Constance Markievicz on Arthur Griffith and the Sinn Fein organisation

Here I continue with the series of articles by Constance Markievicz.  Below are a couple of articles she wrote about Griffith and Sinn Fein in August 1923.  They also provide interesting material about her own background and how she became a republican.

 

MR ARTHUR GRIFFITH AND THE SINN FEIN ORGANISATION

by Constance Markievicz

 I

My early days

In Ireland, as I dare say in other countries, people live in air-tight apartments.  They rarely seem to get outside the particular gas they are born in, and those who do so find it very difficult, once they have extricated themselves, to thrive and develop in the new atmosphere.  So it was with me.  Brought up in Ireland in an isolation that it is hard to understand today when bicycles and motor cars annihilate even Irish miles, I met no people with ideas beyond our own happy little circle; no-one was interested in politics or economics.  Sport, art and the doings of friends and relations were the interests of our elders and, consequently, of our generation.  An occasional visit to London – the centre of the Universe! – was the great excitement of our lives.  To drive to Sligo, only ten miles away, was an event.

We lived on a beautiful, enchanted Western coast, where we grew up intimate with the soft mists and the coloured mountains, and where each morning we woke to the sounds of the wild birds, the sad wintry cry of starvation that came like a keen from the throat of the phillabin driven from its haunts by the storm winds or the ascending triumphant song of spring that dropped down from the sky ‘midst the soft patter of April rain, or the wake of the corncrake that told how the summer sun was risen.  You looked out across a field that materialists would describe as a weedbed, but which really was a tossing multitude of big white daisies, swaying and bending, taking colour and a shining joy from the kiss of the sun, and shrinking away into a dim, opalescent mystery under each passing cloud.

Behind the gray barrack-like house, ranges of mountains lay like a great row of sphinxes against the sky and shut us out from Ireland.  Trees and glades sloped down to the bay, across which Knocknareagh rose, crowned by the great queen’s cairn.  The bay slipped into the Atlantic, somewhere behind black cliffs, and the Atlantic was the end of the world.  Brave fishing boats tempted the outskirts.  But there it lay, impassable, unfathomable, incomprehensible, beyond might be Heaven or Tir na nOg, for the farther away your eyes pierced the more it glittered and dazzled and broke up into coloured lights and blue mysteries.

And this was Connaught, the Connaught whither Cromwell banished the tradition of the Gael in all its splendour when he and his horde of barbarians trampled the ancient beauty that is Ireland into the mud with blood-stained feet, and with incendiary torch and dripping blade and with – oh, mockery! – the words of the Prince of Peace on his lips, brought ruin to a world-old civilisation, and misery to a helpless people.  In Connaught, the traditions and soul of Ireland were trampled into the mud by alien feet, and left for dead.  But they only waited the day of resurrection, for they lay deep buried, too, in the hearts of a noble people, as unconquerable as their own Atlantic.

And history had laid her fingers on each mountain wall, and trusted her secrets with each little blade of grass pushing up to life from the blood-drenched soil that was the burying place of generation after generation with their dreams of freedom and peace; their lives of battle and pain.  The mighty tomb of Medb, up among the storm winds of the mountain-top, the great raths and druid stones on the plains called to you in the voice of Ireland’s great ones.  The voices of the sidhe murmured of imperishable glories, white hands beckoned and unearthly music drew you into the secret and holy places haunted by shadows and dreams of the splendour of that Ireland that is unconquered and unconquerable.

Wisdom from the people

And those whose spirit was one with the spirit of Ireland, whose eyes saw with the clear vision of the Gael, dreamt of a task that might some day be theirs, of the labour before them, of the sufferings and pain; and learnt, above all, that a life of giving and of spending for Ireland was the only life worth their while.

No-one was interested in politics in our house.  It was rare that anyone mentioned them.  Everyone accepted the status quo, almost as if it had been the will of God.  It was there, just as the mountains and sea were, and it was absurd to try and alter it, for that led nowhere and only made trouble.  It was unlucky that landlords had been so bad, for if only they had done what they ought, everything would have been all right now.  Anyhow you could not go back, and everything would soon be all right.

