Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein and one of the fathers of the Irish Free State, was born on this day (March 31) in 1872.
Griffith was born of humble means in Dublin. Educated by the Irish Christian Brothers, he was a printer and type-setter before joining the Gaelic League (an organization seeking to restore the Irish language to national prominence) during the 1890s. He was also a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In 1897, Griffith traveled to South Africa, where he lent his support to the Boers on principle, against British expansionism. When he returned to Dublin in 1899, he founded the weekly United Irishmen newspaper, a nationalist newspaper whose contributors include Padraig Pearse, Maude Gonne and Roger Casement.
Rather than support a violent uprising, Griffith used his newspaper as a propaganda tool to gather support for the newly-formed Sinn Fein party. He founded the party on November 28, 1905, on the principle that Ireland could have a self-governing state if the existing Irish MPs withdrew from Westminster and if Ireland could have a balanced national economy by taxing British imports.
The party steadily gained supporters and in 1913 Griffith joined the Irish Volunteers and was involved in the Howth gun-running scheme. By 1916, the popularity of Sinn Fein had increased to the point that even though Griffth took no part in the Easter Rising himself, he was arrested in its aftermath on the assumption by the British authorities that Sinn Fein had sparked the rising.
Ironically, Sinn Fein was not yet that influential and it was only after the Rising that the popularity of the party among Irish voters became apparent. This culminated in Sinn Fein winning massive victories in the 1918 election and Sinn Fein MPs vowing not to take their seats in the British House of Commons but instead they set up a separate Irish government – the Dáil Éireann in Dublin. Griffith himself was elected MP for east Cavan, but had just stepped aside as president of Sinn Fein to allow Eamon de Valera assume that role.
However, during the Irish War of Independence, de Valera left Ireland to raise money in the US, and Griffith assumed the role of acting president of the Dáil, giving regular press interviews and eventually becoming disillusioned with the IRA’s use of violence.
As a result, he was appointed head of the Sinn Fein delegation in the subsequent Anglo-Irish negotiations and was a pro-treaty supporter. After the treaty was signed and ratified in 1922, Griffith officially replaced de Valera by popular vote as president of the Dáil, though he served mostly as a figurehead due to his ideological clashes with Michael Collins, who was the head of the provisional government.
Eight months after ratification, and less than two months after the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, Griffith entered St. Vincent’s Nursing home in Leeson Street, suffering from tonsillitis. Most historians attribute his failing health to overwork and strain after negotiations with the British government and the Irish provisional government. He died less than a week later on August 12, 1922.
Of Griffith, Collins is believed to have said "In Arthur Griffith there is a mighty force in Ireland. He has none of the wildness of some I could name. Instead there is an abundance of wisdom and an awareness of things which are Ireland."