Book Review: Arthur Griffith

Arthur-Griffith-front-final-copy-300x450By Owen McGee

Published by Merrion Press, 2015.

Reviewer: Gerard Shannon

Though Arthur Griffith has been the subject of recent studies of specific aspects of his life and career, Owen McGee’s Arthur Griffith comes to shelves as the first comprehensive biography in nearly 20 years of this pivotal figure of the revolutionary period. Given this lack of availability of works on the Sinn Féin founder on bookshelves (only Anthony Jordon’s recent comparative study of Griffith with Yeats and Joyce comes to mind), this particular book comes with a great weight of expectation.

Given this lack of availability of works on the Sinn Féin founder on bookshelves, this particular book comes with a great weight of expectation.


McGee sets out his stall early in his introduction, highlighting Griffith as an important biographical subject. Most strikingly noted is the claim that Griffith died a working class figure at the head of government, which ensures his life is “both a fascinating story in it’s own right and perhaps the greatest window available into the dynamics of what has… been termed as an Irish revolution.”

The book’s strongest section is in these first few chapters, as McGee expertly traces the development of Griffith’s political thought as he navigated through the cultural and literary societies of Dublin in the late 19th/early 20th century. In one noted departure from previous biographies of Griffith, (particularly those by Calton Younger and Brian Maye), McGee draws from available sources to de-emphasize the notion of any youthful hero worship on Griffith’s part of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, Charles Stewart Parnell.

The book’s strongest section is in these first few chapters, as McGee expertly traces the development of Griffith’s political thought in the late 19th/early 20th century.

In this period, Griffith comes into contact with many figures who would have a profound impact on him, including John O’Leary, Maud Gonne, John MacBride, and of course, his great friend and collaborator, William Rooney.  The advanced nationalist response to the Boer War of 1899 – 1902 is depicted as having had a radicalizing effect on Griffith, not to mention his deeply convoluted dealings with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and their influence on his career as a journalist. (Given the uncertainty of when Griffith left the IRB, McGee posits the intriguing notion that this could suggest Griffith never left it at all).

What becomes clear however as one progresses through the book is that this is very much intended as a political biography of it’s subject, with details on more personal aspects of Griffith’s life – such as his marriage to Maud Sheehan – often disappointingly confined to the sometimes lengthy footnotes. Some of these are as fascinating and illuminating as anything in the main text, particularly the influence of Griffith’s working class background and relationship with his family members. (Rarely do authors mention how his father ended up in a workhouse and its effect on Griffith).

As the narrative rolls into the 1916 Rising, one also gets the impression one is less reading a biography and more of an alternate thesis on the entire revolutionary period

Some of the more common historical debates around Griffith are also to be found in the footnotes, such as the allegations of Griffith being prone to anti-Semitism in his writings. Perhaps McGee felt the debate on Griffith’s alleged anti-Seminitism – discussed at length in Brian Maye’s 1997 biography – was a bit worn out, but the exclusion of his own thoughts on this contested subject from the main text is disappointing.

As the narrative rolls into the 1916 Rising, one also gets the impression one is less reading a biography and more of an alternate thesis on the entire revolutionary period, with asides on Griffith interspersed in the text from time to time. For instance, from this juncture in the narrative McGee seems increasingly fond of giving blindsides to the reader of the revolutionary period; featuring rather unique perspectives and commentary on familiar personalities and events in this period that will surprise many. One idea that recurs in the text and footnotes is the suggestion Maude Gonne was a British spy.

As the reader moves beyond the 1916 Rising this tendency of the book for McGee to challenge accepted ideas about the revolutionary period becomes more apparent, to the point one can get the sense it’s central subject can become more then a little lost. This is a problem for a biography, as important as it may seem to detail aspects of the Irish economy and Catholic Church in this period.

This approach is seen most clearly in the section dealing with the events of the Irish Civil War, which surprisingly does not venture into overt details on the Treaty negotiations or the subsequent descent into militancy on both sides, or into the heated debate which Griffith played a part in. For instance, McGee dismisses the anti-Treaty republicans as more focused on setting up a trade union for Volunteer members in April 1922, and suggests the term ‘IRA’ was first adopted by Volunteers only then. Certainly a detail most historians of the period would take issue with.

Among the novel ideas are that Maude Gonne was a British spy, teh the term ‘IRA’ was coined in April 1922 and the Civil War was caused by “business and banking leaders’ extant commitment to the Government of Ireland Act”

McGee then strangely sums up the Irish Civil War as “essentially an economic fall-out from business and banking leaders’ extant commitment to the Government of Ireland Act… “ (page 345). This is in keeping with a theme in the book to which the writer frequently returns, that British policy towards Ireland in this period was geared towards keeping a firm economic influence on the island by way of partition.

In this respect the book’s treatment of Eamon de Valera may prove to be particularly controversial, implying de Valera’s opposition to the Treaty was mainly due to this, having foreseen the Treaty split long before the document’s signing.

To McGee’s credit he does frequently back-up this recurring theme with an array of sources and ties it into conclusions he makes on Griffith’s life and legacy, though one cannot help but wonder if the author might have been better writing it into an alternate thesis on the revolutionary period instead of at the expense of increasingly detracting from it’s main subject in the closing chapters.

As a result, understanding Griffith’s role in these tumultuous years becomes a little difficult to understand as the book spins out in other directions, disappointing given the strength of the earlier chapters and how they illuminate Griffith’s early life and political development.

book’s lengthy conclusion, is an at times fiery, and sometimes near-unreadable treatise on Irish historiography on the period

The writer also betrays something of an axe to grind in the book’s lengthy conclusion, which becomes at times fiery, and sometimes near-unreadable treatise on Irish historiography on the period. Certain contemporary historians, often on opposite ends of heated public debates, may find themselves greatly surprised who they are grouped with. One example being in the footnotes McGee suggesting historian John Regan takes his research into the civil war from the lead of Erskine Childers’ propaganda of the period, which even Regan’s fiercest detractors may deem too dismissive and not dealing with the issues Regan raises in his research.

Owen McGee’s Arthur Griffith is a fascinating, if at times greatly frustrating, work.

While on occasion the points McGee makes in this concluding section can be interesting even if the reader does not fully agree, it is finally (if awkwardly) tied into a concluding – though valid – point on how elusive Griffith remains as a historical subject for would-be biographers. On this point, those interested in the period and Arthur Griffith should be thankful Owen McGee’s fascinating, if at times greatly frustrating, work helps to begin to redress this balance.

Given the lack of recent biographical works on Griffith, it will be intriguing to see if Owen McGee’s book begins a trend of other works on the Sinn Fein founder as we head towards the centenary of Griffith’s death in 2022. Many may rightly dispute Owen McGee’s views on the Irish revolutionary period and wider Irish historiography, yet what he reveals of Griffith’s politics and career should prove more than enough to contribute to what could prove to be an increased debate on the life of this divisive figure.

Gerard Shannon is a member of Skerries Historical Society. He has written two previous articles on Arthur Griffith for this website here and here.

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