Irish history was also taboo, for “what is the good of brooding over past grievances?”  But history was written on every moring, fence and boundary wall.  You saw the landlords in their big demesnes, mostly of Norman or Saxon stock, walled in and aloof, an alien class, sprung from an alien race; then there were the prosperous farmers, mostly Protestants and with Scotch names, settled in snug farmsteads among the rich undu-lating hills and valleys, while hidden away among rocks on the bleak mountainsides, or soaking in the slime and ooze of the boglands or beside the Atlantic shore, where the grass is blasted yellow by the salt west wind, you find the dispossessed people of the old Gaelic race in their miserable cabins.  A beautiful and noble people, warm-hearted and kindly, clinging to each other, united in a great brotherhood of pain, standing together behind the impregnable wall of a past civilisation, spiritually and passively resisting every inroad of the foreigner; instinctively mistrusting what they learnt in the schools; rejecting the false, scorning the material, money-grubbing conquerors with their laws and regulations made to legalise their robberies and aggressions, and to keep in subjection the real owners and masters of the land.

Growing children take their ideas from the people around them, and thus it is hard to understand life from a bigger point of view when your outlook has been limited by a family, a house, a demesne and a glimpse at a parish beyond.

Hence, though Irish in all one’s inmost feelings, one’s superficial outlook was aloof and vague.  One took the conquest as a fait accompli and as irrevocable, and believed that “things weren’t too bad nowadays”.  One knew no history, one realised none of the responsibilities one had inherited.  Thus it was with me, tlll one day I awoke to the fact that there were men and women who had not acquiesced in the conquest, and who had a vision and an outlook higher and nobler than that of the Parliamentary Party who went humbly to Westminster, hat in hand, to swear oaths of allegiance and look for doles and concessions as a reward for Ireland’s loyalty.

My decision; it’s cause

It was two newspapers that opened my eyes, The Peasant and Sinn Fein.  I came across a bundle of these and stumbled first across something about Robert Emmet, whose face was familiar to me as I had often seen it on cottage walls, and whom I had vaguely thought to have been a Fenian.  I read of his speech and death.  I read then of what a few were trying to do actually at the moment, and, like a flash, I made up my mind I must join up.

Chance threw Mr Griffith across my path at AE’s* house one Sunday night.  I told him quite frankly that I only just realised that there were men in Ireland whose principles did not allow them to take an oath of allegiance to the foreign king, whose power they were pledged to break and overthrow.  I have always held national perjury in horror, and looked on it as demoralising to the whole nation.  It is teaching a trusting people that honour is a thing that you may throw aside at will, a wicked and dangerous doctrine for an individual, a hellish one to teach the children of a great race to adopt.

Discouraging experience

Mr Griffith was very discouraging to me and very cautious.  I first thought that her merely considered me a sentimental fool; later on I realised that he had jumped to the conclusion that I was an agent of the enemy.  Many years afterwards, it was after my release from Holloway in 1917, I chaffed him about it.  He did not deny it, but laughed heartily, and said something to the effect that no-one could ever say it again.

This suspicion of Mr Griffith was evidently passed around, and many people believed that I was an “agent provocateur” whose object was to get these peaceful and gentle rebels locked up!

I next met Mr Bulmer Hobson, who was on the Executive of the Sinn Fein at the time, and might be described as the “leader of the opposition”.  He professed to believe in me at once, and launched me into the organisation.  It was he who introduced me to Miss Molony and through her I joined the Inghinidhe na hEireann, the women’s rebel society.  He also arranged for me to become a member of the Drumcondra branch of Sinn Fein.

It is hard today to understand what was at the root of the bitter antag-onism between Mr Griffith and Mr Hobson.  For a long time I believed that it was a difference only on policy that might be smoothed over.  I gradually came to believe it was their personalities that clashed.  This even was hard to understand, for Mr Hobson seemed so much younger, almost belonging to another generation, that it seemed strange for him to be so bitterly up against an older man so infinitely more gifted than himself, and doing such splendid work for the cause that he professed to hold dear.  Later years have shown that there was little difference in their outlook.

Mr Hobson at that time was a desperate extremist and fire-eater.  It would be hard to say if he were ever sincere, or if he merely talked big to attract the young people and so get a following, for he retired into his shell as soon as it was dangerous to talk.  But I shall always believe that at one time he was inspired and influenced by Tom Clarke and Sean McDiarmada.  Truth was not in him, and he soon intrigued against them in the same manner as he had intrigued against Mr Griffith.  His first open betrayal was when, having pledged himself to oppose the acceptance of Mr Redmond’s nominees on the Volunteers Executive, he used his influence at the last moment and got them accepted.  He used his position in the IRB to do this, as he did later in conjunction with Mr MacNeill and Mr Griffith and others when they tried to stop the rising of Easter Week by calling off the mobilisation for Easter Sunday.

