CHAPTER XXI. SINN FEIN - ITS ORIGINAL MEANING AND PURPOSE

Sinn Fein had a comparatively small and unimportant beginning. It was not heralded into existence by any great flourish of trumpets nor for many years had it any considerable following among the masses of the Nationalists. It is more than doubtful, if there had been normal political progress in Ireland, whether Sinn Fein would ever have made itself into a great movement. It was, in the first instance, the disappointments and humiliations which the debilitated Irish Party had brought to the national movement and the utter disrepute into which Parliamentarianism had fallen as a consequence that moved the thoughts of Ireland's young manhood to some nobler and better way of serving the Motherland. But it was the rebellion of Easter Week which crystallised and fused all these various thoughts and ideals into one direct channel of action and made Sinn Fein the mightiest national force that has perhaps arisen in Ireland since first the English set foot upon our shores for purposes of conquest.

Sinn Fein, as a political organisation, did not exist until 1905, but the originator of it, Mr Arthur Griffith, had established in Dublin, in 1899, a weekly paper called The United Irishman. This was the title of the paper which John Mitchell had founded to advocate the policy of the Young Irelanders and was, therefore, supposed to favour to some extent a movement along those lines. Its appeal was mainly to the young and intellectual and to those extremists who were out of harmony with the moderate demands of the Parliamentary Party. Its first editorial gave an index to its teachings and aims. "There exists," it declared, "has existed for centuries and will continue to exist in Ireland a conviction hostile to the subjection or dependence of the fortunes of this country to the necessities of any other; we intend to voice that conviction. We bear no ill-will to any section of the Irish political body, whether its flag be green or orange, which holds that tortuous paths are the safest for Irishmen to tread; but knowing we are governed by a nation which religiously adheres to 'the good old rule, the simple plan, that those may take who have the power and those may keep who can,' we, with all respect for our friends who love the devious ways, are convinced that an occasional exhibition of the naked truth will not shock the modesty of Irishmen and that a return to the straight road will not lead us to political destruction.... In these later days we have been diligently taught that, by the law of God, of Nature and of Nations, we are rightfully entitled to the establishment in Dublin of a legislative assembly, with an expunging angel watching over its actions from the Viceregal Lodge. We do not deprecate the institution of any such body, but we do assert that the whole duty of an Irishman is not comprised in utilising all the forces of his nature to procure its inception." It continued: "With the present-day movements outside politics we are in more or less sympathy," and it particularly specified the Financial Reformers and the Gaelic League, adding, however: "We would regret any insistence on a knowledge of Gaelic as a test of patriotism." Finally it said: "Lest there might be any doubt in any mind, we will say that we accept the Nationalism of '98, '48 and '67 as the true Nationalism, and Grattan's cry 'Live Ireland. Perish the Empire' as the watchword of patriotism." Thus its creed was the absolute independence of Ireland, and though it did not advocate the methods of armed revolution, it opened its columns to those Nationalists who did. It preached particularly the doctrine of self-reliance and independence. It attached more importance to moral qualities than to mere political action. It was free in its criticism of persons or parties who it considered were setting up false standards for the guidance of the people. It derided the policy of the Irish Party as "half-bluster and half-whine," and when Mr Redmond spoke rhetorically of "wringing from whatever Government may be in power the full measure of a nation's rights," it bluntly told him he was talking "arrant humbug." It made the development of Irish industries one of the foremost objects of its advocacy. It courageously attacked the Catholic clergy for the faults it saw, or thought it saw, in them. They were told they took no effective steps to arrest emigration - that they next to the British Government were responsible for the depopulation of the country; that they failed to encourage Irish trade and manufactures and that they "made life dull and unendurable for the people." And so on and so forth it continued its criticisms with remarkable candour and consistency.

It came early into conflict with the Castle authorities on account of its vigorous propaganda against recruiting for the army and it published the text of an anti-recruiting pamphlet for the distribution of which prosecutions were instituted. It was found difficult, however, to obtain convictions against those who distributed these pamphlets, and even in Belfast a jury refused to bring in a conviction on this charge at the instance of the Crown. The United Irishman was seized by the authorities and only got an excellent advertisement into the bargain.