Figgis, Darrell (1882–1925), journalist, author, and nationalist propagandist, was born 17 September 1882 at Glen-na-Smoil, Palmerston Park, Rathmines, Dublin, son of Arthur William Figgis, tea merchant, and Mary Anne Figgis (née Deane). The family moved to London and then Ceylon when he was an infant. They returned in 1892 to London, where he joined his uncle's tea merchant business (1898). He spent ten years working for the firm, an experience he hated and represented with disdain in Jacob Elthorne, his debut, semi-autobiographical novel (1914). He married Mildred (‘Millie’), an English nurse, in 1905.
In 1909 J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, published his first collection of poetry, A vision of life, with a commendatory introduction by G. K. Chesterton. In the following year he quit the tea business, deciding he could make a living from literature. Dent & Sons employed him as a literary advisor (1911–16) and he augmented this with income from journalism and reviews. His output was phenomenal: in 1911 he produced a volume of poetry, The crucibles of time, a novel, Broken arcs, and a critical study, Shakespeare. None of these sold well, while reviews were generally complimentary if not startling. Studies and appreciations (1912) was a collection of critical essays on subjects such as Shakespeare, J. M. Synge (qv), W. B. Yeats (qv), and Robert Browning. Most of the essays had appeared previously in journals to which he regularly contributed, such as the Fortnightly Review and English Review.
In 1913 Ireland became the centre of Figgis's literary and political life. In February ‘Queen Tara’, a play that he had written in 1910, was staged at the Gaiety theatre, Dublin; a young Basil Rathbone played a minor role, and the play was published later that year. By then Figgis had moved to Ireland, spending his time in Dublin and on Achill Island, Co. Mayo. In Ireland ‘quickly he discovered Irish nationality; unfortunately he also discovered Irish politics’ (Malone, 18). His career as a propagandist began when the English Review published an essay entitled ‘Irish nationality’ in 1913, and also in that year he joined the Irish Volunteers. He was among the instigators of the plan to import arms – others involved included Roger Casement (qv) and Alice Stopford Green (qv) – that resulted in the Howth gun-running incident of July 1914. He bought the arms in Hamburg and transported them to the Roetigen lightship off the coast of Belgium, where they were transferred to yachts owned by Erskine Childers (qv) and Conor O'Brien (qv), and he was at Howth harbour on 26 July 1914 when the Asgard landed its cargo of weapons.
He moved to Pullagh, Achill Island, on a more permanent basis in October 1914, and although he remained with the minority Irish Volunteers in the aftermath of the split in September he seems to have engaged in little practical activity until the 1916 rising. He continued to write feverishly, publishing another volume of poetry, The mount of transfiguration (1915), and a perceptive study, AE (1916). During the roundup that followed the rising, he was arrested at his Achill home (11 May 1916). He was held briefly in Castlebar jail and then interned in England, firstly at Stafford prison and later (with a group considered an elite by the British) at Reading prison. There he sought to establish himself as the prisoners’ spokesman, but quickly made himself unpopular and was ousted from this position. Figgis had an inveterate tendency to ‘lay out from the pack’ (Malone, 15), and the prison environment magnified an ability to irritate and provoke. He was freed under the general release of internees in December 1916. A propagandist and self-aggrandising account of this first imprisonment was published as A chronicle of jails (1917). He was arrested again in late February 1917 and deported to Oxford, but he and his fellow deportees disobeyed their deportation orders and departed Oxford for Ireland in May. He was elected secretary of the reorganised Sinn Féin in October and was among those arrested because of the alleged ‘German plot’ in May 1918. He was deported and interned again, briefly at Gloucester and Lincoln prisons before a more prolonged stretch at Durham prison, concluding with release in March 1919.
His writing continued despite these disruptions. The Gaelic state in the past and future (1917) was influenced by Stopford Green, while The Sinn Féin catechism (1918) was a simple statement of Sinn Féin policy presented in the question and answer mode of the catholic catechism. The historic case of Ireland (1918) was of propagandist value, but had little else to recommend it. On the other hand, his third novel, Children of the earth (1918), won him critical praise from Daniel Corkery (qv) (1878–1964) among others. A second chronicle of jails (1919) is an account of his second internment and is typical of his autobiographical writing in its tendency to exaggerate his own role. In Durham once more he appears to have been held in general contempt; even the censor and the prison governor noted his unpopularity with the other Irish inmates. One fellow internee recalled that most of them ‘were scarcely on speaking terms with him’ (WS 1511, BMH) while in the lead up to the general election of 1918 another wrote: ‘He is the cause of constant bickering and all sincerely hope that no constituency will be foolish enough to bring our heartfelt curses upon them by selecting him’ (National Archives, Kew, CO 904/164). Even those who acknowledged his intelligence or literary abilities – among them Robert Brennan (qv), Ernie O'Malley (qv), and Andrew Malone – inevitably also noted the singular ease with which he made enemies.