When I first knew him he was associated with Dr MacCartan and Mr Sean McGarry.  These three were constantly together, and always to be found at certain times at Tom Clarke’s shop.  They now took me under their wing and educated me, giving me books on Ireland to read, and explaining to me all the intricacies of such simple things as organisations and committees.  Hobson next arranged for me to be chosen as delegate to the annual convention of Sinn Fein for the Drumcondra branch, and there elected as a member of the Executive, much to the annoyance of Mr Griffith.  The Executive was another great disillusion to me.  Here were a crowd talking high ideals and love of Ireland, and stultifying the useful work they might have been doing by splitting into two camps behind the two jarring leaders.

I never took personal sides in these quarrells, though I usually supported the suggestions put forward by Mr Hobson, which were much more revolutionary than those advocated by Mr Griffith.  But the whole position was most unsatisfactory, as the two men became more and more bitterly opposed, and more concerned in blocking each other’s schemes than in getting work done for Ireland.

Little by little, I found out that Hobson’s value of me was merely in so far as I would support him, and back him up against Mr Griffith.  I had thought that he believed that I could be of some use to Ireland and looked on me as a comrade, but he only appreciated me in so far as I accepted him, his policies and his rulings without criticism, and from the moment that he found I had a conscience, and that it was, and would remain, in my own keeping, he intrigued against me, in much the same way as he intrigued against Mr Griffith.

 

* George Russell

 

  II

 Working on the executive I learned to admire and to respect Mr Griffith in many ways.  His writings were so fine, his hatred of England so intense, so much stronger than my own, and he held so doggedly to his own ideas that he appeared invincible.  But we never became close friends for I never thoroughly trusted or understood him, and often disliked his methods.  He probably realised this, and kept me at arm’s length, for people know instinctively what one is thinking of them, especially if one is trying to understand them.

He was a man with a very reserved and stand-off manner, and gave the impression of being both shy and sensitive, though I have seen him unbend and become quite genial.  He had no tact, and often increased the bad feeling on the executive, quite unnecessarily, by his manner and his reserve, keeping a dignified silence when a few outspoken words from the chairman might have brought agreement.

He did not seem to like working with anyone who either criticised him or asked questions, and seemed to expect a slavish obedience from his fellow workers.  Power was what he appeared to revel in, but he never sought for money or luxuries.  With his wonderful mastery of the English language he might have achieved a great position in English journalism, but he chose to work in poverty for Ireland.  His personality was a tower of silent strength.

The difficulty I always found working with him was that he came to the meeting with is mind made up, and was only concerned in forcing his own point of view on his colleagues and carrying his point.  I have often wondered if he had a circle of cronies in the background with whom he discussed and decided the business of the executive in advance and merely looked on us as a dummy committee to get the things decided on done.  All this was very unsatisfactory, and many dropped away, but just when we would be most despondent he would electrify us into accepting him by some wonderful piece of writing.

His policy was a splendid one, if limited, and somehow he himself seemed to limit it further by concentrating too much on the negative policy of abuse.

Mr Griffith most certainly was a sincere patriot in those days, most cer-tainly he had thrown in his lot with those who were willing to sacrifice much for Ireland.  Also, he had studied much.  But he had never approached the subject from a Gaelic point of view.

It was generally said that it was his grandfather that had come over from Wales.  I cannot vouch for this, and it certainly did not matter except that it is curious when we consider his attitude to Erskine Childers, who had quite as much claim as he had to be considered Irish, but nobody minded in those days, as everyone realised that Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and many another Gael, whose lives had been given for Ireland, were of foreign origin.

But while Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet and Erskine Childers saw Ire-land with the clear vision of Gaels as “not free merely, but Gaelic as well”, Mr Griffith saw Ireland merely free politically, possibly Gaelic speaking, but there his idea of the rights of Ireland to build up her own civilisation on Gaelic roots ceased.

He never seems to have understood that Ireland could never rest content with a British constitution, a British social and economic system, that the real struggle in Ireland was that of a dispossessed people, dispossessed not only of the land, but also of the right to their ideals and to formulate their own systems of life and government.

Hence you find that he receives a good deal of sympathy at the beginning of his movement from the landlord class.  He lost this sympathy owing to a very unnecessary article criticising King Edward VII on his death.

After that his following was drawn chiefly from the class of small capitalists who saw in Grattan’s Parliament the summit of their ambitions, and looked to Mr Griffith to procure some sort of Home Rule quicker than the Parliamentary Party, and believed that his Home Rule would give them the power to become rich in the same way that the British middle classes had become rich and powerful.

