Today in 1872, Arthur Griffith was born in Dublin. He was passionate about Irish history, which drove him to become a member of the Gaelic League where he rubbed shoulders with other Irish activists and cultural leaders. He was a bit of an anomaly. His devotion to the Gaelic League led to Griffith joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood where he was surrounded by many ideological opposites. He was inspired by Charles Parnell and wrote for many radical papers while he was growing up, but he was also ultra-conservative and widely reported to be an anti-Semite. While his IRB friends were planning a complete revolution, he was more in favor of a dual monarchy system, a sort of co-partnership with England. He was against any form of communism or socialism and was largely anti-union, but was in a room talking policies with James Connolly—the driving force behind Irish socialism at the time—on many occasions.
Arthur Griffith was the founder of Sinn Fein, which was what he originally called his written policies. They were not necessarily intended to become the foundations for a political party but that’s what happened anyway. It was an interesting choice for a name, since it means “We Ourselves” or just “Ourselves”. Griffith was anti-British and a believer in the Irish ruling the Irish – but was fascinated by the idea of court life and royalty. His vision was to model Ireland after the English monarchy and cooperate within the United Kingdom. It was not a popular idea in the rebel circles of the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the militant volunteers that Arthur surrounded himself with.
In 1916, the English papers mistakenly called the Easter Rising a Sinn Fein rebellion, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. Sinn Fein had almost nothing to do with the uprising at all and its leader refused to participate in the conflict. Luckily for his party, the media’s mistake only caused the membership numbers of Sinn Fein to explode. However, with the influx of new militant members, the party was somewhat hijacked by the Republican sentiments they adhered to. In fact, in 1917, Sinn Fein almost collapsed altogether due to the conflict between the militant Republicans who had recently joined and those who leaned more toward a dual monarchy system like its founder. Eventually Griffith compromised by voting for a Republic, but he did so with the belief that once the Republic was achieved, they would offer his solution of a partnering kingdom as an alternative that the people could vote on.
After taking over 70 seats in the election of 1918, the Sinn Fein members established the Dail Eireann—an Irish parliament—rather than taking their seats in the British legislature. Their manifesto included a refusal to accept the legitimacy of British law and they set about making their own. In 1918 Arthur Griffith was the vice president of the Dail and Eamon De Valera was elected the president but whenever he traveled or was incarcerated, Griffith acted in his stead.
The Irish War for Independence was hard fought and long. When the possibility of a treaty with England was raised, De Valera appointed Arthur Griffith as head of the delegation that would be sent to hammer out an agreement. Michael Collins was part of that delegation as well. In the end, though the treaty left a lot to be desired for everyone, Arthur Griffith was the first to accept its terms. He supported the treaty and urged others to as well.
When the Dail narrowly ratified the agreement, Eamon De Valera resigned in protest. Again, Arthur Griffith took over the Presidency and remained in that position for the rest of his life. It was a largely symbolic one, since the man who was put in charge of the new provisional government was his travel partner, Michael Collins.
Arthur Griffith’s political days spanned some of Ireland’s most difficult years. He was there leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916 and his party came to fruition during the War for Independence. However, he was also involved in one of the most contested decisions in history and the long negotiations, political fallout, and the resulting outbreak of the Civil War had devastating affects on him. He was utterly exhausted and his health suffered. He checked into a nursing home in 1922 for some recuperation after a bout with tonsillitis but died less than a week later of heart failure. He was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.
His party continued on without him, totally abandoning his ideas of a dual monarchy. Eventually Sinn Fein was labeled the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and it has gone through many changes in recent years. More often than not, it’s Gerry Adams that comes to mind when one thinks of Sinn Fein, rather than Arthur Griffith – but at least the party still thrives and grows to this day. It has become a very different entity than the one its founder had envisioned, but it is still incredibly powerful nonetheless.