Edward” into his twenties.
Griffith liked to swim daily in Dublin. Dev played rugby into his twenties. Griffith met close friends in pubs, where Dev came to cultivate an austere image.
Griffith, who interested James Joyce, knew his own wife Maud as “Mollie”. Dev called his wife, “Dear little mummie”.
Griffith was sometimes a critical Catholic, sued by a priest for libel. De Valera was close to Blackrock and Maynooth clerics.
He used his victory speech at the Sinn Féin convention in 1917 to assert that his views conformed to Catholicism.
Dev’s taking the presidency of Sinn Féin must have been hard for Griffith.
Yet Griffith expressed admiration for Dev, even as Dev went to America for 18 months of the war of independence and lodged as a lobbyist in the Waldorf Hotel. He left Griffith as vice-president to run Sinn Féin. Griffith spent longer in jail than did de Valera before 1922.
Dev never got a 32-county republic.The pragmatic Griffith could perhaps have persuaded unionists to accept some kind of federal Ireland. Archbishop Walsh’s secretary thought that had Griffith gone to the United States for Sinn Féin he might have persuaded Washington to hasten a satisfactory settlement between London and Dublin.
And had Griffith as president been able to send Dev as a Treaty delegate to London in 1921, de Valera would have had to take ownership of those talks in a way that he catastrophically failed to do.
Griffith was “the father of us all” in the Irish Free State, said Michael Collins, and no single party can claim him as its own. He deserves consideration in this “Decade of Centenaries”.