His paper advocated the development of the natural resources of Ireland, the encouragement of home industries and home manufacture for the benfit of owners and employers – he rarely alluded to the people, they never seemed to be a matter of vital importance to him.

The Parliamentary Party had definitely taken up the cause of the tenants and could show the Land Purchase Bill, Sir Horace Plunkett could point to the Co-operative Societies, which many of the landlords had actively helped to establish.   Mr Griffith had no sympathy with these activities and attacked their promoters equally bitterly.

The majority of the people were suspicious of him, especially after his paper advocated foreign capitalists to start factories in Ireland because labour was so cheap here.  Instinctively this idea was disliked by all who had a Gaelic outlook and , of course, it was anathema to labour.  We did not want a black country, with all its slums, misery and crime to be built up among the “fair hills of Holy Ireland”.

Of course, if emigration was to be checked we must provide employment and a means of living for the ever-increasing population.  But anyone thinking out the problem on economic lines, and loving the people, would have come to the conclusion that Sir Horace Plunkett had pointed the way along which Ireland must go if we desired to work out her salvation on Gaelic lines and to avoid becoming a miniature Britain.

At home we had been interested in Sir Horace Plunkett’s movement and my brother had taken an active part in the establishment of creameries, but certainly I did not then recognise the full significance and importance of the movement, but I suppose it appealed to all that was Gaelic in one’s subconscious self.

Sir Horace always declared that the movement was non-political and he and all concerned believed it to be so, and no-one suspected when it was first started that it was perhaps the greatest political movement of the time, and that he had struck a vital note that would help bring the country back to the ideals of a Gaelic state.

The longer I worked with Mr Griffith the more I realised how funda-mentally different was our outlook.  I had received my first inspiration from my own desolate home country and from the dispossessed people that I had grown up amongst, and had no knowledge of and little sympathy with the struggles of the middle classes and town dwellers, except in so far as many of these had been hunted from their country home.

It was the struggle for the land that had first interested me, while the heroic spirits that generation after generation went out to carry on the fight and fought and died with arms in their hands, took my heart and imagination by storm.  As I read and studied I was first indifferent and then scornful of the bewigged gentlemen in knee breeches who held mimic oratorical battles in a slave Parliament, who passed the (Act of) Union after they had betrayed the Volunteers, and of Grattan, who had denounced them as an “armed rabble” much in the same way that Mr O’Higgins denounces the IRA today.

The writings of Tone, of Mitchel and of Lalor were the gospels from whence I learnt first the national faith, and it was they who made me realise at the beginning of my work that the only freedom worth having was the freedom to root out the foreign civilisation with all its cruel and materialistic ideals, and to build up a noble civilisation on Gaelic lines.

Griffith’s ideal for Ireland was Grattan’s Parliament and the constitution of ’82, and his policy was a sort of passive resistance and passive forward policy, to ignore English institutions and government departments and to build up an Irish Government underneath the British one.  His policy did not include the use of physical force, when he formulated it he professed to believe that any resort to arms was impractical and quite useless, and that freedom could never be gained that way.  he was, in fact, a Home Ruler, with a definite ideal of the Parliament he wished to establish, and a new scheme to procure it.

The first change in the Sinn Fein Constitution was made at the “Dun-gannon Convention”, which had already taken place before I joined the organisation.  At the convention an amalgamation was effected between the open extremist organisations and Sinn Fein.  To make Sinn Fein acceptable to the extremists Mr Griffith and his party agreed to remove the limit to freedom that was contained in the Sinn Fein Constitution.  The wording of the constitution was so altered as to make the ’82 status but the first stepping-stone to be aimed at on the road to freedom, instead of the final goal.

At this time, and when I first knew him, Mr Griffith was magnificent; standing to his ideals with a grim pertinacity against the extremists equally with the Parliamentarians and the Unionists, although he always was ready to work with either party or any individual with whom he had not quarrelled, for just so far and as long as their ideas coincided with his, and that he believed it would help Ireland.  This he did quite openly and honourably.  But though this was so, the amalgamation was a great mistake, for each side at once entered into a struggle to dominate the movement and to pull it further their way, and nothing came of it but friction and inactivity.

Wolfe Tone’s criticism and denunciation of Grattan’s Parliament, and his death in fighting to do way with it and to obtain freedom, should have been enough to deter any capable and thinking young Irishman from even contemplating its re-establishment as a step to freedom, and should have deterred them from associating with Mr Griffith and any party that made it their ideal of freedom.

