Annual General Michael Collins and President Arthur Griffith Ceremony Glasnevin Cemetery August 15 2010
I want to tell you a story today about two men born in the age of Parnell.
Ireland after Parnell, in the dying years of the 1800s, was a grey place of paralysis. Politically stuck and fighting with itself.
The opportunity to right the wrongs of the Act of Union seemed lost.
The promise of Home Rule forlorn.
Yet this was a time of opportunity.
Of potential. Of vision. Of capability. Of hope.
The newly born GAA was gaining momentum, the Abbey Theatre was founded, the co-operative movement was established, the goals of the land league were recognised and the literary revival came alive. By the turn of the 20th century, Ireland was reimaging itself and this gave momentum to the possibility of a new politics.
Arthur Griffith embraced that possibility and founded Sinn Féin when still only in his early thirties. In 1905 his party had just twenty-one branches across Ireland and made little political impact.
But Griffith knew it would be a long road. And at that 1905 meeting in the Rotunda, he spoke these words:
“No law and no series of laws can make a nation out of a people which distrusts itself. If we believe in ourselves — if each individual in our ranks believes in himself, we shall carry this policy to victory against all the forces that may be arrayed against us.
If we realise the duties and responsibilities of a citizen and discharge them, we shall win. It is the duty of a free citizen to live so that his country may be the better for his existence.
We go to build the nation up from within, and we deny the right of any but our own countrymen to shape its course… If we realise this conception of citizenship in Ireland—if we place our duty to our country before our personal interests, and live not each for himself but each for all.”
Griffith believed in himself and he believed in Ireland.
For almost twenty years, those first two decades of the twentieth century, he helped keep alive the spirit of radical politics, of his vision for a New Ireland and did so with energy, persistence and naked ambition.
But first he had change public opinion and challenge attitudes. The fall of Parnell had disillusioned, disappointed, disheartened and divided Irish public life. The possibility of politics was confronted by apathy, lethargy and inertia.
Griffith pointed to the memory of Grattan’s parliament, abolished under the Act of Union. And his principal aim was to win over Irish nationalist opinion to the policy of abstention from Westminster. He had the audacity to aspire for the establishment of an independent Irish parliament in Dublin, not a Home Rule parliament with limited powers.
He did not only live by his words, he translated them into action. And when he got knocked back, he picked himself up again, over and over again. He never gave up.
For Griffith, his newspapers were a vehicle to challenge how people thought, to change the political mindset of country reluctant to entertain new ideas.
At just twenty-seven years of age, he founded the United Irishmen newspaper. When that was suppressed in the early 1900s, he founded the Sinn Féin newspaper in 1906. And when that was banned he established the Scissors and Paste publication in 1914 which was smothered just after ten weeks. And in response, he launched Nationality in 1915 which in time was prohibited in 1919.
But by then he had already planted the seeds and watered and nurtured them over many years. Although the newspaper that his ideas were written on was banned, Griffith’s ideas lived.
The underlying theme in all his publications was his call upon the Irish people to compromise on their own self-interest for the good of the whole society. His central objective was to rejuvenate Ireland by encouraging a new mindset which accepted that old problems needed to be looked at in new ways.
He believed that by insisting upon what he saw as fundamental truths, he could induce Ireland to make an effort to prevent its own extinction. Griffith was an idealist. Something we don’t have very much of any more.
But, the party he founded in 1905 with only twenty-one branches, had by 1917 more than 1,200 branches throughout the country with at least 120,000 members.
At the decisive 1918 General Election, the first election where women were eligible to vote, Griffith’s party elected seventy three members to parliament. Almost half a million Irish men and women voted for Sinn Fein. The first Dáil of 21 January 1919 marked a symbolic implementation of Griffith’s core principle. A large majority of Irish MPs proclaimed themselves as an independent Irish parliament.
Like Griffith, Michael Collins was a young man in a hurry.
Ambitious, Idealistic, Imaginative, Motivated. Passionate.
By January 1921, the War of Independence had raged for two years. In the months and weeks just prior to January 1921, the Lord Mayor of Cork had died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, the entire province of Munster was put under martial law, the centre of Cork City was burnt out by the Black and Tans, “official reprisals” were sanctioned by the British and Bloody Sunday had occurred.
And things were to get worse.
The War of Independence was now at a critical stage. British forces stepped up their campaign with fatal consequences for both sides.
Doubts about persisting with the campaign for freedom began to creep in as causalities mounted on the Irish side. The power of fear grew. Almost two years to the day since the first Dáil met, Michael Collins, the 30 year old commander-in-chief of the provisional government army, made this speech to the Dáil in January 1921, in an attempt to steady nerves.
“But anyone who read Irish History must know its results. The enemy were repeating the very same things they had practiced in Ireland in other days. It was not in the strong places the greatest terrorism was, but in the weak places… but while the men were prepared to bear any physical sacrifice they could not stand up against the defeatism that was being preached by people…
It would be better work on the part of these people to give the Volunteers the necessary moral support than to be finding fault with the men carrying on a fight against odds never before known.”
Collins, like Griffith, was keenly aware that Ireland was ultimately her own worst enemy.
A year later, in 1922, Collins wrote his book A Path to Freedom. And in it, he had this to say about Irish politics in the 1800s which still has echoes of relevance today:
“But the people got into the habit of looking to a foreign authority, and they inevitably came to lose their self-respect, their self-reliance, and their national strength.
The system made them forget to look to themselves, and taught them to turn their backs upon their own country. We became the beggars of the rich neighbours who had robbed us. We lost reverence for our own nation, and we came very near to losing our national identity… We shall no longer have anyone but ourselves to blame if we fail to use the freedom we have won to achieve full freedom.”
In the time of Griffith and Collins, it was Britain that sought to prevent Ireland achieving freedom.
Today it is ourselves.
Instead of wallowing in despair, Griffith and Collins accepted and embraced the opportunity to transform old politics, old parties and old policies, born in the 19th century to that for the 20th century.
They were not perfect. They made mistakes. Sometimes they failed. But they at least tried to confront the difficulties that lay before them. They took risks.
They recognised the possibility to effect profound change and they were not afraid of it.