Despite Figgis's faults Arthur Griffith (qv) admired, trusted, and promoted him. Griffith seemed unconcerned that The economic case for Irish independence (1920) was largely plagiarised from Griffith's own journalism. Figgis, like Griffith, was wary of the more militarist wing of the nationalist movement. In the novel The house of success (1921) he used the conflict between a bellicosely nationalist young man and his practical, materialist father to explore contrasting attitudes towards the struggle for independence. Michael Collins (qv) and Harry Boland (qv) were suspicious of his peaceable tendencies and ensured that he was not a Sinn Féin candidate at the election of 1918. Figgis was very angry at this slight. He did, nonetheless, act as a judge in the dáil courts, edited The Republic from June to September 1919, and was appointed secretary of a dáil commission into the resources and industries of Ireland (1919–22). When the Irish White Cross was established in 1921, Figgis canvassed for the position of full-time secretary and was annoyed when not appointed.
He supported the treaty and was elected to the Sinn Féin executive in January 1922 when, at Griffith's instigation, he was appointed vice-chairman of the committee established to draft the Free State constitution. As the actual chairman, Collins, rarely attended, Figgis effectively chaired the committee and succeeded in submitting a report to government with a good deal of speed and efficiency. Unfortunately the committee split hopelessly (again, Figgis's ability to antagonise may have contributed; he fell out particularly badly with Collins's proxy, James Douglas (qv)) and the report contained three alternative draft constitutions. Figgis signed draft A, most of which (although with some significant changes) found its way into the final constitution. Later in the year he published The Irish constitution explained (1922).
In the election of June 1922 he ran as an independent pro-treaty candidate and encouraged other non-Sinn-Féin candidates to challenge for seats. This sufficiently annoyed republicans that a group, including Robert Briscoe (qv), raided his house on the night of 12 June, held him down, and shaved off half of his beard. Figgis had been inordinately proud of his red beard; he felt it made him look like Parnell (qv). The voters of Dublin County demonstrated their disapproval of the attack by giving Figgis 15,087 votes, allowing him to top the poll. He was reelected in August 1923, but this time could only manage 2,923 first preferences and the eighth seat. His political star waned further when he was forced to resign from the dáil committee established to examine proposals to develop broadcasting in the state: it was alleged that he had business associations, amounting to a vested interest. It is recorded that in his latter days in the dáil the chamber emptied when he rose to speak. His final novel, The return of the hero (1923), a retelling of the encounter of Oisín (qv) with St Patrick (qv) on his return from Tír na nÓg, was published under the name ‘Michael Ireland’. It was much praised, but was to be the final high point in his life. His interesting, if typically Figgis-centric, Recollections of the Irish war (1927), and much admired study The paintings of William Blake (1925), were both published posthumously.
On 18 November 1924 Millie – who was admired and liked for her participation in prisoner support activities and her nursing of wounded Volunteers – killed herself, using a revolver given to her by Collins in the aftermath of the 1922 raid on their home. Some implied that she had been in a state of permanent anxiety since that raid and this explained her suicide; however, this was not the only plausible explanation. Around this time Figgis began a relationship with a 21-year-old dancing instructress from Dublin named Rita North: it is unclear whether this relationship began before or immediately after his wife's death. On 19 October 1925 North died of septicemia at a London hospital. She had become fatally infected following a botched abortion. At her inquest Figgis acknowledged that he was the father, but testified that he was unaware of North's pregnancy, that she had improvised the abortion in Dublin, and that she had only come to him (5 October) when already ill owing to the abortion. Figgis committed suicide (27 October) by gassing himself in rooms rented at 4 Grenville St., Bloomsbury, London. In the most comprehensive and balanced portrait left by a contemporary, Andrew Malone described Figgis as ‘fated to provide material for the scoffer and the maker of caricatures’ (Malone, 15).