But though Wolfe Tone was the hero of the extremists, his writings were little read, and very hard to get, and the histories that were procurable lauded Grattan’s Parliament, and the politicians praised it.  It certainly gained one great advantage for Ireland: England was forced by it, when it was backed by the Volunteers, to relinquish the power she held of forcing laws upon Ireland for the purpose of ruining and breaking up Irish industries and trade in the same simple and open manner as heretofore.

But Grattan’s Parliament was an “upper class” Parliament.  It used the Volunteers to obtain freedom for the middle classes to develop along English lines, but it was bitterly opposed to the emancipation of Catholics or of the workers.  Only the richer Protestants had votes and the anti-combination laws were vigorously and cruelly enforced to stamp out trade unionism.  It was reactionary and imperialistic.  Having obtained “freedom” for the middle classes to develop trade, it disbanded the Volunteers sooner than stand with them and strive for the freedom of Catholics and workers.

It was a class Parliament and it stood for the interests of the few, the English settlers and those who were in possession of the stolen wealth of Ireland and their following of place-hunters and climbers, of toadies and traitors.  Its action made the rising of ’98 inevitable.  It left Ireland without an army, at the mercy of England, because it feared the people and their demands more than it did the real enemy – the English.  It joined with England to suppress the rising of ’98, and in the end betrayed Ireland by accepting the Union as likely to be more profitable to themselves individually than freedom.

Mr Griffith, like Grattan, was the apostle of the middle classes.  He resented the fact that they had been deprived of the possibilities of developing along English lines, so he took up the cudgels for the deposed capitalists, the place hunters and climbers even as Grattan had done.

He was instinctively antagonistic to labour, and probably would never have agreed with James Connolly when he said, “the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour, the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland”.  It is likely that he took the usual histories of Ireland and their explanation of the history of our country as truth without questioning; that he never looked on them as biased by English ideals, and as written entirely from the point of view of the dominant classes who depended on the English for their power, who were educated in English schools, who resented England’s bad laws more than they did the conquest, and who, quite naturally, wrote their histories as propaganda, for their point of view was the point of view of only those who were the descendants of the conquering class and race, and with them, those renegade Irishmen who had accepted the English as their conquerors and swallowed their ideals.

The great thinker who put into words the vague instinct that had guided so many of us aright was little known at this time.  James Connolly came from a stock that was both Fenian and Socialistic, and approached the question of Ireland’s misery and subjection from a broader standpoint than any man previously in his generation.

He brought the principle of close analysis to bear on Ireland’s history, and worked out scientifically the real meaning of the long and determined struggle against England.

He demonstrated clearly that it was the faith in a Gaelic ideal that was the real motive power through the whole struggle against the English invader,* and showed how futile a political “freedom” would be if it were bound by British ideals riveted on us in a British-made constitution, under which Ireland would not be free to develop along Gaelic lines.

Griffith probably never understood this, though it is possible that he did so, for he was a great reader.  If he understood, he deliberately put from himself the only ideal of freedom that is worth dying for, and certainly it now seems as if all that he wanted for Ireland was that she should develop along British lines.

The Gaelic instinct that has prompted so many unthinking patriots must have been absent in him.  Thus he clung to an un-Irish ideal of freedom, a resurrection of the “glorious” Parliament of ’82, and later, when he accepted the Republic and Tone’s ideals and methods, he did so against his own instincts, unwillingly and with a subconscious determination in his mind to get back at the first opportunity to Grattan and the British Empire.

 

These two articles first appeared in Eire, August 18 and 25, 1923

 

* This is rather a simplification of Connolly’s view.  As a scientific socialist, Connolly believed that the struggle between classes for ownership and control of the means of sustaining life was the motor force of history.  In Ireland the old Gaelic civilisation, with its communal ownership of land and substantially egalitarian society, was still alive in the people’s minds and definitely a major factor in their constant resistance and reassertion of their right to freedom.  But it was, at root, the social and economic base which gave rise to the ideal.  While Markievicz’s analysis of Grattan’s Parliament and of the class forces behind the 1921 Treaty, and various other of her writings, show she accepted this scientific approach, she quite frequently used terms such as “Gaelic ideals” as almost a synonym for the actual class forces and relationships which gave rise to the ideals.

 

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Posted on August 24, 2011, in Constance Markievicz, Historiography and historical texts, Republicanism post-1900, The road to the Easter Rising, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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