Commemoration of the Foundation by Arthur Griffith of Sinn Fein (by Dan Neville TD)

On Sunday 27th November, Fine Gael, in the Mansion House, Dublin, commemorated the foundation by Arthur Griffith of Sinn Fein.

On 28th November 1905, at the first annual convention of the National Council, Arthur Griffith launched the Sinn Fein programme. The National Council was formed by Griffith in 1903 and was a loose association of individuals who were opposed to presentation of addresses of welcome on the occasion of the royal visit. In his first paper, the United Irishman which he first published in 1899 he suggested that Irish-Ireland and separatist societies scattered all over the country each in its own way ‘working to uplift the mind and heart and soul of the country’ become loosely federated while still retaining their own individuality. This suggestion led to the establishment of Cumann na nGael in 1900 with the old Fenian John O’Leary as its President, in order to give political expression to the Gaelic and nationalist revival of the last years of the nineteenth century. Both the National Council and Cumann na nGael were in existence when Griffith argued that Hungry had won her independence from Austria by refusing to recognise the illegal abolition of the Hungarian constitution of 1848: by pursuing a policy of passive resistance to the abstention from the Imperial Diet at Vienna. He argued that Ireland should follow the Hungarian example and withdraw her MPs from Westminster and set up a Council of 300 comprising of MPs and members of Local Authorities.

Griffith outlined Sinn Fein policy as

1. Deny the legality of the Act of Union and refuse to send representatives to the English Parliament, thereby cutting the ground at once from under the Union.

2. Establish Irish as the national language of Ireland: teaching through Irish only in Irish-speaking districts, and bilingually in the non-Irish-speaking districts.

3. Remodel the Irish educational chaos, and frame a system based upon Irish culture, and as national as the educational systems of other countries are.

4. Establish an Irish mercantile marine.

5. Establish Irish courts of arbitration, to supersede the Law Courts.

6. Improve transit facilities, cut down internal rates, and overhaul and extend the canal system.

7. Establish in foreign countries Irish representatives specially trained who would act in the same capacity as consuls.

8. Direct the strength of the Irish people generally as that of one man in any given situation.

9. Build up Ireland’s manufacturing arm by protection-voluntary or legal-developing also Ireland’s mineral resources, especially her coal and iron.

The Sinn Fein movement, as such, did not contemplate an appeal to arms, believing that its policy, with the majority of the people of Ireland behind it, would be irresistible on a passive resistance basis.

A few months after Griffith’s launch of Sinn Fein on 28th November 1905 the Dungannan Clubs and Cumann na nGael amalgamated as the Sinn Fein League. It was not until September 1908 that the National Council united with the Sinn Fein league to become simply Sinn Fein.

A friend Mary Butler gave meaning the name Sinn Fein meaning ourselves, to Griffith; the ideas were borrowed from many sources. Conor Cruise O’Brien identifies “Federick List, the German economist, was one of them, the study of Hungry another. Swift, Flood, Mitchell, Davis, Kane, Hyde and Mc Neill are all in evidence. Griffith thought a great deal but his thought was bounded by the hedgerow of his principal obsession – hatred of English foreign politics.”

Arthur Griffith was born on 31st March 1871 in Dublin. His father was a printer. Young Griffith’s formal education ended at fifteen years of age in order to become and apprentice printer. He continued his education through reading and membership of numerous literary societies, which were mushrooming in Dublin at the end of the nineteenth century

Griffith, although he is popularly depicted as a pacifist, joined the Irish Volunteers and helped to distribute guns at the Howth gunrunning in July 1914

P.S. O’Hegerty who had his differences with him described him described him in 1917 as “a small man, very sturdily built, nothing remarkable about his appearance except his eyes, which are impenetrable and steely, taciturn, deliberate, speaking when he does with the authority and finality of a genius, totally without rhetoric, under complete self-control, and the coolest and best brain in Ireland. Griffith is not alone the ablest Irishman now alive, but the ablest Irishman since John Mitchell, and the only political thinker since Mitchell that who has displayed a statesman’s mind. (He) is certainly the greatest political writer concerned with Ireland, and far away the most potent political influence. He has always believed that Ireland standing together could force a honourable settlement without physical force. And yet it may be said that no man alive is more responsible for the Fenian spirit in Ireland than Griffith”. Padraig Pearse wrote of him “You were too hard, too obstinate, too narrow-minded and too headstrong” But having said this Pearse redeemed it by adding: “You have virtues no other Irishman possesses”.

Arthur Griffith was not informed of the Easter Rising 1916. Griffith tried to join the insurgents, but his friend Sean Mac Diarmuida prevailed on him not to do so. Mac Diarmuida’s argument stressed the importance of continuity in the political leader-ship, which Griffith guaranteed by standing outside. “They wanted his pen and his brain to survive the fight for their memory”. Griffith was arrested immediately after the rising. He described his feelings in prison when he heard of the executions of the leaders after 1916: “Something of the primitive man woke in me. I clinched by fists with rage and longed for vengeance. I had not believed they would be stupid enough to do it.”

In 1917 the Sinn Fein Convention was a very crowded gathering in contrast to the Council of 1905. There was a different atmosphere. Griffith stood down as President in favour of Eamonn de Valera and Griffith was elected vice-president. The constitution was changed to make it a republican body.

The election of December 1918 saw the end of the old Nationalist Party. Sinn Fein was exulted and victorious. Griffith, still imprisoned in Gloucester jail was unable to attend the historic opening of the First Dail Eireann on January 21st 1919. He was released in March 1919 and as Minister for Home Affairs and from June 1919 until December 1920 as acting head of government during de Valera’s absence in America, Griffith was able to put into practice the theories of alternative Government propounded by him fifteen years earlier.

Griffith was asked by de Valera to head the delegation to London to make a treaty with England. He led the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty at 2.20 am on December 6th 1921. At the end of the negotiations, one of the British delegates commented, “A braver man that Arthur Griffith, I never met”.

The anti-treaty supporters were defeated in the Dail and Griffith was elected to the presidency on the 9th January 1922. When a General Election was held in June Griffith and Collins gained a substantial majority in the country. Before the election, worn out with the cares and burdens of state and the deep effect the civil war had on him, he told his wife that he would retire in August. His death on August 12th 1922 was a final retirement of a man who literally gave his life for Ireland. In his uniform of Commander-in-chief, Michael Collins led Griffith’s sad procession through crowded, silent streets to Glasnevin. Arthur Griffith was buried as head of State, but as the new Dail had not been able to meet and the constitution had not been passed, the Free State was not yet in being. Arthur Griffith on his death was still President of the Republic of Ireland.

To die daily, even hourly, for your country; to dwell in the slums when you might lived in the light laughing places of the world; to go clad as the very poor are clad when purple and fine linen might have been yours; to eat dried bread, and not much of that, when you might have feasted full; to act thus not for one year nor for ten; but more than a generation – that is a heroism of which few but God’s Great are capable, and that was the heroism of Arthur Griffith

Sean-Ghall on Arthur Griffith


• Arthur Griffith, Brian Maye, 1977

• The Shaping of Modern Ireland, Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1960

• The Making of 1916, ed. Kenivn B. Nolan

• Making of Century Ireland, A.M. Kehoe, 1989

• Arthur Griffith Carlton Younger 1881

• Sinn Fein and Illumination P.S. O’Hegarty, 919