Darrell Edmund Figgis, Irish writer, Sinn Féin activist and independent parliamentarian in the Irish Free State, dies in London on October 27, 1925. The little that has been written about him has attempted to highlight how thoroughly his memory and works have been excised from Irish popular culture.
Figgis is born at Glen na Smoil, Palmerstown Park, Rathmines in Dublin, on September 17, 1882, the son of Arthur William Figges, tea merchant, and Mary Anne Deane. While still an infant, his family emigrates to Calcutta, India. There his father works as an agent in the tea business, founding A. W. Figgis & Co. They return when he is ten years of age, though his father continues to spend much of his time in India. As a young man he works in London at the tea brokerage owned by his uncle and it is at this time that he begins to develop his interest in literature and literary criticism.
In 1910 Figgis, with the help of G. K. Chesterton, who wrote the introduction to his first book of verse, joins the Dent publishing company. He moves to Achill Island in 1913 to write, learn the Irish language and gain an appreciation of Irish culture, as perceived by many of his contemporaries to uniquely exist on the western seaboard. On his detention following the 1916 Easter Rising, he and the publishing house parted company. Subsequently, he establishes his own firm in which he republishes the works of William Carleton and others.
Figgis joins the Irish Volunteers in Dublin in 1913 and organises the original Battalion of Volunteers in Achill, where he had built a house. While in London, he is contacted by The O’Rahilly, who acquaints him with the arms dealers who had supplied the Ulster Volunteers. In this way he becomes part of the London group that discusses the financing and supply of German rifles for the Volunteers. He travels with Erskine Childers, initially to Belgium and from there to Germany, to make the purchase of the army surplus Mauser rifles. He then charters the tug Gladiator, from which the arms are transferred at sea to the Childers’ yacht Asgard and Conor O’Brien‘s Kelpie.
At this time the Royal Navy is patrolling the Irish Sea in anticipation of imminent war with Germany, and Figgis is tasked with taking a motor boat to Lambay Island to signal to the Asgard the all-clear. By his own account, he is unable to persuade the skipper of the pilot vessel to put to sea as one of the worst storms in many years is raging. Due to luck and the skill of the crews, the three over-laden yachts arrive at their destinations. Figgis, accompanied by Seán McGarry, watch Asgard helplessly from Howth pier until Erskine decides to take a calculated risk and sails into the harbour. Against the odds, the conspiracy to buy rifles in Germany and land them safely in Ireland has succeeded. A large party of Volunteers, on their way to Dublin with rifles and ammunition is confronted by a detachment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and Dublin Metropolitan Police. With their route blocked, Figgis and Thomas MacDonagh engage the officers in an attempt to distract them.
Although Figgis does not participate in the 1916 Easter Rising, he is arrested and interned by the British authorities between 1916 and 1917 in Reading Gaol. After his release, he returns to Ireland. At the 1917 Sinn Féin Ardfheis he and Austin Stack are elected Honorary Secretaries of the party. The conference sees Éamon de Valera replace Arthur Griffith as President of the party. Shortly after, Figgis is one of four recently released internees who travels to the South Longford constituency to campaign for Joseph McGuinness in the by-election caused by the death of John Phillips. The overwhelming victory of the Sinn Féin candidate over the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) nominee marks the beginning of the eclipse of the latter party by the former party. In May 1918, Figgis is arrested for his alleged part in the spurious German Plot a second time and again deported to England. In 1918, he becomes editor of the newspaper The Republic.
From September 1919 to 1921 Figgis heads the Commission of Inquiry into the Resources and Industries of Ireland. At this time a serious rift between Figgis and Michael Collins, then Minister for Finance, becomes a matter of public record. This close attention of Collins will pursue Figgis in his later activities on the Constitution Committee. While he is participating in a Dáil Court at Carrick-on-Shannon, the proceedings are interrupted by a British Army raid. An officer named Captain Cyril Crawford summarily condemns Figgis and Peadar Kearney to be hanged. He orders rope for the purpose, but another officer intervenes and Keaney and Figgis are set free.
Figgis supports the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He is extremely critical of the Collins/De Valera Pact for the June 1922 Irish general election which is an attempt to avoid a split in the Sinn Féin party and, more importantly, in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). On May 25, 1922 he attends a meeting of the executive council of the Farmers’ Union and representatives, of business interests, and encourages them to put forward candidates in constituencies where anti-Treaty candidates might otherwise head the poll. As he is a member of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle National Executive at the time, he is expelled from the party.
Soon after the signing of the Treaty, the necessity of quickly drafting a constitution for the proposed Free State becomes apparent. It is intended by Arthur Griffith that Figgis will chair the Constitution Committee, but this proposal is vetoed by Collins who nominates himself for the position specifically to minimise Figgis’ influence. The animosity between Collins and Figgis remained an undercurrent of the project. In the end, Collins decides the job should go to Captain David Robinson but this did nothing to heal rift between Figgis and James G. Douglas.
In the 1922 and 1923 Irish general elections Figgis runs and is elected an independent Teachta Dála (TD) for the Dublin County constituency. While still a TD, he stands in the 1925 Seanad election to Seanad Éireann, where he polls only 512 first preferences.
In December 1923, it is decided that a committee be established to investigate the means by which a public radio broadcasting service should be operated in the Free State. A central issue of contention is whether the service should be run and controlled directly by the State or operated commercially by an Irish Broadcasting Company. The latter option, it is suggested, would follow the model adopted in the UK by the establishment of the BBC. Figgis is co-opted onto the committee, and this decision leads to a series of allegations resulting in the new State’s first corruption scandal of which Figgis himself is the focus. The allegations result in his resignation from the Broadcasting committee and the launching of a second enquiry. He strenuously denies any impropriety.
On November 18, 1924, Figgis’s wife Millie commits suicide in the back of a taxi in Rathfarnham using a Webley revolver given to them by Collins following the 1922 assault. A year later, his new love, a 21-year-old Catholic woman named Rita North, dies due to complications when a doctor tries to surgically remove an already dead child. The court, after investigating her death, determines that she died due to peritonitis, an inflammation in the lining of the abdominal cavity. The public, however, jumps to the conclusion that she died in a failed illegal abortion.
Figgis himself commits suicide in a London boarding house in Granville Street on October 27, 1925, just a week after giving evidence at North’s inquest. He had been staying at the Royal Automobile Club until the day before his death, as is usual when he visits London. A small group of mourners comprising close family and friends attend his interment at the Hampstead Cemetery in West Hampstead, London.
The by-election caused by his death is won by William Norton of the Labour Party.