- "As if by magic"?Arthur Griffith's "Surrender" of the Presidency of Sinn Féin to Eamon de Valera in 1917
Implicit in the Irish state's current "Decade of Centenaries" program is the idea that there was a continuum from 1912 to 1922 that carried Ireland toward its destiny. The decade is represented as a gradual series of "steps"—to use a word from the text on the official commemoration website.1 Representing the fractures that actually occurred as "steps" suggests a narrative of national liberation that moves seamlessly to a satisfying climax. Such too is the spirit of the last line of a verse of a patriotic ballad written in about 1940 and subsequently sung frequently for its nationalist fervor even by members of the Irish army on parade: "We're on the one road, swinging along, singin' a soldier's song!"2 Yet the full verse of that ballad, perhaps unwittingly, is less heartening if more accurate:
We're on the one road,Sharing the one load,We're on the road to God knows where:We're on the one road,It may be the wrong road,But we're together now who cares.Northmen, Southmen, comrades all! [End Page 190] Dublin, Belfast, Cork, or Donegal!We're on the one road, swinging along, singin' a soldier's song!3
"On the road to God knows where"—and far from being united as "Northmen, Southmen, comrades all"—from 1912 the Irish experienced a decade of exclusions that ended in civil war and left Ireland divided. Orange was pitted against Green, many "Northmen" against many "Southmen," workers against employers, Anglo-Irish against other Irish, Great War veterans against veterans of the Rising, nationalist against nationalist, Free Staters against Irregulars. The "steps" taken had led to neither a progressive nor a pluralist Ireland. I suggest that the objective of an all-Ireland, inclusive, independent state was in practice symbolically abandoned when Volunteer soldiers who survived 1916 demanded that de Valera replace Griffith as president of Sinn Féin. The image of the island of Ireland in the heads of people at the start of the second decade of the twentieth century had no line across it, no border ("seamless" or otherwise) such as we now take for granted dividing six counties from twenty-six. Ireland was a single administrative entity both before and after the Act of Union.
Before 1916 Arthur Griffith was a fairly well-known Sinn Féin voice crying in the wilderness, his dream of a dual monarchy based loosely on the Hungarian model being more radical than Home Rule. But his Sinn Féin party was attracting relatively few voters. Far fewer had ever heard of Edward de Valera, a teacher who in his mid-twenties adopted an Irish form of his first name, "Eamon." Yet in 1917 Griffith yielded the presidency of Sinn Féin to de Valera. It was just a few years since de Valera had become an activist, first in the Gaelic League and then as a Volunteer who participated in 1916.
To understand Griffith and de Valera in 1917 we need to try to forget most of what constitutes our image of them now. Imagine Ireland before Sinn Féin surged in the polls in 1918, before the Dáil first met, before the War of Independence—before de Valera went to America for much of that war. Forget too the Civil War, Griffith's tragic death, Collins gunned down, Dev's foundation of Fianna Fáil, the so-called "Emergency," Dev's spat with Churchill, his time as taoiseach and then as president of Ireland. Strip all that away, if you [End Page 191] can, and you are left with some very bare biographical facts about the lives of Griffith and Dev by 1917. I have laid these out in a table as an appendix at the end of the text, and they are stark.
Perhaps only an Irish people traumatized by the Great War that affected so many families, by a dogged British betrayal of Home Rule, by the violence and brutal executions of 1916, and by the threatened imposition of conscription in...