Arthur Griffith: The Free State's Lost Leader

Eoin Purcell

Arthur Griffith arriving at Earlsfort Terrace. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Arthur Griffith arriving at Earlsfort Terrace. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.


**
Ourselves Alone
Whereas my last post on Irish history discussed the 90th Anniversary of the first Dáil, and the post previous to that talked about WT Cosgrave, this post deals with a man whose life and views impacted both the career of Cosgrave and the very formation of the Dáil; Arthur Griffith.

In many ways Griffith’s ideas about how freedom might be best achieved for Ireland had a subtle and under-appreciated impact on Irish affairs.

His promotion of passive resistance and the non-recognition* of British imperial instruments while not directly responsible for it, was a powerful force in shaping the policies that led to the first Dáil, solidifying the democratic mandate of the independence movement and creating a moral legitimacy that became difficult to overcome and which was important in swaying public opinion both domestically and internationally.

By creating that legitimacy (which worked on both national electorate and international opinion levels) the Dáil was better placed to act as a national government and to negotiate with the British Cabinet when the opportunity arose. It also gave the republican courts their legitimacy and reinforced the sovereignty of the democratically elected chamber over the military men.

That primacy of politics over military prowess was crucial in saving Ireland from the threat of military dictatorship. The Free State government was briefly threatened by the ascent of Collins, whose position in the weeks before he died was at the very least questionable in democratic terms.

But it was also threatened by the militaristic trend in teh anti-treaty forces and again after the cvil war by the Free State Army as it struggled to come to terms with its relegated position within a democratic state.

But the Free State government had the legitimacy of democratic process, established since 1919 and reinforced by three elections since to back up their position. In many ways, that was exactly what kept the country democratic, that and the steadying hand of WT Cosgrave as discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Some have suggested that Griffith’s contribution to Irish history has been ignored and I think this is to a degree true. His views do not chime with the founding myth of the Irish State, nor was his position on the treaty palatable to the Republican ethos of the Fianna Fail government hat came to power in 1932 and so effectively claimed the mantle of the state and shaped the founding myth in its created image.

Griffith warrants much more academic and popular attention and I suspect that he will benefit from it over the next few years as we approach the centenary of many critical events.

Campaigning? Maybe a little!
Eoin

* Which he did through his writings like: The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel For Ireland
** I found this picture on the wonderful UCC Multitext site, a fascinating project worth visiting.

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