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Why an Old Dub Fenian thought Arthur Griffith was a hero. MATT TREACY reviews Colum Kenny’s The Enigma of Arthur Griffith 

My grandmother, Esther Hannon, had two heroes other than Mattie my namesake granddad who was from Tipperary and whose own history remains a mystery. We are not closely related to the most famous Treacy who was from the football part of the county. She was
a Dub going back generations, although her own mother, a Mulvany, had been born in Liverpool after the family briefly decamped during the Fenian period. Family legend says it had something to do with James Stephens’ escape from Richmond jail. Who knows.

One of my granny’s heroes was Michael Collins and the other was Arthur Griffith. She knew both of them. She was 12 in 1916 and lived through the Tan times when her father Jim was treasurer of the movement in Dublin, and her brother Dan and her brother-in-law Jack Dunne were “gunmen” as they used to say. Both were involved on Bloody Sunday and both were part of the Dublin Guards in the civil war. Complicated histories.

She was an out-and-out Free Stater who, perhaps unknown to herself, reared several members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA through her retailing of the heroic times in Dublin town.

When she was telling me all those stories of the people she knew, I could never get her admiration of Griffith. The rest of them including Collins and Boland were larger than life characters. They were out getting exciting stuff done. He just seemed like a boring oul fella who did not even support the rising.

Colum Kenny’s brilliant biography of Griffith – The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: ‘Father of Us All’ – joins some of the dots in my mind. He deconstructs the image of Griffith as a staid, even reactionary, figure and places him at the heart of the cultural and political renaissance which did at least eventuate in the departure of  British control from most of Ireland. The next part will be more complex.

There is a curious confluence of the lives of Griffith and James Connolly. Griffith was a working class Dub and a lifelong member of the printers union; Connolly was from Edinburgh poor Irish. Both shared a common background of having more or less self-educated themselves when many working class people slumped into drink-sodden misery.

Kenny’s book shows that far from being enemies that Griffith and Connolly were quite close. They were the main organisers of nationalist protests against royal visits and the Boer War in the early 1900s. Kenny also shows that the simplistic left depiction of Griffith having been on the side of the William Martin Murphys during the 1913 lockout is false. Griffith was not a socialist and history is on his side in that regard, but he was far from being a friend of the bosses. Nor as his close friendship with Michael Noyk the defender of republicans sentenced to death showed, was he an anti-Semite.

What Griffith and Connolly, and dare I say it, my own family shared, was something that was at the heart of the movements of ordinary people for democratic and social change. The determination that we would educate ourselves and no longer go around doffing our hats or mumbling in pubs.

Both Griffith and Connolly represented that pride in different ways perhaps.

The most difficult part of the book for me was Griffith’s attitude to the Tan War, and subsequently to the arrangements that led to the establishment of the Free State. Looking at it from my current perspective, I would say he was right.

Was the Rising the right thing to do? Griffith clearly thought not. Was the resistance to the Tans and the attempt to suppress Dáil Éireann right? He clearly believed so, and it was.

We have complicated histories. I would love to have talked about this book with my granny, an Old Dub Fenian.



Published by Irish Academic Press

The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: ‘Father of Us All’


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