Darrell Figgis was born in Dublin in 1882 (17th September), the same town and year as his more famous literary contemporary, James Joyce. Still in his infancy, Figgis moved to India where his father worked as a tea merchant. As a young adult, Figgis continued in the family business, working in the tea trade in London. Whilst in London Figgis developed a keen interest in literature; he began working at Dent publishers and started writing poetry and prose. He contributed creative and critical pieces to The New Age magazine; published two volumes of poetry, A Vision of Life (1909) and The Crucibles of Time (1911); and released his first novel Broken Arcs (1911).
Falling in Love with Literature
In 1913 Figgis moved back to Éire, settling on Achill Island in County Mayo, the largest island off the coast of Ireland. Like many of his contemporaries, he became part of the Gaelic Revival: he learnt Irish, absorbed himself in Irish culture, and began a series of four novels to be published under the pseudonym ‘Michael Ireland’ (the first of these novels was Jacob Elthorne, published in 1914, and the last was The Return of the Hero, published in 1923). In 1911 Figgis published a critical work – Shakespeare: A Story, and his first play, Queen Tara, was produced by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1913.
Figgis joined the Irish Volunteers in Dublin in 1913, and in August 1914, he was involved in the ‘Kilcoole Gun-Running” episode. After a meeting in London, Figgis, Erskine Childers, and Roger Casement purchased 1,500 German Mauser rifles and ammunition for the Irish Volunteers. The ammunition was successfully transported to Ireland on two yachts. Although Figgis was not directly involved in the Easter Rising, his gun-running activities resulted in his arrest on 11th May 1916 under the Defence of the Realm Act.
Darrell Figgis, with thanks to the Irish Newspaper Archives and the Irish Independent, 26 May 1916
Figgis was first held at Castlebar Jail (County Mayo), then detained in Richmond Barracks (Dublin) before being confined at Stafford Jail (England), then transferred to H.M. Place of Internment, Reading on 10th July 1916. Figgis writes about his time in prison in A Chronicle of Jails (1917). He admired Reading Prison’s design: ‘the gaol is a handsome building, erected in red brick after the manner of an old castle’. However, he was not so admiring of the town itself: ‘Reading being set deep in a valley at the confluence of two rivers, as an unhealthy town’. Through reading law books and lobbying the prison staff, Figgis managed change lights out time from 8 to 10 pm, increase visiting and letters allowance, and up the internees’ prison wages (for cleaning work) so that they could buy better meals from the canteen. Despite these improvements, Figgis writes that ‘we all felt the deathly system of prison life like an oppression on us, blotting out all intellectual life and making a blank of mind and soul’. Along with the majority of Reading’s Irish internees, Figgis was released on Christmas Eve 1916.
Moving into Politics
In 1917, Figgis was made Honorary Secretaries of the Sinn Féin party, who were winning by-elections and going form strength to strength. In 1918, Figgis became editor of the newspaper The Republic and was arrested for a second time (again for his part in the German gun-running plot). From 1919 to 1921, Figgis was head of the Commission of Inquiry into the Resources and Industries of Ireland. During this time, a rift developed between Figgis and Michael Collins, the Minister for Finance, which was to continue for several years. After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty (an agreement that Ireland was now a self-governing nation) on 6 December 1921, it was necessary to draft a constitution for the new Irish Free State. Arthur Griffith (leader Sinn Féin) wanted Figgis to chair the Constitution Committee, but Michael Collins nominated himself for the position instead, deepening the rift between himself and Figgis.
Becoming a Victim
Over the next couple of years, Figgis suffered two freak attacks. The first occurred while Figgis was at a political meeting; they were interrupted by a British Army raid in which Captain Cyril Crawford condemned Figgis and said he should be hanged. The second attack took place in Figgis’s home: a Republican gunman broke in, assaulted Figgis and his wife then cut off half of Figgis’s beard. In 1923, Figgis was involved in a corruption scandal which resulted in him resigning from the newly formed Irish Broadcasting Committee: Figgis denied the accusations, which included the allegation that he had used to political influence to gain government contracts for friends.
In 1924, Figgis’s wife Millie committed suicide. The following year Figgis’s new love, Rita North, died as the result of a botched abortion. On 27th October 1925, Figgis himself committed suicide, just a week after giving evidence at Rita’s inquest.